An acquaintance of mine once told me a story about television icon Andy Griffith. It’s a parable that has never left my memory.
The man had heard it directly from a friend who was there when it happened.
Griffith, a born and seriously bred Southerner from Mt. Airy, N.C., was typical of our people – wary of outsiders and particularly leery of Hollywood executives and dealmakers.
After “The Andy Griffith Show” proved a smash for CBS, he was called in for a meeting with various executives and agents to negotiate for an extended contract. Using the country boy demeanor that served him well – and was actually who he was – he settled at the conference table, listening as they adored him, praised his ratings, and talked about deals. He listened, one eyebrow raised, no doubt, until they stopped long enough for him to speak. He took his time then angled his head.
“Well, now, I don’t know nothin’ about all these business dealings. I’m just an old country boy.” He chuckled. “I guess you’d call me country dumb.”
According to the story as it was told to me, the dealmakers relaxed, amazed at their good fortune, and whipped into wrapping up a deal for the network’s biggest hit.
“However,” the man said, concluding the story, “what Andy had done was shrewdly throw them off their laser focus. They relaxed, and he walked away the winner and did it in such a sly way that it took years for his brilliance to unfold as the show got down the road.”
He shared this story because one day, I, too, was sitting at a round table with several entertainment executives, discussing a deal. I was green in such a world. I had written a best-selling book, had a contract for another with a New York publisher, and was trying to build a career around it with speaking engagements, radio and, hopefully, television or movies.
Wide-eyed, I listened as the gentlemen bravely proclaimed all they could do for me. “You,” said one, “are a star in the making.”
Now, of course, I’ve been in so many of these types of meetings since then that I now know the truth lies somewhere between 10 and 15%. But back in those unvarnished days of youth and innocence, I believed what I was told. That’s because I come from people who say what they mean and back up what they say.
After they finished talking and one went for a contract for me to sign, I thought about Daddy and how he never hurried in any deal and, most of all, he counted on the Lord to lead him.
“I pray about it,” he’d say. “And you know how I make my decision? If I have a good feelin’ here.” He punched his gut. “Then I do it. But if I have a heavy feelin’, I walk away.”
The man came back in the room and put a contract of several pages in front of me. Two men and one woman waited for me to pick up a pen and sign. I read over it – I gave it a fast read, really – and saw something that raised a suspicion.
Smiling, I used a method that has served me well often. I lightly made a self-deprecating remark. “My goodness, this is complicated.” I blinked my eyes comically. “I’m just a country girl. This is over my head.”
One man immediately smacked a hand down against the glossy, high-dollar conference table, pushed his chair away, stood up and said, “When you Southerners pull that trick, I know I’m about to be taken.”
Stunned, I watched as he left. The man who remained, waited until the door shut and then he told me the Andy Griffith story.
He grinned. “Folks don’t admit to being inexperienced or country unless they know they’re holding the best cards at the table.”
That’s when I learned how smart being “country dumb” really is.