Barbara Walter talks about interviewing Willie Nelson

Photo: ABC News
by: Lacey West

Barbara Walters, one of the first female television news anchors and a true trailblazer in television, has passed away at 93 years old.

Barbara was known for her commanding presence and no-nonsense school of thought, but in 1982 she became known as one of the only hosts who scored a sit-down interview with elusive country star, Willie Nelson.

The interview was one that Willie had turned down on several occasions – a mega celebrity of his own right, he didn’t need the press that an exclusive interview with Barbara would bring, and according to People Magazine who tracked the meet up between the two, it was only due to her cornering him at a Burt Reynolds’ event they both attended that he finally agreed.

The popular news anchor later admitted that these types of “celebrity interrogations” were gentler than her usual interviews:

“These are people, like Nelson, who are doing me a favor. They’re superstars who don’t need this publicity.”

And maybe it’s because of this dynamic that Willie Nelson showed up for his sit down in none other than running shorts, a t-shirt, and a bandana pushing back his long hair. The kind of apparel that all Willie Nelson fans had come to expect and appreciate, and the exact opposite of the three hours Barbara spent in hair and makeup in preparation for their meeting.

But Barbara was nervous about the interview, a shocking admission for someone who did hundreds of similar Q & As in her full-time career:

“Willie’s a tough one, he’s not a talker. But I’ve got 90 questions, and if I can get eight minutes out of him, I’m okay.”

Scoring an interview with Willie Nelson in the height of his fame was no small task, especially considering his reluctancy to partake in any type of interview exclusives at all.

In 1983, Dave Letterman inquired about Barbara’s tactics in getting a Willie Nelson interview. He even shared that his own show had contacted Willie several times, with no affirmative response:

“On April 26th, we contacted Willie Nelson, again on May 5th and May 6th, we then wrote to him on March 16th and April 28th, and we can’t Willie on the show…

Barbara giggled and encouraged Dave to be persistent before again sharing some of her thoughts on Outlaw Willie Nelson, even admitting that he’d made her a country fan:

“Willie Nelson we were worried about when we finally did it, because he does so few, and we had heard that he was very monosyllabic, and I didn’t know that much about country music, although I’m a big Willie Nelson fan now. And I was afraid that he just wouldn’t open up. But he did and he was terrific.

Part of it I think is that we went down to his ranch in Texas, where he has his own golf course, just for him. His own country club, just for him… It’s a marvelous place that’s his haven.”

Barbara’s hard-earned interview with Willie was surprisingly calm and easy, much different than her regular interview tactics. She asked Willie basic questions like, “does he like himself? Would he consider himself serene? What is the attention of lady fans like?” all of which he answered matter-of-factly.

She wrapped with a lackluster clincher, “If you had three wishes what would you do with them?”

After she wrapped the interview, Willie jokingly said, “Now let’s burn one down,” referencing an earlier comment made by Barbara that she’d never smoked marijuana, versus Willie’s famous fondness for the substance.

She later told the crew that Willie had mentioned stopping the use of marijuana after his lung collapsed the previous August, but he did offer to try one with her if she ever changed her mind.

Willie recalled the moment a bit differently in future interviews sharing:

“Barbara told me she’s never tried grass, but she said she would with me.”

Willie marveled that the interview with Barbara was surprisingly easy and pleasant, and that he figured she would ask more tough questions than she did particularly about his controversial drug usage. But Barbara kept most of that talk off-camera.

Later in the film editing process, Barbara commented that Willie Nelson was an old soul.

In her TV special, Barbara mixed in clips from The Willie Nelson Show and a clip of him from a live performance, as well as him singing the National Anthem for the 1980 Democratic National Convention.

She chose to personify Willie as the “outlaw turned hero” and an activist. After only two days with him, she left his ranch saying she was impressed with Willie although the actually the film offered little out of the norm.

In her sit down with Dave Letterman the next year she shared of Willie:

“I liked him a lot. We got along very well. We had a nice relationship… He’s a nice, mellow, sweet, good man, and I think it shows.

