Red Headed Stranger began its 39-day shooting schedule on April 29, 1985, on locations in and around Austin, Texas, with a cast and crew largely made up of native Texans.
Production offices with complete editing facilities had been set up earlier in the heart of Austin at the Encino Press, Bill Wittliff’s award-winning book publishing company. The National Registry Landmark house where O. Henry once lived and wrote proved to be a convenient and appropriately picturesque control center for the period western.
Besides his myriad duties as co-producer, writer, and director, Wittliff also conducted a massive talent search for local people to play key roles. While construction crews built sets on his and Nelson’s property just outside Austin, Wittliff and casting director Connie Todd pulled in talent from all over the area for a Texas-sized audition, videotaping hundreds of hopefuls, mostly nonprofessionals, many of whom had never acted before. The extensive auditions revealed “great faces and natural ability,” according to Wittliff, who eventually used 15 nonprofessionals in speaking roles:
Cauley Felps, the old man shot by Odie Claver, is played by Ted J. Crum, a security policeman at the University of Texas. Cindy, the yellow-haired lady, is Marinell Madden, a drama major at the University of Texas and a part-time waitress.Â One of the three drunks outside the church heckling Julian’s sermon is a house painter, another sells t-shirts, and one is Wilie’s roadie.
“Except for Willie, Morgan, Katharine, R. G., Royal and four of the Claver boys, (Odie is played by Sonny Carl Davis, an actor from Texas who lives in California now; Vicor is played by Mark Jenkins, a cowboy and a part-time actor from Wyoming; and Avery and Eugene are Paul English and Bee Spears, two of Willie’s band members) I went with the non-professionals Connie Todd found and brought in, sometimes right off the street,” said Wittliff.
The final credits read not unlike an old fashioned gathering of the clans, as family members and pets of the cast and crew joined Austin friends and neighbors for what was, according to Wittliff, “our homegrown deal.” Playing Nathan, Laurie’s song is Nelson’s grandson, 15-year-old Bryan Fowler, whose mother, Lana Nelson, did costumes and plays one of Wanda’s girls in the saloon. Wittliff’s wife, Sally, and their son, Reid, are guests in the wedding sequence, in which Bryan’s little sister, Martha Fowler, joins the Wittliffs’ daughter, Allison, as a flower girl.
The city of Austin was a gracious host for the Red Headed Stranger production, and its citizens provided several locations, including a private home that doubled as the church in Philadelphia where Julian (Willie Nelson) and Raysha (Morgan Fairchild) are married.
Laurie’s (Katharine Ross) farm spread was constructed on Wittliff’s country place 12 miles east of Austin, while the complete western town of Driscoll, Montana, was built on Nelson’s ranch, 30 mile west of the city.
The new music for piano, guitar, and harmonica, heard along with the songs from the original Red Headed Stranger album, was written expressly for the film by Nelson and recorded at his private studio, located within sight of “Driscoll.”
“We made the picture on a shoestring,” says Wittliff. In 1980 Hollywood it had been budgeted at $13,500,00, and by making it here, at home in Austin, we did it for about 1/7th of that.”