HIS LIFE IN MOVIES

In this ex­tract from his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Wil­lie Nel­son re­calls how he broke into the movie busi­ness

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

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

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