Willie Nelson: The Barbara Walters Interview (1982)


People Magazine
June 21, 1982
by Cheryl McCall
photos:  Evelyn Floret

It is high noon in Austin, and the atmosphere is sultry in the $257 -a-night LBJ Suite of the Driskill Hotel, where Barbara Walters has turned off the air conditioning.  She has come to Texas to interview Willie Nelson for the 20th ABC special bearing her name, and is savoring a moment of decadent leisure.  Denuded of makeup, padding around in her bare feet and a shapeless cotton caftan, Walters bears little resemblance to the empress of televised conversation.   She looks softer, almost homey, as though she just might mosey into the kitchen and whip up a batch of brownies.  The effect is casually, but not entirely unstudied.

Like no other correspondent, perhaps, Walters is both of the press and apart from it.  As anxious about her image as any politician or movie queen, she has been stung by criticism of herself as a creature of outsize go and privilege.  “The biggest misconception about me is that I’m cold and controlled, that I have this great prima donna life where I’m followed around by limousines, hairdressers and press agents,” she says.  “It’s just not true.”

It is possible, of course, that even Mrs. Onassis thinks of herself as Just Plain Jackie.  Moments later Walters is frantically pulling clothes off hangers and issuing a volley of commands to her secretary:  have her clothes pressed, call room service, summon the hairdresser.  With a taping scheduled for 5:30 p.m., a three-hour transformation begins as the Walters hair is cut and styled (“Don’t make me look like Shirley Temple,” she warns), and emmy-winning makeup artist Tommy Cole applies a poreless mask of cosmetics to the famous face.  “I have not had a face lift,” says Barbara, fifty.  “When I’m doing a special, I am beautifully lit and I look terrific.”

Producer JoAnn goldberg and director Don Mischer arrive to go over plans for the taping and to approve a selection of newly ironed dresses.  (“All form my own closet,” Walters points out.)  In preparation for her summit meeting with Nelson, Barbara’s staff has compiled a voluminous binder of research and drawn up some of the 150 questions she might ask on-camera.  Advance people have scouted out the locations, arranged flights for the staff, booked hotel rooms, rental cars and limousines, hired local camera crews and arranged catering services for the two days of taping in Austin.  Routinely, when the time comes to take the show on the road, Walters boards her plane to the interview, pres over the research once more in flight, and reviews the questions she will use.  Her secretary, Monica Caulfield, guides Barbara to airlines, limos and out-of-town destinations.

For this special, which will also include segments on Clint Eastwood and Carol Burnett, Barbara has postponed 20/20 interviews with Alexander Haig and Yoko Ono to focus her attention on Nelson.  Relentless in pursuing the subjects she wants, Walters writes letters, sends flowers or telegrams, and even pleads with celebs on the telephone.  Leonid Brezhnev, the Pope and Greta Garbo have spurned her requests, but few others have shown such powers of resistance.  Willie Nelson had twice turned her down until she cornered him at a Friars roast for Burt Reynolds last year.  Now, with his hot crossover album of the year, Always on My Mind, topping both pop and country charts, Nelson has become the key to an audience share that Walters would not automatically attract.

Barbara readily admits that his celebrity interrogations are “gentler” than her usual interviews.  “These are people, like Nelson, who are doing me a favor,” she explains.  “They’re superstars who don’t need this publicity.  Nobody comes out of these interviews angry or hurt.  If I’m asked not to discuss something that’s very painful, I won’t, because I’m creative enough to discuss a lot of other things.”  Nelson has declared nothing off limits, yet Barbara is expecting some problems.  “Willie’s a tough one, he’s not a talker,” she frets.  “But I’ve got 90 questions, and if I can get eight minutes out of him, I’m okay.”

