Songwriter for hire. Recording artist. Bandleader. Outlaw country icon. Philanthropist. Weed enthusiast. Duet partner par excellence. In a career spanning six decades, Willie Nelson has not only done everything twice, but has probably written a song about it.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, as Nelson was riding high on the pop charts, he tried his hand at acting. With the encouragement of none other than Robert Redford, Nelson would play a string of charismatic hayseed roles for directors like Sydney Pollack, Michael Mann, Alan Rudolph, and Barry Levinson. Some of his most substantial film collaborations would come from William D. Wittliff, a fellow Texan who expanded upon the characters and stories in Nelson’s songs over three feature films.
Nelson booked his first film role from a chance meeting with Robert Redford, who was in pre-production on the character-driven western/comedy The Electric Horseman. The film was a critical and commercial success, and Nelson’s witty, loose-limbed turn as Redford’s manager was singled out for praise. Emboldened by the success of his first feature, Nelson pitched a big-screen adaptation of his groundbreaking concept album Red Headed Stranger, to be penned by his friend Willian Wittliff, who co-wrote the 1979 remake of The Black Stallion.
Universal was interested, but they wanted to make the film on its own terms. “They saw Robert Redford in the role,” Nelson recalled in his memoirs. “They also wanted me to leave Columbia Records for their label, MCA. Welcome to Hollywood, where strings are always attached.”
While Nelson and Wittliff mulled over the conditions of Universal’s offer, they set to work on other film projects. Nelson took on the leading role in Honeysuckle Rose, which brought the music-driven love triangle of Bergman’s 1936 Intermezzo to the earthier milieu of the 1970s country music scene.
Honeysuckle Rose follows the misadventures of Buck (Nelson), a jovial, road-tested country musician and absentee husband and father. Lead guitarist Garland Jeffries (Slim Pickens) retires from the band, leading Buck to hire Jeffries’ college-aged daughter Lily (Amy Irving). When Lily confesses to having a crush on Buck, his personal and professional life take a turn.
Wittliff wrote the role of Buck for Nelson, and it fits him like one of the sun-faded bandanas that’s become his trademark. Watching Buck interact with the members of his band brings to mind an observation that Nelson made to Redford before taking the movie star’s advice: “Is acting anything like having a conversation?” He listens to and absorbs what’s going on around him, and his steadfast gaze and plainspoken line readings are consistent with the well-observed insights in Nelson’s finest songwriting moments. In other scenes, Nelson’s ability to undersell a punchline or a comedic moment somehow enhances the comedy, as in a moment of early slapstick when the tour bus takes a sharp turn.
Rose is at its best when Buck and his band are onstage. The concert scenes are a showcase for how strong a bandleader and songwriter Nelson was in the 1970s, and should be cherished by any fan who didn’t have the opportunity to see him at the time. While many of the scenes on the tour bus have an appealing—if somewhat whitewashed—quality that suggests the hangout movies of the 2010s, the love triangle at the heart of the film doesn’t work. The characters of the long-suffering wife and lovelorn acolyte are written in broad strokes, and Dyan Cannon and Amy Irving can’t quite make them believable, despite both of their best efforts. Additionally, the age gap and power differential between Buck and Lily seem especially noticeable, and a bit specious, in our current era.
Honeysuckle Rose was a mixed bag for Nelson. By far its biggest contribution to the singer’s legacy was the song “On the Road Again”, which received a nomination for Best Original Song at the 53rd Academy Awards, and which has been a mainstay of Nelson’s live show since the film’s release. Though the film received mixed reviews, and Irving would be nominated for a Razzie for her role, it turned enough of a profit at the box office for Nelson and Wittliff to continue their onscreen collaborations.
They pursued different projects in the wake of Honeysuckle Rose, Wittliff with the World War II-set drama Raggedy Man and Nelson as the terminally ill convict Okla in Thief. Two years after the release of their first collaboration, the pair would re-team for Barbarosa, a period western about a pair of outlaws on the run.
