07/03/2012 12:24 EDT | Updated 09/02/2012 05:12 EDT

Actor Andy Griffith dies at 86

Andy Griffith, the American actor known for the 1960s sitcom The Andy Griffith Show and legal drama Matlock, has died. He was 86.

Paramedics were called to his home in Manteo, N.C., Tuesday morning, according to a longtime friend who spoke to local television station WITV.

Griffiths was also a Grammy Award-winning Southern gospel singer and had an early career on stage and in films before moving into TV.

On The Andy Griffith Show he played the mild-mannered sheriff of the sleepy town of Mayberry, N.C. Don Knotts, a longtime friend of Griffith, had the role of his inept deputy and a young Ron Howard played his son, Opie. Mayberry is believed to be based on Griffith's hometown of Mount Airy, N.C., and a statue of Andy and Opie was erected there in 1986.

Ron Howard tweets

Howard, now a director and producer, tweeted about his old friend on Tuesday.

"His pursuit of excellence and the joy he took in creating served generations and shaped my life. I'm forever grateful. RIP Andy,” Howard wrote.

The show was a major hit, running from 1960 to 1968 and spawned numerous spinoffs, including Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Mayberry R.F.D. and in 1986, Return to Mayberry.

Few of Griffith's roles strayed from the comfortable folksy image he created as Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, capable of delivering homespun wisdom as he unravels a mess created by someone else. He did play a series of thieves and villains in the 1970s, before returning to series TV as a futuristic salvage expert in Salvage 1.

As Matlock, he played a man whose canny intelligence is masked by his country boy image. Matlock was a cantankerous defence attorney, known for grilling witnesses on the stand and winning acquittals for his clients by convincing a jury of their innocence. Matlock ran from 1986 to 1992.

Matlock and The Simpsons

Griffith created his own production company in 1972, and was executive producer of Matlock and Mayberry R.F.D. His Matlock character is also fondly remembered in several episodes of The Simpsons.

U.S. President Barack Obama paid tribute to him Tuesday.

"A performer of extraordinary talent, Andy was beloved by generations of fans and revered by entertainers who followed in his footsteps. He brought us characters from Sheriff Andy Taylor to Ben Matlock, and in the process, warmed the hearts of Americans everywhere. Our thoughts and prayers are with Andy’s family," Obama said in a statement.

Born in Mount Airy, N.C., on June 1, 1926, Griffith acted in musicals and operettas as a high school and college student. He graduated with a degree in music from University of North Carolina and went to work as a high school teacher in Goldsboro, N.C.

He began writing comedy monologues and had a hit with a piece about a rural backwoodsman trying to figure out a football game titled What It Was, Was Football. He maintained that country boy persona in No Time for Sergeants, a TV drama that went on to Broadway, earning Griffith a Tony nomination.

No Time for Sergeants is considered the inspiration for the later television situation comedy Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. He met Knotts on the set of a film version of No Time for Sergeants and the two worked together extensively in television in the 1960s and 1970s.

Breakthrough role

In 1957, Griffith starred in the Elia Kazan film A Face in the Crowd. The role of a country boy with a cynical, manipulative side gave him a much higher profile and paved the way for a TV career.

In recent years, Griffith had roles in TV series Dawson’s Creek and films Waitress (2007) and Play the Game (2009). He received just one Emmy nomination, for his role in 1981’s Murder in Texas.

He also kept up his skills as a singer and recorded 15 albums, including collections of hymns and gospel as well as his role on country singer Brad Paisley's Waitin' on a Woman. Griffith won a Grammy in 1997 for his album I Love to Tell the Story: 25 Timeless Hymns.

Griffith has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005.

Griffith was married to Barbara Bray Edwards from 1949 to 1972 and they adopted two children. He married again in 1976 to Solica Casuto but they split five years later. He married Cindi Knight in 1983. He is survived by his third wife and a daughter, Dixie. His son, Sam, predeceased him.