Andy Griffith’s Final Years Were Marked By a Deep Friendship With This Oscar-Winning Actor: ‘I Was Like a Son to Him’

Andy Griffith as Ben Matlock
Andy Griffith as Ben Matlock | NBCU Photo Bank

During the dozen or so years before his 2012 death, popular television actor Andy Griffith had lost his son to alcoholism and his dear friend Don Knotts to cancer.

The Andy Griffith Show star eventually formed a lasting friendship with this Academy Award-winning actor who said Griffith regarded him with affection and treated him like a son.

Griffith’s son died in 1996

Andy Griffith with first wife Barbara in 1965
Andy Griffith with first wife Barbara in 1965 | Darlene Hammond/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Andy Griffith and his first wife Barbara were unable to conceive children and adopted in 1958 their son, Andrew Samuel Griffith Jr., who was called by the nickname of Sam.

Sam “idolized his famous father but chafed at the pressure that came with being his son,” Daniel de Visé wrote in his 2015 book Andy and Don: The Making of a Friendship and a Classic American TV Show.

Andy’s son began to drink more and more steadily, to the point that his father eventually cut off all contact with him, saying that he had “emotionally disinherited” him.

Sam died in January 1996 at age 37, “slumped over a desk in his North Hollywood home.” Described in his obituary as an unemployed developer, Sam “had drunk himself to death,” de Visé said.

“When Don [Knotts] called to express condolences, all Andy could say was ‘It’s very, very, very painful.’ Andy didn’t speak of Sam much after that. But he once confessed to Don, ‘I don’t know how good a father I was.’”

Billy Bob Thornton met Andy Griffith on ‘Matlock’

Billy Bob Thornton visiting 'The Tonight Show With Jay Leno' in 1997
Billy Bob Thornton visiting ‘The Tonight Show With Jay Leno’ in 1997 | Alice S. Hall/NBCU Photo Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty Images via Getty Images

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Thornton, who won an Oscar in 1997 for his screenplay for the film Sling Blade, met Griffith when he gained a small role on the veteran actor’s hit courtroom television drama Matlock in the 1980s.

As a devoted Andy Griffith Show viewer, the younger actor had been a fan of Griffith’s for decades and told him so.

“On the set, Billy walked up to Andy and said, ‘I just wanted to tell you that you’re literally the reason I started acting.’ In reply, Andy ‘kind of looked at me strange and then walked away,'” he recalled to de Visé.

Thornton and Griffith became great friends

Billy Bob Thornton and Andy Griffith in 2004
Billy Bob Thornton and Andy Griffith in 2004 | Frank Micelotta/Getty Images

According to Thornton’s comments to de Visé, Griffith began calling Thornton “all the time” in the mid-1990s. The two men then “began to dine together when Andy was in town.”

At one point, Griffith had old friend Don Knotts join them for a meal, which was an incredible moment for Thornton. “It was like I was in a dream,” he told de Visé.

“More often, though,” de Visé continued, “Andy and Billy dined alone. After a few glasses of wine, those sessions would invariably lead to Andy ‘crying and putting his arm around me,’ telling Billy ‘that I was like a son to him.

“And then he would beg me to quit smoking. And he talked about losing his son. He said, ‘I don’t want to lose you.'”