After spending five hours taking scene-setters at a local restaurant, on Willie’s private golf course and in his recording studio, Walters seems perplexed by her ultra-casual subject.  Willie has turned up for the taping in running shorts, bandanna and T-shirt.  Off-camera, Barbara broaches the subject of Willie’s legendary fondness for marijuana.  He admits he has smoked “enough to fill a silo,” but says he stopped after his lung collapsed last August.  “If you ever want to try it, I’ll smoke a joint with you,” Barbara reports Willie told her.  Nelson remembers the exchange a bit differently.  “Barbara told me she’s never tried grass,” he says, “but she said she would with me.”

The next morning, after six hours’ sleep and a two-hour makeover, Walters arrives at Willie’s range by 10, primed for interviews with the singer and his wife, Connie.  She hopes to open a few gaps in Nelson’s legendary easygoing facade.  “I care less about his music than the man who writes about love that’s invaded or lost,” she says.  “I want to know if he’s really that controlled. What makes him tick? what makes him laugh?  What makes him throw up?”

To find out, Barbara spends 45 minutes with Connie, probing for chinks in the Nelsons’ domestic armor (“Do you ever get jealous?”) and unexpected insights into what makes Willie run.  A poised, soft-spoken woman, Connie fields even improbable queries (“Why does Willie need you?”) until Walters is satisfied she has enough for the minute of air time she is planning to use.

After Barbara changes into a Laura Ashley print, sparingly buttoned to expose ample cleavage, she turns her attention to Willie.  As the taping beings, the 28-member cw falls silent an Walters leans forward with solicitous, breathy intensity like someone consoling the dying.  Willie is mystified, then amused.  “Do you like yourself?” Barbara asks.  Wilie does. “Are you serene?” she wants to know. Willie thinks so.  “The crowds, the adulation the women reaching up to you.  What’s it like?”  Willie says it’s not bad at at all.


During a break in the taping, there is a lapse in the pose of intimacy between interviewer and subject.  As Willie sits by, Barbara tensely confers with producer Goldberg.  “What about question 74?  Should I ask that?  Is there anything you thought I missed?  What about 54?”  When the tape rolls again, Walters weighs in with a few formula questions.  (“If you had three wishes what would you do with them?”), then thanks Willie for being her guest.

Decompression at last.  “Okay, Barbara,” teases Willie, “now let’s burn one down.”  Later, the hypothetical joint gone unsmoked, Nelson seems pleased.  “She wasn’t tough at all,” he marvels.  “I was a little concerned about what she might ask about smoking dope and being afraid of getting arrested, but she was a doll.”

The following afternoon, in Los Angeles to edit the tapes, Goldberg and Walters repair to Barbara’s suite at the Beverly Hills Hotel to trim the written transcript of the interview to a size they can work with.   The next morning another limo ferries Walters to the home of tape editor Jim McElroy, where she and Goldberg whittle their 27-minute version almost in half.  Watching the rough cut, Walters slashes away at the script and orders changes in what appears on the screen.  “I like it beter like this… Go to my face when he says, “I’m not complaining’… The Nashville think I liked.  When he went there and he cleaned himself up.  Now our audience is looking at him and thinking, “Why is he so dirty with that bandanna and all that hair?’… Pick up my question on the next page.  Now this is important, JoAnn.  This is one of the few guys who openly smoked pot and always talked about it and always got away with it.”

Finally Walters asks to see herself on the tape.  The imge appears; Barbara is satisfied.  “I look terrific,” she says lightly, “Pretty and bosomy and everything.”  And her subject?  “Will Nelson looks like the oldest 49 I ‘ve ever seen.  No wonder he believes in reincarnation.”  Goldberg agrees.  “There’s an ancient feeling about Willie Nelson,” JoAnn says.  “He’s an old soul.”  But not otherworldly that Barbara simply couldn’t make a contact.  “Whe had the luxury of two days in Austin instead of the normal two hours,” says JoAnn, the organizationl wizzard who is involved in every aspect of the specials except actually asking the questions.  “I felt Barbara needed that to get the feeling of Willie and his life.  We’are careful about who w put her with.  People like Mick Jagger or Bruce Springsteen she might not get.  But she always surprises me.  If you give her enough time, she’llf igure them out.”

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