Willie Nelson: Robert Redford Might’ve Been A Better Red Headed Stranger
Willie Nelson’s 1986 film Red Headed Stranger (get your own copy by clicking here) is more of a footnote in the country crooner’s long career. The once-ambitious Western, adapted from Nelson’s 1975 album of the same name, was notoriously bogged down for years with production problems behind the scenes, up to and including who’d play the main role.
From the earliest days of its inception, Nelson had always envisioned himself at the center of the film. Universal, however, was pushing for Robert Redford to star as a disgraced preacher in search of redemption. Over the weekend, after a special screening of the AGFA’s newly-digitized Red Headed Stranger, Nelson addressed exactly how different the film would’ve turned out had Redford actually gotten the role.
“It would’ve been better,” Nelson admitted to the crowd with a laugh.
The screening itself took place on Nelson’s ranch in Luck, TX — affectionately referred to as ‘Willie’s Graceland’ — where much of the external sets used in Red Headed Stranger still stand. There, Nelson also explained how his vision for the film dates back as far as the album itself.
“When I was writing it I thought… ‘Good movie,’ so, I started thinking about it. It took 12 years, though, to get the movie made,” Nelson said, though he conceded that all the setbacks were just a reminder that “we’re not in control.”
Screenwriter Bill Wittliff, who also penned two Nelson-starring Westerns, Honeysuckle Rose in 1980 and Barbarosa in 1982, turned in his first draft of the script back in 1979. In addition to Redford in the starring role, Universal originally slated Red Headed Stranger for a $14 million budget. After Redford dropped out, the project moved on to HBO, who had eyed a $5 million budget project, along with Sam Peckinpah at the helm. However, The Wild Bunch director balked at the low budget and jumped ship. After Nelson and Wittliff bought back the rights to the script, they later raised $1.8 million independently to finance the film, who would also star and direct, respectively.
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