Billy Bob Thornton has very good moments. He has them when he's locked away in the basement recording studio of his Beverly Hills house, writing songs for a new album. He has them when he's talking about the people he adores: his 10- and 11-year-old sons, Harry and Willie; his best friend, Dwight Yoakam, with whom he spends hours on the phone watching TV, each in his own home. And he certainly has them when he's in front of the camera, where, for going on 20 years, he has delivered pitch-perfect performances playing tortured misfits
whether in dark comedies like Bad Santa or 2001's Bandits, or in dramas like Monster's Ball, A Simple Plan, or Sling Blade (which he also wrote and directed, earning himself a screenwriting Oscar in 1997). With his latest performance, as a high school coach in Friday Night Lights, based on the best-selling book by H.G. Bissinger, Thornton seems poised for a very good moment, indeed.
But on this particular fall afternoon, the 49-year-old actor looks downright miserable. Thornton is slinking his way into L.A.'s Sunset Marquis Hotel, the place where he has camped out at various points between various wives (there have been five) for as long as three years at a time. Trailed by his patient blond assistant Kristin, to whom he entrusts the tasks of driving, carrying his credit card, and packing his cashews and cans of tuna when he travels abroad (outside the States, he'll buy food only in Belgium and Italy), Thornton is sporting a skullcap atop a bandanna that covers the entirety of his left ear. His eyes are hidden behind dark brown glasses, his shirt unbuttoned to show off a cross pendant dangling over his navel. His arms are festooned with tattoos. Even his face leaves little exposed: Around the goatee and mustache he's growing for his upcoming role in the remake of The Bad News Bears, Thornton has left patches to grow wild.
Granted, it's been a miserable year. The actor's latest marriage dissolved (he and Angelina Jolie divorced last summer). He received typically glowing reviews for his own acting, but it was for playing Davy Crockett in last spring's big cinematic disaster, The Alamo. And last September, three of his best friends John Ritter, Warren Zevon, and Johnny Cash all died within five days of each other.
''It was really s----y,'' remembers Thornton, who was playing Farm Aid with his band when he started to feel ''weird . . . my right lung was on fire. And you know, Zevon, who had recorded part of his last album at my house, [had] lung cancer in his right lung. I came off stage and my assistant told me Warren had died.''
That was followed four days later by the death of Ritter, who had costarred in Sling Blade and Bad Santa. ''We knew Warren was going to die,'' says Thornton. ''But Ritter was like a shock.'' Then the very next morning, ''the first thing on the news was Johnny Cash had died. It was like a cartoon, you know?'' A very dark cartoon, maybe the kind that might feature a character voiced by, say, Billy Bob Thornton. This, after all, is a guy who says that when he goes home to Arkansas, the place he is most comfortable is the graveyard where his grandparents and brother (who died in 1988 of a heart ailment at the age of 30) are buried.