Country of origin
First episode date
3 March 1986
Theme music composer
Matlock Theme Song
Andy GriffithLori LethinAlice HirsonKene HollidayLinda PurlNancy StaffordJulie SommarsKari LizerClarence Gilyard, Jr.Brynn ThayerDaniel RoebuckCarol Huston
Matlock is an American television legal drama, starring Andy Griffith in the title role of criminal-defense attorney Ben Matlock. The show, produced by Intermedia Entertainment Company (first season only), The Fred Silverman Company, Dean Hargrove Productions, Viacom Productions, and Paramount Television (season 9 only), originally aired from March 3, 1986, to May 8, 1992, on NBC; and from November 5, 1992, until May 7, 1995, on ABC.
The show's format is similar to that of CBS's Perry Mason (with both Matlock and the later Perry Mason TV movies in the 1980s created by Dean Hargrove), with Matlock identifying the perpetrators and then confronting them in dramatic courtroom scenes. One difference, however, was that whereas Mason usually exculpated his clients at a pretrial hearing, Matlock usually secured an acquittal at trial, from the jury.
The show centers on widower Benjamin Leighton "Ben" Matlock, a renowned, folksy and popular though cantankerous attorney. Usually, at the end of the case, the person who is on the stand being questioned by Matlock is the actual perpetrator, and Matlock will expose him, despite making clear that his one goal is to prove reasonable doubt in the case of his client's guilt or to prove his client's innocence.
Matlock studied law at Harvard, and after several years as a public defender, established his law practice in Atlanta, living in a modest farmhouse in a neighboring suburb. He is known to visit crime scenes to discover clues otherwise overlooked and come up with viable, alternative theories of the crime in question (usually murder). Matlock also has conspicuously finicky fashion sense; he generally appears in court wearing a trademark light gray suit and, over the series' entire run, owned three generations of the Ford Crown Victoria—always an all-gray model (Griffith's character had always driven Ford products in his 1960s series, The Andy Griffith Show).
Matlock is noted for his thrift and a fondness for hot dogs. In episode 158 ("The Diner"), hot dogs are revealed to have been his favorite dish since he was a young man. In contrast, after the series ended, his penchant for hot dogs was explained in the 1997 episode "Murder Two" of Joyce Burditt's Diagnosis: Murder. Matlock blames Dr. Mark Sloan (Dick Van Dyke) for recommending a disastrous investment in 8-track cartridges, in which he lost his savings of $5,000 in 1969, forcing him into wearing cheap suits and living on hot dogs. Despite his thrift, Matlock's standard fee is $100,000, usually paid up front, but if he or his staff believe strongly enough in the innocence of a client, or if the client is unable to pay immediately (if at all), he has them pay over time, or reduces the fee significantly or waives it entirely, albeit reluctantly in some cases. He also, reluctantly, takes a pro bono case occasionally. These traits, and the demands he placed upon his investigators, are often points of comic relief in the series.
Originally, the series premiered with Ben Matlock having a law practice with his daughter Charlene (played originally by Lori Lethin in the pilot movie; Linda Purl took over the role when the series went to air in the first season). Matlock also employed Tyler Hudson (Holliday), a stock market whiz, as a private investigator. Tyler would often go undercover for Matlock in various guises to gather information. Matlock's most frequent prosecutorial adversary was Nebraska native Julie March (Sommars). Although the two had a professional rivalry—with Julie being a prosecutor and Matlock a defense lawyer—their relationship outside of court was very cordial and the two often spent time together outside of court with occasional flirtations.
Toward the end of the first season, Matlock also took on Cassie Phillips (Lizer), a cocky young law student, as an office worker. After the first season ended, Linda Purl departed from the series and lawyer-daughter Charlene was written out of the series by having moved to Philadelphia to start her own law practice. To begin the second season, Matlock went to England to try a case and met Michelle Thomas (Stafford), a young American lawyer living in London. After the case was over, Michelle followed Matlock back to the U.S. and took over Charlene's role as his law partner. Cassie stayed on as a file clerk until the end of the season, when she disappeared for reasons never made clear. With Lizer's departure, Julie Sommars then became a regular cast member.
Several actors appeared in the series as different characters prior to becoming regular castmembers. In season one's "The Seduction," Nancy Stafford played the role of Caryn Nelson/Carole Nathan, a high-class prostitute, who was paid off for perjury against Matlock's client. Also in that season, in "The Angel," Kari Lizer had her first appearance as Matlock's client, Margaret Danello, a pop star called "Angel." Also, actor Daniel Roebuck played lawyer Alex Winthrop in season three's "The Priest", before later becoming a cast regular playing Cliff Lewis in season seven.
Some actors appeared as a different character in each appearance on the show. For example, Carolyn Seymour played Christina Harrison Ward in season one ("The Affair", episode 4), Dr. Vanessa Sedgwick in season two ("The Genius", episode 20), and Iris Vogel in season three ("The Psychic", episode 13). Nana Visitor and Roddy McDowall made several guest appearances as well.
