It is high noon in Austin, and the atmosphere is sultry in the $275-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 casual, 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 ego 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 facelift,” says Barbara, 50. “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 from 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 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, pores 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.
Such solicitude, however, does little to calm Barbara’s anxieties. She seems shot through with a pervasive uneasiness. Yet in the full glare of the TV lights she becomes crisp, decisive and even ingratiating. She admits that on occasion even she wonders which persona is real. “Sometimes when people introduce me, they say glorious things,” she says. “They recount the interviews I’ve done and I’ll sit there thinking: Is that me? I can see how if you’re not sane, it can split you apart. Like a Marilyn Monroe who could never believe she was what she was.”
There are critics, of course, who argue that Barbara is not what she thinks she is. While some reviewers concede her virtuosity as an interviewer and admit to being captivated by the Walters specials, the New York Times’ John O’Connor has panned the shows as “stargazing, gossip and pure twaddle” and warned that “Walters threatens to become this television generation’s equivalent of Loretta Young.” Walters dismisses such broadsides as sexist gibes. “If 60 Minutes does Katharine Hepburn, isn’t it wonderful?” she observes. “But if I do it, how dare a newsperson also do movie stars?”
Under the terms of her current five-year contract, which went into effect last September, Barbara does not co-anchor or perform regular newsgathering chores for World News Tonight, but is required to provide a dozen 20/20 interviews and three specials a year for ABC. Sensitive to charges that she devotes herself exclusively to glitter and flash, Walters defends her all-star lineups as shrewd programming. “As things get more and more competitive, we have to do more and more superstars,” she says. “We’re not in a protected time period like 60 Minutes.” Even though the network keeps her air dates secret until the last possible moment, Walters believes the other networks gun for her specials with their most potent ratings weapons. “If we go on at 10, CBS or NBC starts a blockbuster movie at 9—and it’s always about a child with leukemia,” she says.
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. Nelson had twice turned her down until she cornered him at a Friars roast for Burt Reynolds last year. Now, with the hottest crossover album of his career, Always on My Mind, topping both pop and country charts, he has become the key to an audience share that Walters would not automatically attract.
Barbara readily admits that her celebrity interrogations are “gentler” than her usual interviews. “These are people 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 taping scene-setters at a local restaurant, on Willie’s private golf course and in his recording studio, Walters seems perplexed by her ultracasual 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.”
Next morning, after six hours’ sleep and a two-hour makeover, Walters arrives at Willie’s ranch 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 begins, the 28-member crew falls silent and Walters leans forward with solicitous, breathy intensity like someone consoling the dying. Willie is mystified, then amused. “Do you like yourself?” Barbara asks. Willie 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 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 better like this…. Go to my face when he says ‘I’m not complaining.’…The Nashville thing I liked. When he went there he cleaned himself up…. Now our audience is looking at him and thinking, ‘Why is he so dirty and disgusting with that bandanna and all that hair?’…Pick up my question on the next page…. Shit, it doesn’t work…. 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 image appears; Barbara is satisfied. “I look terrific,” she says lightly. “Pretty and bosomy and everything.” And her subject? “Willie Nelson looks the oldest 49 I’ve ever seen. No wonder he believes in reincarnation.” Goldberg agrees. “There’s an ancient feeling about him,” JoAnn says. “He’s an old soul.” But not so otherworldly that Barbara simply couldn’t make contact. “We had the luxury of two days in Austin instead of the normal two hours,” says JoAnn, the organizational wizard 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’re careful about who we 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’ll figure them out.”