Whenever Keith Olbermann would refer to Glenn Beck as Glenn "Lonesome Rhodes" Beck on his show Countdown I knew that Olbermann was making some kind of pop culture reference, but never bothered to look up what exactly he was alluding to. But thanks to a recommendation from Spocko, I now get it.
The reference is to Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes, played by Andy Griffith in his film debut A Face in the Crowd (1957). The movie is about the rise and fall of a radio-then-television star who uses folksy charm, false sincerity,zany energy, and every-man wisdom to cynically sell commercial products and reactionary politics. Rhodes starts out as mostly an entertainer, but as he realizes he can use his show as a vehicle for wielding influence, he becomes drunk with power. Eventually, he is undone by his own power-mad hubris and contempt for the very people that he pretends to be a champion of. (Sound familiar?)
If you are only familiar with Andy Griffith from his role as Sheriff Taylor, then his brilliant performance alone is worth seeing the movie for. And on top of that, the movie itself still provides relevant commentary on the way that demagogues function within our media culture.
That being said, there are some key differences between Beck and Rhodes. First, Rhodes shoots to the top because of his own natural ability to draw an audience. As Alexander Zaitchik noted in Common Nonsense, Beck, however, failed in market after market and only was catapulted to stardom after media deregulation (signed into law by President Clinton) allowed his employer Clear Channel to gobble up radio markets, thus eliminating Beck's marketplace competitors.
Secondly, while Rhodes had a mean streak, he was careful (for the most part) to not reveal it to his audience. Beck, on the other hand, frequently lets his audience see just how rotten he really is.