After season three, Kene Holliday was fired. Matlock hired a young, former North Carolina deputy sheriff, Conrad McMasters (Gilyard, Jr.), to be his new private detective. Like Tyler, Conrad would also go undercover to gather information about cases. However, the two characters were different in their personalities and approach to the job. Tyler was a stocktrader and carried himself with something of an aristocratic air, whereas Conrad had more of a blue collar, working man attitude. Matlock and McMasters became good friends as they were alike in many ways. Also during this period, Don Knotts, Andy Griffith's old co-star as Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, began making frequent appearances as "Ace" Calhoun, Matlock's annoying next-door neighbor.
Before Brynn Thayer appeared in the 1992 episode "The Vacation" as Ben Matlock's other (and to that point unmentioned) daughter Leanne MacIntyre, who had become a prosecutor in Philadelphia and who had married and divorced, she first appeared in an earlier season's story "The Suspect", in 1991, in which she played Roxanne Windemere, a character with whom Ben became smitten. She joined the cast full-time in the season of 1992 playing a similar role to Linda Purl's character of lawyer-daughter Charlene of the first season (sister to Thayer's character Leanne McIntyre). Daniel Roebuck now joined Thayer as a new regular for season seven, playing the role of ne'er-do-well Cliff Lewis, a young lawyer and associate. Warren Frost also joined the cast in a recurring role as Cliff's father Billy, an old nemesis from Matlock's past, as Ben had stood his sister up at the altar to pursue his law degree. The move that year of 1992, now being telecast on ABC for the last three seasons to 1995, caused a fair amount of cast turnover as Nancy Stafford now left the series to spend more time with her husband, and Julie Sommars soon followed, although she would play a recurring role in several occasional later episodes, while Don Knotts' character was cut from the series. Clarence Gilyard remained on, but with the addition of Roebuck to the cast as the character Cliff Lewis, his role was diminished somewhat. After season seven, Gilyard left to play Texas Ranger Jimmy Trivette on the new series Walker, Texas Ranger with star Chuck Norris.
Matlock had largely become, like Silverman and Hargrove's Perry Mason older TV series revival, a "movie-of-the-week" type series by season nine. Part of the reason for this was Griffith's advancing age, as he was wanting to spend more time with his family as he was pushing age 70. Before that season, Brynn Thayer departed from the series and Leanne was mysteriously never heard from again. In season nine Carol Huston joined the series as Jerri Stone, a secondary private investigator helping out Cliff in his duties. Like Conrad McMasters, Jerri and Matlock had shared hobbies including singing.
Coinciding with the move to the ABC network was also a change in filming venues. After taping in California for its entire previous run on NBC, requiring Griffith to commute from his longtime home in North Carolina to the West Coast, ABC moved production to the DEG Film Studios in Wilmington to ease the travel burden on Griffith. Many viewers and media critics lauded the new atmosphere of different geographical locations and "out-of-Hollywood" venues breathing some new life into the crime/lawyer/legal/court scenes. The Perry Mason-style of "whodunit" format was also adjusted to a more Columbo TV series-style "howcatchem" format.
Although never officially confirmed, a widespread rumor suggests that the character of Ben Matlock was based on colorful lawyer Bobby Lee Cook, known as the "dean of Georgia criminal defense attorneys." Cook, whose practice is based not in Atlanta but in a small mountain town, has been an attorney since the 1940s and has gained an international reputation for his success in criminal and civil cases.
Matlock aired a total of 195 episodes across nine seasons. Four two-hour and 32 two-part episodes of the program were aired. Six of the episodes were clip shows with mostly minor plots that paved the way for scenes from previous stories. Although, numerically, Griffith appeared in more episodes portraying Sheriff Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show, he logged more on-screen time as Ben Matlock due to the length of each show.
A few changes were made in the format of the introduction of the episodes. The introduction of characters was essentially the same, the only changes being the actors for each season. Andy Griffith, Linda Purl, Kene Holliday, Nancy Stafford, Clarence Gilyard Jr., Brynn Thayer, Julie Sommars, Kari Lizer, Daniel Roebuck, and Carol Huston were all featured in the intros for their seasons.
The Matlock commercial screen also changed. The early episodes had a scene of Ben Matlock in front of a brown screen; around 1987, this was changed to gray. In 1992, this was changed once again to the same gray, but with a blue square around the "M" in "Matlock". Later in the 1993–94 season, the commercial screen was removed.
Jake and the Fatman was a spin-off on CBS, based on a character who originated in "The Don" (1986) a two-part Matlock episode from season one. William Conrad played prosecutor James L. McShane and Joe Penny played Paul Baron, the son of Matlock's client. Executive producers Fred Silverman and Dean Hargrove were responsible for both Matlock and Jake and the Fatman, as well as Diagnosis: Murder, created by Joyce Burditt (which itself was a spin-off of Jake and the Fatman) in 1993, also on CBS; Father Dowling Mysteries in 1988 on NBC and ABC; and the 30 Perry Mason made-for-TV movies from 1985 until 1995 on NBC.
CBS Home Entertainment (distributed by Paramount) has released all nine seasons of Matlock on DVD in Region 1.
On April 7, 2015, CBS Home Video released Matlock - The Complete Series on DVD in Region 1.
Season one of the series was made available for streaming through Amazon Video.