Long-time Mount Airy icon Russell Hiatt, known for his similarities to the famous Floyd the Barber from “The Andy Griffith Show,” died Tuesday evening. He was 92.
Hiatt is known far and wide as the inspiration for the iconic character Floyd, from “The Andy Griffith Show.” For nearly 70 years, Hiatt was a downtown Mount Airy barber, quietly going about his business, giving haircuts to local residents – including a young Andy Griffith, Hiatt said on several occasions.
Hiatt’s Main Street barbershop became famous as the popularity of “The Andy Griffith Show” has remained constant over the years, and his small, plain shop was a major tourist draw in the city, with visitors often stopping in so they could tell friends and family back home they got a haircut at Floyd’s. Oftentimes, even if they didn’t need a haircut, tourists would stop in just to have their photos taken with Hiatt, a request he was always known to enjoy granting.
According to Surry Arts Council executive director Tanya Jones, Hiatt’s fame – at least as far as the Mayberry phenomenon goes – began in 1990.
‘That was the first year for Mayberry Days – or day,” recalled Jones. “We had no budget, so we were doing walking tours of downtown. I put a little sticker, which said ‘Floyd’s’ on Russell’s window, and it became a stop on the tour.”
“It (the sticker) never got taken down.”
Jones called Hiatt “a huge part of how Mayberry Days became so successful,” as she recalled one of her favorite stories about Hiatt.
When TV Land president Larry Jones made his way to Mount Airy in 2004 to unveil the Andy Griffith statue that sits in front of the Andy Griffith Playhouse, he had one request.
“Right before he got in a car to zoom back to the airport, he wanted a picture with Russell,” said Tanya Jones.
She said Mayberry fans had already flocked to the shop on Main Street.
“We had to sneak him in through the back door, so he could sit in the chair and get his picture made with Russell.”
Then Larry Jones was whisked away to meet his jet, and for Hiatt, life went back to the norm – greeting visitors, posing for pictures and cutting hair.
Hiatt loved running his barbershop, a key to his being able to work there until he was 90 years old.
“This is just my life. I love it, and you don’t do anything unless you love it,” he said during a January 2014 gathering at his shop to celebrate his birthday, with then-Mayor Deborah Cockran on hand to read a city proclamation naming Jan. 28 as Russell Hiatt Day.
“I love people,” he said that day, his voice trembling with emotion. “Both of my sons are here with me, my daughter, my grandkids, and my great-grandchildren, and I love them all.”
“It’s really amazing,” he continued. “There are people here from out of town just to be at my birthday party. Over the years, I’ve had people come in here from 40 countries.”
During the ceremony that cold winter day, the barbershop was filled to overflowing by friends, relatives, city officials and tourists who had made the trek to Mount Airy specifically for the celebration. Testament to his popularity were more than 20,000 pictures plastered to the walls, on desks, and virtually everywhere one could be shoehorned — photos of visitors who have walked through the doors of his shop for nearly seven decades.
At that time Hiatt continued working nearly every day, although he soon had to scale back his work because of declining health. Most recently he had been in hospice care, according to family members.
Jim Clark, president of The Andy Griffith Show Re-run Watchers Club, said the thousands of pictures on the wall of Hiatt’s shop were indicative of his personality.
“He had more friends than anybody I know,” said Clark. “He would remember folks by name years later.”
Clark called Hiatt “a wonderful ambassador for Mount Airy and Mayberry,” saying a visit to Floyd’s Barbershop was a staple on the trip itineraries of Mayberry fans.
“People ate a pork chop sandwich at Snappy Lunch. Then they went to see Russell,” explained Clark. “That was every Mayberry fan’s routine.”
However, Clark said Hiatt’s fame as the real Mayberry’s Floyd never quite outshined his abilities as a barber.
“For years, Albert Cooper, a Mayberry fan who lives in Ontario, would routinely let his hair get a little shaggy and then drive to Mount Airy just to get a haircut from Russell,” wrote Clark. “The purpose of Albert’s trip was to get a haircut from Russell, visit with him, and then, with mission accomplished, just head back home until he needed another haircut.”
“That’s how good Russell’s haircuts were and how good a friend Russell was to so many people.”
Clark said within about 12 hours of Hiatt’s death, more than 600 comments had been posted to his group’s Facebook page. Dozens of pictures of Hiatt with Mayberry fans were also posted on the page.
“He was a good friend,” said Clark the day after Hiatt passed. “He also did a lot to promote Mayberry.”
While Hiatt left impressions on those who visited him from afar, he also inspired one person much closer to home.
Donna Hiatt said her uncle served as her inspiration to enter a career dominated by men.
“When I told him I wanted to become a barber, he encouraged me to attend school,” explained Donna Hiatt.
She said at first, the concept of a female barber didn’t resonate in the community. A television station doing a story on her uncle’s shop once even asked her to leave, so she wouldn’t be visible in any camera shots. Her uncle stuck by her and her ambitions to be a barber.
“It didn’t take long for the community to accept a woman barber,” noted Donna Hiatt.
She said she ended up working for her uncle for 18 years before opening her own shop, Donna’s Barber Shop, more than 13 years ago on North Renfro Street.
She said her uncle will be dearly missed by family members and the community as a whole.
On Friday, Hiatt said her uncle’s funeral procession will travel down Main Street at about 1 p.m. She encouraged members of the community who knew the real Floyd the Barber to line the streets to send him off.
That will be followed by a service at 2 p.m. at Shelton Church of the Brethren on Westfield Road.
Reach Andy at 415-4698.