HIS LIFE IN MOVIES
In this extract from his autobiography, Willie Nelson recalls how he broke into the movie business
Imet Robert Redford at a benefit in New York City. The next day, we found ourselves sitting next to each other on the plane back to Los Angeles. We got to talking. He told me about this movie, The Electric Horseman, that he and Jane Fonda were about to make with director Sydney Pollack.
“Ever thought about doing a movie, Willie?” he asked.
“Sure. But let me ask you this, Bob: is acting anything like having a conversation?” “That’s exactly what it’s like.” “Well, I believe I can do that.” “You’re a natural, Willie. As a singer and musician, you’re naturally relaxed. As an actor, I think that same quality would come through.”
I thanked him for the kind remark. The more I thought about it, the more I was inclined to make the move. But how?
Figured the simplest way was the best. Pick up the phone, call the boss, and ask for the job. In this case the boss was Sydney Pollack.
I’d never met the man, but he sounded glad to hear from me. “How can I help you, Willie?”
“Put me in that movie you’re making with Bob and Jane Fonda.” He laughed, not scornfully but sweetly. “Come to think of it,” he said, “you might be right for the part of Redford’s manager. Would you mind reading for it?” “Be my pleasure.” The reading was easy. The part was easy. I played myself. In fact, in every movie to follow, I played myself. Or as that great sidekick cowboy Slim Pickens would soon say, “No one plays Willie Nelson better than Willie Nelson.”
I didn’t plan and I didn’t rehearse. I learned my lines, but tended to bend them my own way — or borrow from writer friends. In The Electric Horseman, Pollack loved the line I spewed: “Gonna get myself a bottle of tequila and find me one of those Keno girls who can suck the chrome off a trailer hitch and kick back.” Still not sure how that made it past the ratings people. Wish I could claim credit, but I’d found it in a novel by my buddies Bud Shrake and Dan Jenkins, who were happy to loan it out. For the most part, though, I did what Redford had predicted I’d do: I said what came naturally.
Reviews were great. I sang what I thought was an appropriate song on the soundtrack, My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys, as well as Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.
The film did brisk business, I got good reviews and, just like that, I was sitting in a dark theatre and staring up at myself on the silver screen, another one of those crazy boyhood fantasies turned real. The hustler in me got all worked up. Movies were not only easy to do, but the exposure gave me an even bigger audience, not to mention good money.
Just as I’d always wanted to do it my own way with music, I wanted to take the same approach with film. I’d work up my own projects. The first that came to mind was Red Headed Stranger. Connie [Nelson’s third wife] had been right: ever since I sang it to my children, I’d always seen that song as a movie. If people were calling me a natural actor, I sure as hell would call that song a natural film script.
Took the idea to my friend Bud Shrake, but Bud was hesitant.
“How you gonna make a hero out of a man who shoots his woman to death for stealing a horse?”
Bud suggested I try another writer friend in Austin, Bill Wittliff, who wrote a beautiful screenplay that Universal liked. My idea was to make the movie with their money through my production company. Of course I’d play the Red Headed Stranger.
Universal didn’t see it that way. They saw Robert Redford in the role. They also wanted me to leave Columbia Records for their label, MCA. Welcome to Hollywood, where strings are always attached.
Being a practical man, I couldn’t dismiss their offer out of hand. Redford could easily play the part. I called Bob to see what he thought of the script. He liked it but said he needed time to make a decision.
Well, two years later Bob still hadn’t made up his mind. By then Universal had lost interest and I was back where I started. I had a good screenplay but no financing. And of course I was not about to break Hollywood’s golden rule: When making a movie, never use your own money.
With patience, I figured, the stars would be aligned and the Red Headed Stranger would have his day.
In the meantime, other roles came my way. In Honeysuckle Rose, I starred as Buck Bonham, a Willie Nelson-styled character torn between his love for his wife, Dyan Cannon, and his girlfriend, Amy Irving — a delicious dilemma if there ever was one. Sydney Pollack was the producer. At one point Sydney, director Jerry Schatzberg and I were flying to some location in a private plane.
“This movie could use a song, Willie,” said Sydney. “What do you say?”
I was always willing, ready, and able to write a song. “What do you think it should be about?” I asked. “Being on the road.”
Nonchalantly, I threw out a line at them: “On the road again.”
Sydney and Jerry looked at each other for a second or two. Then, at the same time, they said, “That’s it!”
“But do you have a melody?” asked Sydney. “I will by the time we get to the studio.”
By the time the plane landed, the lyrics were written.
On the road again Just can’t wait to get on the road again The life I love is making music with my friends And I can’t wait to get on the road again
On the road again Goin’ places that I’ve never been Seein’ things that I may never see again And I can’t wait to get on the road again On the road again Like a band of gypsies we go down the highway We’re the best of friends Insisting that the world keep turning our way
As promised, the melody clicked in shortly thereafter. Independent of the film, the song wound up with a life of its own. Even got nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song. Became a big hit on its own — so big that when it was time to air the movie on TV, they changed the title from Honeysuckle Rose to On the Road Again. That simple song, a part of my nightly repertoire ever since I wrote it back in 1979, has had a longer battery life than the film it was written for.
The studios took a liking to me. In Barbarosa, written by Bill Wittliff, I played the lead character, a badass cowboy, and co-starred with Gary Busey. The press had been calling me an outlaw for so long, I figured I might as well get paid to play one.
And in Songwriter, I was Doc Jenkins, the most autobiographical Willie Nelson character of all. That’s ’cause it was written by Bud Shrake, who knew me so well. The story has Doc all mixed up with hard-headed producers, crooked promoters, and sexy women. He means well. All he wants is a simple life with his wife and children, but he just can’t resist the temptations of the road. That sounded awfully familiar. I was having fun, but my co-star Kris Kristofferson proved to be a singer who, unlike me, had honest to God acting chops.
At about the same time my movie career kicked off — the tail end of the seventies — I was able to buy the old Pedernales Country Club together with a large parcel of land. Thirty miles outside Austin, this acreage was the perfect spot. There was lots of room for friends and family to camp out as long as they wanted. This was also where I’d build my recording studio.
Copyright © 2015 by Willie Nelson. Extracted from My Life: It’s a Long Story, by Willie Nelson (Sphere, $32.99).
Willie Nelson, left; and above, with Robert Redford in 1979 film The Electric Horseman