Willie Nelson, movie star

by:  Tom Leydon

When it comes to acting in feature films and TV-movies, Willie Nelson is game for just about any sort of role — as long as the role allows him to more or less be himself. “I pretty much play whatever I am or whoever I am,” he told us a few years back. “And that doesn’t require a lot of acting.” So where would he place acting on his lengthy list of achievements? “Probably at the bottom. I’m probably the worst actor ever.”

Sorry, but that’s not an appraisal we would echo. Indeed, we would go so far as to say that Shotgun Willie is his own harshest critic when it comes to evaluating his work on screen. To celebrate his birthday, we’re taking a second look at some of the memorable titles on his resume, all of them available on streaming platforms.

The Electric Horseman (1979)

Credit The Sundance Kid as the one who first recognized Willie Nelson ought to be in pictures. As Nelson recalls in his 2016 autobiography It’s a Long Story: My Life, he and Robert Redford were seated together on an L.A.-bound plane after a New York benefit when Redford suggested that Nelson’s “naturally relaxed” style would serve him well on screen. Director Sydney Pollack agreed — and cast Nelson in The Electric Horseman as a laid-back pal of Redford’s over-the-hill rodeo champ, who gallops out of Las Vegas with a prize-winning horse. “I didn’t plan and I didn’t rehearse,” Nelson recalls. “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 lend it out.”

Honeysuckle Rose (1980)

Nelson didn’t exactly stretch himself in his first star vehicle, a musical dramedy in which he was cast as “a Willie Nelson-styled character” (his description, not ours) who’s torn between his love for his wife (Dyan Cannon) and his affair with his girlfriend (Amy Irving). While flying on a private plane during pre-production location scouting, producer Sydney Pollack and director Jerry Schatzberg encouraged him to write a song about being on the road during a concert tour. By the time the plane landed, Nelson had completed the lyrics for — yes, you guessed it! — “On the Road Again.” As he relates in his autobiography: “Independent of the film, the song wound up with a life of its own. Even got nominated for an Academy Award for Best 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 since I wrote it back in 1979, has had a longer battery life than the film it was written for.”

Thief (1981)

Nelson proved he had the right stuff as a serious character actor in director Michael Mann’s violent caper thriller, in which he played the mentor and former cellmate of the film’s protagonist, Frank (James Caan), a veteran jewel thief who desperately wants to start a family even as his plies his illegal trade. Critic Roger Ebert wrote in his original Chicago Sun-Times review: “If Thief has a weak point, it is probably in the handling of the Willie Nelson character. Nelson is set up well: He became Caan’s father-figure in prison, Caan loves him more than anybody, and when he goes to visit him in prison they have a conversation that is subtly written to lead by an indirect route to Nelson’s understated revelation that he is dying and does not want to die behind bars… But then the Nelson character quickly disappears from the movie, and we’re surprised and a little disappointed. Willie has played the character so well that we wanted more.”

Barbarosa (1982)

New York Times film critic Janet Maslin aptly described this exceptional Tex-Mex border western — directed by Fred Schepisi (Roxanne) and written by Bill Witliff (Lonesome Dove) — as “a film that uses one American legend, Willie Nelson, to create another.” In the title role of a celebrated outlaw who alienated himself from his Mexican wife’s family by killing a few of his in-laws (in self-defense) on his wedding night, Nelson comes across as a sad yet proud folk hero who proves to be an invaluable resource for fellow outcasts like the fugitive farm boy played by Gary Busey. “When Barbarosa first appears,” Maslin wrote, “he is caught up in a gunfight and a bullet nicks his cheek, but Mr. Nelson doesn’t even flinch. He doesn’t appear to believe anything could really harm him, and the audience shares his supreme confidence after a while.”

