Growing up in a home that listened to and loved the music of Johnny Cash, we welcomed the iconic singer’s run of TV movies that he appeared in from 1978 thru to ’86. None better than this crime thriller set in 1948 Georgia. While Cash is playing a no nonsense County Sheriff, it’s ironic that he’s looking to put a wealthy killer behind bars played by the beloved Andy Griffith.
The fact is that once Andy Griffith left his Sheriffing days and the friendly folks of Mayberry behind he was often cast in sadistic roles of wealthy entitled men. Look no farther than a pair of 1974 telefilms, Pray For the Wildcats and Savages to fully appreciate his depth of villainy prior to his nasty turn here opposite Cash rife with racial slurs he delivers on Network TV.
Based on a true story and adapted from the book by Margaret Anne Barnes, the storyline sets Griffith up as a wealthy landowner who pretty much owns and runs the county next to Coweta. He often refers to it as his Kingdom. While he puts up a good front for the God fearing townspeople like donating money to the church he’s quietly running moonshine off the record, has the town Sheriff in his pocket and treats those who work in his employ like slaves. Notably the “colored folk” and the white man who runs afoul of him, Robert Shenkkan.
When Shenkkan is fired and forced to leave his crops and home because it’s Griffith’s land, he seeks revenge by stealing a prized cow belonging to Griffith. End result is he’s arrested in a neighboring town and brought back to Griffith’s Kingdom. He’ll soon be released from jail in a perfectly executed setup. Griffith and three of his goons are awaiting him and accuse him of escaping. A high speed chase ensues that will end over the line into Coweta County. Witnesses see Griffith and company beat Shenkkan mercilessly and in the end see Griffith strike him so hard in the head with the butt of a handgun that it fires. The lifeless body is pushed into Griffith’s car and speeds away.
Not only has Griffith murdered a man but he’s done it in the jurisdiction of Coweta County’s Sheriff, Johnny Cash, setting up our heavyweight match between two very well known names in the entertainment field.
Much like his singing style and delivery on stage, Cash, is a likable yet straight forward Officer of the Law who commands respect believing that no man is above what he has sworn to protect. He’s clearly set the bigoted rich man from one county over in his sights as he begins his journey towards bringing a murderer to justice.
Andy Griffith pretty much bookends this 96 minute crime drama setting up and carrying out the murder over the first 20 odd minutes and not exactly hiding the fact from the his own county sheriff before returning for the courtroom case in the end. It’s the forty or so minutes in the middle that sees Cash take charge as if he’s a bloodhound going about his business of trying to find the proof and most importantly a body so that he can send Griffith to the electric chair.
I’ve always felt Johnny Cash could easily have ended up a full time actor if he’d had the desire to. For the trivia hounds, he made his film debut way back in a low budget 1961 effort titled Five Minutes to Live. His costar? Ironically enough a seven year old Ronny Howard who was about to become a star on The Andy Griffith Show. Cash would go on to star opposite Kirk Douglas in 1971’s A Gunfight and star in a succession of TV Movies following memorable stops on Columbo and Little House on the Prairie. The TV Movies include Thaddeus Rose and Eddie (1978), The Pride of Jesse Hallam (1981), Coweta County, The Baron and the Kid (1984), The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James (1986) and a remake of Stagecoach (1986).
After watching this I can easily see Cash taking on the role of the small town Sheriff in a weekly series provided we can come up with crimes for him to solve over the course of a full season. Better still it might have been nice to see a half dozen or so movies featuring Cash as the dogged Sheriff. Something like Tom Selleck would do in the Jesse Stone series of TV movie mysteries.
Cash’s wife and singing partner, June Carter Cash, appeared in all the telefilms except Jesse Hallam and even costarred with Johnny on the Little House episode. Here in Coweta County she played a haggard mystic swamp witch of sorts who could tell one their future, something Griffith doesn’t have.
I hope I don’t have to point out that Cash is one of the most legendary of Country Music singers and known world wide by his nickname, The Man In Black. Johnny and June’s story was turned into the award winning film, Walk the Line starring Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon with the latter taking home an Oscar for her performance.
Got a favorite Cash song? I’ve got a few with I Still Miss Someone quickly coming to mind.
Coweta County was directed by the very busy Gary Nelson. He also directed Cash in Jesse Hallam and The Baron and the Kid. Among his many credits you’ll even find an episode of The Andy Griffith Show. He also helmed episodes of Gilligan’s Island, The Doris Day Show and Kojak. Big screen films include the original 1976 version of Freaky Friday and 1979’s The Black Hole.
As for Andy Griffith, he’ll always be Sheriff Andy of Mayberry in our home patrolling the community alongside his best pal and sidekick Barney Fife aka Don Knotts. Depending on one’s introduction to this long time popular actor might dictate just how one sees him. If movies like this, Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd or Pray For the Wildcats are you’re first go around then he’s one mean S.O.B. and you might not see him as the easy going single father/sheriff on his self titled show which ran for 8 seasons. Or maybe you know him best as the old time lawyer in Matlock or even the comic of his early days in No Time For Sergeants or singing gospel songs on the Grand Ole Opry. Yes Andy had a long and varied career. Here he is on a duet with another Country Music legend, Randy Travis, who had guested on an episode of Matlock.
It shouldn’t be too hard to track down Murder in Coweta County if you’re looking for an above average TV Movie of the week featuring two men I regard as legends in their field. Cash in music and Griffith on television.
I had no idea Cash had starred in so many made-for-TV movies…I assumed ‘Stagecoach’ was it. I haven’t seen any, yet, but I did see Griffith in ‘Savages’ back when it first aired on TV, and thought it was great (the book it was based on is quite good, too…titled ‘Deathwatch’).
Yeah Cash was running about one a year for a while and generally good entertainment. Savages got remade with Michael Douglas a few years back. I’ll have to check it out.