Willie Nelson is frequently included in the subgenre of outlaw country, a rough-hewn variation on the Nashville sound that had grown popular in the 1960s and ‘70s. While his public image as a pot-smoking, tax-evading scofflaw who sometimes performed murder ballads would fit within the parameters of outlaw country, describing him as an outlaw country singer always seemed a bit reductive to his larger body of work. Wittliff’s screenplay put Nelson’s persona in the wider context of Texas history, writing a story set there in the years before its incorporation and drawing on the imagery in Nelson’s songs to depict him as an original outlaw.
When naive farm boy Karl Westover (Gary Busey) accidentally kills one of his neighbors, he leaves his family and goes into hiding. He meets the legendary gunman Barbarosa (Nelson) while stealing food for his dinner. After teaching Karl how to find water and hunt armadillo, the gunman and his protege ride together to Mexico, with the family of the man Karl murdered in pursuit.
Like Honeysuckle Rose, Barbarosa is an episodic feature about a character who resembles some aspects of Willie Nelson. Where Honeysuckle Rose had a loud soundtrack, a brightly colored palette, and frames crowded with detail, director Fred Schepsi brings a sober, contemplative feel to Barbarosa with his earth-toned cinematography, long takes, and sparser use of music. Nelson’s sly, playful performance as the outlaw Barbarosa feels more at ease than his turn in Honeysuckle Rose, and his rapport with Gary Busey brings out a vulnerable, good-humored side in the much-maligned actor.
Bill Wittliff’s love of Texas extended to the Mexican community along the border. His documentary and portrait photography of his home state’s Mexican population showed a human side audiences wouldn’t see in western movies. The Mexican characters in Barbarosa aren’t the savages of earlier western movies; while they are mostly depicted as Barbarosa and Karl’s adversaries, Wittliff writes them as three-dimensional characters who had been harmed by Barbarosa’s thievery, and who have good reason to try and kill him.
While Barbarosa didn’t see the same success as Honeysuckle Rose, it turned a modest profit and received rave reviews from some of the era’s top critics. Meanwhile, Robert Redford had lost interest in the film version of Red Headed Stranger and the rights reverted back to Nelson and Wittliff. By this time, Nelson had purchased the country club that abutted his property outside of Austin and spent two years making it into a film set he called “Willieville”. Nelson and Wittliff raised $1.8 million dollars—including a $50,000 investment from Carolyn Musar, a fan from Boston—and shot Red Headed Stranger on location over a period of two months.
The film had been in development for about a decade, but Nelson had been living with the story for much longer. “I used to sing the song to my kids as a bedtime story,” he told Roger Ebert in 1986. Believing he “could probably play that character as well as anybody,” Nelson stepped into the role of a minister called on to lead a church in a corrupt western town who is driven to murder and eventually redeemed through the love of a good woman.
While Nelson’s songwriting goes to some pretty dark places, he’s at his best onscreen in moments of understated lightness; the moments of wry comedy in Barbarosa agreed with him. The character of Julian Shay experiences what we would now describe as a nervous breakdown, which manifests itself in the three murders he commits in the film’s second act. Nelson is best in more measured moments of darkness, as in a scene where he threatens a group of drunks disrupting his service with selected verses from the Book of Revelations. His measured tone and piercing eye contact eerily underscore the violence of his words.
When Nelson and Wittliff opted to produce the film independently, they had to scale back their original vision. The film has the grainy look of a made-for-TV movie, and Neil Roach shoots many of the scenes in close-up lest any anachronistic details stray into the frame. Wittliff’s production wisely focuses on the characters and their relationships, and his ability to coax credible performances from actors with a diverse array of experience speaks to his love of his characters and his interest in others’ experiences.
Red Headed Stranger would remain Wittliff’s sole directorial credit, and would mark the last of his collaborations with Willie Nelson. As the singer’s career had its commercial and artistic peaks and valleys, Wittliff would make his name as an author and screenwriter of regional renown. His TV adaptation of Lonesome Dove elevated him to iconic status among film fans in the Lone Star state, and his screenplay for Legends of the Fall would find an enthusiastic audience across the world.
Bill Wittliff died in 2018, leaving a legacy of images and words that celebrated the people and the natural splendor of his home state. Willie Nelson remains on the road, with a splashy 90th birthday party and a possible induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ahead of him. In their onscreen collaborations, both men brought their subversive and complicated vision of what a cowboy could be to a wider audience, and their vision will inspire filmmakers and musicians for many years to come.