Songwriter (1984)

Director Alan Rudolph (Trouble in Mind, Love at Large) and screenwriter Bud Shrake brought out the best in co-stars Nelson and Kris Kristofferson during this amiable comedy-drama about a country singer-songwriter (Nelson) who relies on help from a fellow entertainer (Kristofferson) and an up-and-coming singer (Lesley Ann Warren) to turn the tables on an a slick operator who controls the rights to his songs. Roger Ebert again proffered praise: “[I]t’s interesting how subtle his acting is. Unlike a lot of concert stars whose moves tend to be too large for the intimacy of a movie, Nelson is a gifted, understated actor.”

Stagecoach (1986)

Veteran actor Thomas Mitchell earned an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as a hard-drinking doctor who earns the respect of his traveling companions in John Ford’s original 1939 Stagecoach. Nelson didn’t receive a comparable accolade for playing essentially the same part in this made-for-cable remake, in which he co-starred with fellow Highwaymen Kris Kristofferson (in the John Wayne role), Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings. On the other hand, thanks to some revisionist scriptwriters, Nelson didn’t play just any doctor — he was Doc Holliday. No kidding.

Red-Headed Stranger (1986)

Bill Witliff wrote and directed this independently produced western, loosely based on Nelson’s 1975 album of the same title. Critics weren’t kind, and audiences were scarce, but Nelson — who credibly played the lead role of preacher in need of a shot at redemption after killing his treacherous wife — managed to make a profit for his investors. More important, he continues to use Luck, the near-Austin western town set constructed for the film, for musical and movie events.

The Big Bounce (2004)

Author Elmore Leonard wasn’t impressed by the first movie version of his 1969 crime novel The Big Bounce — and, truth to tell, he wasn’t all that happy about this adaptation, either. And yet, oddly enough, the 2004 reboot — which relocated to Hawaii the original narrative about a ne’er-do-well (Owen Wilson) tempted into thievery by a shady lady —actually seems a lot more like a Leonard story than the original novel. Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton don’t really have much to do as card-playing cronies of supporting player Morgan Freeman, but they appear to be having a nice time, and it’s easy to share their mellow, what-the-hell vibe.

The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)

As Uncle Jesse in this big-screen version of the 1979-85 TV series about good ol’ boys in souped-up cars, Nelson saunters through the proceedings with, as New York Times film critic A.O. Scott noted, “the mellow ease of a man who can earn a paycheck just by showing up.” For those of you who have always wanted to see him punch out Burt Reynolds — and you know who you are, so don’t be coy about it — well, this is the movie for you. (To his credit, Reynolds plays the sleazy Boss Hogg just bombastically enough to make himself well worth punching.)

Angels Sing (2013)

Originally known as When Angels Sing, the 1999 Turk Pipkin novel on which it’s based, director Tim McCanlies’ family-friendly dramedy has Nelson perfectly cast as Nick, a cheery old fellow who might be Santa Claus, or even an angel — or, really, anything else that bah-humbugging college professor Michael Walker (Harry Connick Jr.) might need to jump-start his seasonal ho-ho-hoing. Would he agree that he was cast against type in this one? “Oh, sure,” Nelson said with a chuckle when we talked to him about the film back in 2013. “Me as an angel? Yeah, this could be the hardest part I’ve ever played.”

Waiting for the Miracle to Come (2019)

The improbable pairing of Nelson and famed British actress Charlotte Rampling turns out to be a match made in movie heaven as the two living legends bring out the best in each other during the course of writer-director Lian Lunson’s freeform, fantasy-tinged drama. Filmed largely on location at Nelson’s Luck ranch, the movie is a dreamily stylized concoction that has something to do with a budding young trapeze artist (Sophie Lowe) eager to help her newly widowed mother (Sile Bermingham) unlock a secret from her troubled past, and something else to do with two long-married ex-vaudevillians who operate a combination trailer park, horse ranch, and performance venue. Whether together, individually, or in one-on-one scenes with Lowe, Nelson and Rampling convey such raw emotional authenticity — running the gamut from anguished remorse to indefatigable faith — that it’s very east to believe their characters have spent a lifetime together.

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