As preacher Julian Shay, Willie Nelson sobers up a besotted sheriff, played by R. G. Armstrong in a scene that both enjoyed in the scorching Texas heat.
Life Magazine August 1987 article by: Cheryl McCall
Making a movie of Red Headed Stranger, his 1975 chart-topping country album, was a powerful obsession that wouldn’t let go. From the beginning, its story of love and violence in the Old West was unfolding as a movie in his mind, says Willie Nelson. He dreamed of portraying the preacher-turned-killer on-screen. Universal Studios optioned Red Headed Stranger but eventually let it slip into “turnaround” — Hollywood limbo. So Nelson acquired the rights and spent the next five years shopping for financing. With fellow Texan Bill Wittliff – screenwriter and co producer of Country, Raggedy Man and Barbarossa — Nelson plunged into the risky business of doing their own producing.
Despite the pleading of his wife, Connie, Nelson stubbornly mortgaged property to raise $1 million for the 1879-style wardrobe, props and three Western sets. Friends and neighbors pitched in. Towns were built on land adjoining his private golf course outside Austin, turning the place into a studio back lot. Wittliff virtually ignored his book publishing business, Encino Press, to take on the chore of writing, co-producing and directing. Together, Wittliff and Nelson assembled a crew and pruned more than $11 million from Universal’s original $13.5 million budget.
Willie Nelson sprays on a little water as he and Morgan Farichild head west. Says the TV acress, “My character just doesn’t have the pioneer spirit.”
They signed a native Texas, Morgan Fairchild, to play the preacher’s faithless wife and Katharine Ross (star of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), 43, as his salvation. The actresses agreed to defer half of their fees. As the cameras rolled, LIFE went on location with Red Headed Stranger.
“If Willie Nelson is going to kill a woman, anyone in America would forgive him for killing Morgan Fairchild in this movie,” — Morgan Fairchild
“In a funny kind of way, I just simply stepped into Willie’s dream,” says director Bill Wittliff. “It’s become an obsession for me, too. I couldn’t walk away from it.” The writer fleshed out the record album’s story of stern frontier morality with a script that explores the theme of love lost and regained against a backdrop of sin and redemption. The preacher saves a derelict town from spiritual squalor but pays a terrible price — everything he cherishes in life. By the time his rage is spent, a dozen people are dead. Nelson says he’s not the least contrite about killing two women in this film.
“If you like the song, the violence is there,” he says. “You can’t take out violence anymore than you can take evil out of books. It’s all part of life.” Adds Nelson, “This movie covers a lot of territory — from spiritualism to lust — and takes a man all the way to the bottom and back to the top. It does it to a preacher — which is a little bit unusual.”
Also unorthodox is the casting of Nelson’s grandson, his band’s drummer, the bass player and a bodyguard in speaking roles. Says Wittliff, “It’s really a homegrown deal. We pulled people off the sidewalk, from restaurants, stores or wherever we spotted them for this.” His Encino Press assistant, Connie Todd, put aside her publishing duties to audition more than 350 local folks. “When we found someone with a spark, we’d work with him or her for several hours,” says Wittliff. The creative gamble has paid off with lively performances from an Austin security guard, a waitress and a computer programmer.
It’s a measure of the loyalty Nelson inspires that his cast and crew are willing to endure 14-hour days on a location as hot and fly-ridden as Calcutta. What’s more, they are remarkably cheerful about it. Explains bit player Bo Franks, a cohort and gun collector, “I’m doing this for free. Everybody is here because they want to be part of Willie’s dream. We’re busting our butts because we wouldn’t think of letting him down.” From the Austin hatter who made and donated dozens of period hats to the realtor who lent a 19th century water drilling rig, friends contributed what they could.
Says his daughter Lana, ‘Daddy has set such a good example for everyone that you don’t want to be the one to goof it up.”
As the end of the shooting approaches, day drags into night and exhaustion and tension mount. Mistakes are made, lines misbelieved, and the horses — spooked by gunfire — are edgy.
The only uncooperative member of the cast during the whole 39 days of shooting was a balky pony. “Willie, we got a problem here,” crackled a walkie-talkie. “The horse wants to know what his motivation is for pulling the plow.”
Nelson drinks cups of coffee and cracks jokes. Scenes are repeated until all the angles have been filmed. At 5:30 a.m., they break. Twelve hours later, after filming the preacher and the wife traveling west in a covered wagon, Wittliff and Nelson say the magic words, “That’s a wrap!”
The film opens next month, with Willie Nelson singing Red-Headed Stranger songs throughout his movie.