You could say this trip to Mayberry made a big impact on Bill Bixby
After appearing on The Andy Griffith Show, Bixby played "himself" on a show about a widowed father bonding with his 6-year-old son.
"This is a real drag," Bill Bixby tells Andy Griffith during his first scene on The Andy Griffith Show.
He's playing a 19-year-old spoiled rich kid named Ronald Bailey, someone Andy ends up teaching a valuable lesson by the end of the second season episode "Bailey's Bad Boy."
When Bixby rolled into Mayberry, the year was 1962. He'd played a handful of parts, mostly stereotyped as a Richie Rich rulebreaker like Ronald, appearing on series such as Bachelor Father, Ben Casey and The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.
It would still be another year before his starring role as Tim O'Hara in My Favorite Martian made him a household name.
But after My Favorite Martian ended in 1966, Bixby didn't bite at just any TV lead role that came along. He was patient and waited three years for just the right part on just the right show — with just the right message at its heart, one that really spoke straight to him.
"I turned down lots of series, but when this one came along, I was ready," Bixby told The Tampa Tribune in 1969.
That show ended up being, of course, The Courtship of Eddie's Father.
"I will be playing Bill Bixby — me, Bill Bixby — for the first time in my life," Bixby said proudly.
Bixby did not mince words: When people watched The Courtship of Eddie's Father, even though his character's name was Tom Corbett, "That [is] me, not someone else, not Tim O'Hara, but me, Bill Bixby."
On The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Bixby played Tom Corbett, a widower with a six-year-old son named Eddie.
For the record, Opie Taylor was also six years old when The Andy Griffith Show premiered. And when you hear Bixby talk about his sitcom, we bet you a million bucks, it'll remind you of what Griffith was trying to do in Mayberry:
"The show concerns the relationship between a widowed father and his son, the real things that happen in life, the humorous little incidents that in retrospect are momentous," Bixby told The Freeport Journal Standard in 1969. "This is about love."
And just like how Andy Griffith and Ron Howard developed a real bond offscreen, Bixby made a point to do the same with his onscreen son Brandon Cruz.
"His parents let me have him one weekend a month and we do all sorts of things," Bixby told The Tampa Tribune. In The Chicago Tribune in 1970, he described what they did on their outings, "We went to the beach together, we went on hikes, and we established a real rapport."
At this point in his life, Bixby was 35, but still unmarried, with no kids. He said taking on the show helped him move on his career, but also move on with his life in other ways.
"Doing the show has made me want to have a child of my own," Bixby said. "Of course, it's easier for me than for a parent who lives with children 24 hours a day. But I think the success of the series stems from the fact that Brandon and I have a real relationship offscreen and it comes through."
The Courtship of Eddie's Father prepared Bixby to become a dad and have that experience for real.
Two years into the series, Bixby got married. On the fourth of July in 1971, he wed Brenda Benet, a young actor who appeared in Elvis movies, soap operas, and TV shows like Mannix, Hogan's Heroes, My Three Sons, and Wonder Woman.
The same year they married, she also appeared on The Courtship of Eddie's Father, in a way helping young Eddie achieve his prime goal through the series: to get his dad hitched to a lovely lady seen on the show.
Bixby said in interviews, reporters constantly asked what his TV son Brandon Cruz thought of his new bride. He tried to explain that Brandon wasn't confused about their relationship and had parents of his own.
But the father-son bond Bixby and Brandon portrayed was just too real. Nobody wanted to hear from the charming sitcom dad that his onscreen son was not attached to his hip all the time.
"Finally, I gave up and just said he thought it was great, that he liked Brenda (Benet, his wife) and had known her because she had appeared in a couple of our episodes," Bixby told The Courier News in 1972.
With Brenda, he had a son named Christopher, but his family faced tragedy early, when the couple lost Christopher to a skiing accident at the age of six, shortly after they divorced. Bixby would remarry twice, but would never have more kids.
On The Andy Griffith Show in 1962, Bixby was 28, yet still playing a 19-year-old. The Courtship of Eddie's Father helped him break free from playing entitled young men and pursue a broader range of more mature roles.
"I'm 35," Bixby told The Tampa Tribune in 1969. "I've always played the 'clean guy'; even if I was supposed to be rich and rotten, I'd still be 'clean.'"
On The Courtship of Eddie's Father, he was excited for the challenge of playing himself, and he was sold on what he saw as the show's noble heart.
"The whole point of the series is to show that parents and children can communicate," Bixby told The Chicago Tribune.
If you ask us, that sounds like his trip to Mayberry and talks with Sheriff Andy rubbed off on him a little, but at least one reporter did ask him if he thought The Courtship of Eddie's Father was too similar to other popular Sixties shows featuring widowers.
"I refuse to accept that we're all lumped into the same category," Bixby said. "We think of ourselves as doing our own thing and the difference is that our show is more than an entertainment program, because it has involvement, that real involvement I mentioned between me and Brandon."
We think the bonding Andy and Opie did offscreen was just as real, but surely every TV dad thinks his bond with his onscreen kids is the realest?