Andy Griffith and Johnny Cash starred in a TV movie with an infamous real-life lawyer

James Neal was involved in some of the biggest trials of the '80s

It might seem hard to imagine now, but there was a time after The Andy Griffith Show when Griffith's career languished. Was he a one-trick pony, doomed to be relegated to reruns? He left his show in 1968 at the top of his game; The Andy Griffith Show was still incredibly popular. A few years later, Griffith started his own production company, Andy Griffith Enterprises. He was then the unfortunate star in a string of forgettable, unpopular shows. Series like Headmaster, The New Andy Griffith Show, Adams of Eagle Lake, Salvage 1, and The Yeagers are now looked back on as little more than answers to trivia questions. His luck changed for the better with Matlock, but there was one more interesting stop in between that gave Griffith the chance to uncharacteristically play a murderous villain.

Do you remember Murder in Coweta County?  The 1983 television film was based on the book of the same name. The story was inspired by a real murder that took place in Georgia in 1948. Murder in Coweta County, like The Andy Griffith Show, features a righteous sheriff dedicated to justice, but in a surprise role reversal, Griffith is the bad guy. The lawman, here, is played by outlaw country superstar Johnny Cash.

Cash had recently been inducted as the youngest living member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, but his albums were consistently failing to chart in any meaningful way. He'd see a resurgence in the mid-'80s as part of The Highwaymen, a supergroup featuring Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Waylon Jennings. But in the meantime, Cash pivoted to more acting work, appearing in The Pride of Jesse Hellam, which won him some great reviews and led to his casting in Murder in Coweta County

Griffith plays a corrupt land baron who savagely murders another man, wrongfully assuming his status as a white Southerner makes him above the law. Justice is served, credits role, and both stars are praised for their work. However, a look at the TV movie's cast and crew reveals one more interesting piece of movie history: James Neal plays defense attorney A.L. Henson in Murder in Coweta County. He was also a high-profile lawyer in real life and would defend his clients during some of the most famous cases throughout the 1980s. 

Specifically, Neal defended John Landis in the voluntary manslaughter case that arose from the filming of Twilight Zone: The Movie. Three actors, Vic Morrow, Renee Chen, and My-ca Dinh Le were killed on the set of the movie. Neal successfully defended the film's director against charges, allowing Landis to continue his filmmaking career with movies like Coming to America and Three Amigos!

Neal was also the defense attorney in the '80s legal battles faced by George Nichopoulos, who was charged with overprescribing drugs to stars like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. 

Exxon was yet another high-profile client for James Neal, who defended the company in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. 

Two years after his acting role in Murder in Coweta County, Neal was named one of Forbes Magazine's five best trial lawyers of 1985.

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seawolf7103 1 month ago
Check out Andy as a treacherous businessman in the (ABC made for TV) movie "Pray For The Wildcats". With William Shatner, Robert Reed, Angie Dickinson, Lorraine Gary and Marjoe Gortner. Griffith is a wealthy industrialist who won't do a deal with the other guy's firm unless they accompany him on a 600 mile motorcycle trip down the Baja. Andy can really be bad when he wants to.
JHP 1 month ago
am not a dyed-in-wood C/W fan but I was a big fan of Johnny Cash and yes almost of his songs sounded the same. But even with his up-bringing - he would have made a good role model. And made a good bad guy on Columbo:)
Runeshaper 1 month ago
Very interesting information! Super sad about the passing of Vic Morrow, Renee Chen, and My-ca Dinh Le, may they all rest in peace.
Stoney 1 month ago
Point of fact: Coweta County is actually considered west-central Georgia, not southern Georgia. It was filmed in my hometown of Griffin GA, also in west-central GA.
JeffPaul76 Stoney 1 month ago
It doesn't say in the story I just read, where Coweta County is located in Georgia. "The story was inspired by a real murder that took place in Georgia in 1948." It doesn't say where Coweta County is located.
Stoney JeffPaul76 1 month ago
I think they may have gone back and edited it.
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