When Andy Griffith died from a heart attack this week at the age of 86, few people knew that his most difficult health battle was not with heart disease, but with a rare, mysterious ailment that almost 30 years ago left him paralyzed and at a low point in his career.
Griffith had just married again for the third time, to his wife, Cindi, after leaving his hit series “The Andy Griffith Show.” He wanted to make feature films. But his movie career hadn’t worked out as he had hoped, and he found it hard to get good roles.
“Ageism is rampant in Hollywood and, although I was only in my 50s, work was getting harder and harder to find,” Griffith recalled in an interview with Guideposts magazine.SPECIAL: These 4 Things Happen Right Before a Heart Attack — Read More.
And then came his health crisis, which started with a bout with the flu.
“My illness was strange,” he recalled. As he began to recover and the flu symptoms disappeared, they were replaced by terrible, searing pain. Not only that, but when he arose one afternoon to walk, he could not feel his legs, and he suddenly collapsed in agony.
Weeks of tests passed with no diagnosis, during which Griffith was consumed with pain. Finally, the answer came: He had Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare nerve disorder, which causes spreading muscle weakness and paralysis.
The cause is unknown, but it is thought to be an autoimmune disorder triggered by a viral or bacterial infection.
Guillain-Barre is very rare, affecting only one or two people in 100,000. It can affect people at any age, but is more common in those who are older.
It affects its victims differently. When it attacks the lungs, it can interfere with a person’s ability to breath, forcing them to use a respirator. In Griffith’s case, it affected his legs, forcing him to undergo nearly a year of recuperation, which included not only pain medication, but also techniques like biofeedback, a type of treatment in which patients are taught to monitor their bodily responses in order to help control pain.
Although the symptoms gradually subsided and Griffith was finally able to walk again after months of rehabilitation, he was left with a limp. He didn't know if he'd ever again be able to work as an actor. In fact, he’d made plans to leave Hollywood permanently and return to North Carolina. But, as it turned out, fate intervened, in this case in the form of a bad real estate market.
“At the end of that year, I sat in our unsold house with no bank account to speak of and no work in sight,” Griffith recalls. Then, his wife told him that, perhaps, that was a good thing. “Maybe it was God showing us grace.," she told him. "If we moved to North Carolina now you might indeed never work again,” she told him.
Encouraged by his wife, Griffith went to see his agent. Suddenly, everything turned around. “The upshot of it was I got roles in four TV movies that year,” Griffith recalled. Among them was “Return to Mayberry,” reuniting Griffith with Don Knotts and Ron Howard.
Griffith recalls wearing plastic leg braces, but he eventually discarded them “because they squeaked and the soundman could hear them."
During that time, Griffith also made the pilot for “Matlock,” which would run on CBS for nine years and relaunch his career. SPECIAL: These 5 Things Flush 40 lbs. of Fat Our of Your Body — Read More.