"I never look at myself as an actor," the country legend said Saturday. "I react a lot"
On Saturday, Willie Nelson hosted an outdoor screening of his 1986 Western, Red Headed Stranger, shown in the original old west town of Luck, Texas — where the film was shot and where the country legend and his family live today.
“Glad to have y’all out here,” Nelson said, greeting the crowd of 400 who had come out for a special screening organized by Alamo Drafthouse’s Rolling Roadshow and Luck Productions of the first-ever digital showing, and recently resurfaced classic, directed and written by Bill Wittliff and based on Nelson’s critically and commercially acclaimed 1975 concept album of the same name. Nelson, now 86, played the title character, the red-headed stranger, a preacher turned outlaw — although originally the part was sent to Robert Redford who passed. Nelson told it a little differently, quipping, “Redford chickened out.”
Luck, Texas could be considered Nelson’s own Graceland where he quietly spends most of his time these days with generations of family close by. There are 75 rescue horses and a golf course, “over there if I feel like swinging hard and missing,” Nelson joked. “There’s a lot to do out here.”
The Old West town with a church, saloon, and clubhouse where Nelson likes to play poker and dominoes with friends was built 35 years ago for the filming of Red Headed Stranger. Originally the script called for the buildings to be burned down, but Nelson took a shine to the town, which has been restored and added to over the years, and even built his own home further up the winding dirt road.
Not many kids who grew up obsessed with Westerns can claim to have their own Western town. But Nelson, a native Texan from the small town of Abbott, can. He explained his love of the Western and how it’s part of him, (so much so that his faithful classical acoustic guitar is named Trigger and his musician son Lukas Nelson‘s middle name is Autry.)
“I grew up with Gene [Autry] and Roy [Rogers] and all those guys and I felt like I was a singing cowboy before I could sing or ride a horse,” Nelson said. “But I acted like I could!”
Does the outlaw country icon like acting? He has, after all, starred in over 25 films throughout his long career. “I never look at myself as an actor,” he said Saturday. “I react a lot.”
Nelson’s daughter, Lana Nelson, wardrobe designer for the film, described the shoot as very hard, with 20-hour days, but said that her father was “the hardest working guy on the project. He puts in the most hours, the most worry, the most energy. So everybody else’s just got to do it too, because if he’s doing it, we’ve got to do it. And all for people that love him, ’cause he loves them too.”
Even with a grueling schedule in 110-degree heat, there was downtime on Nelson’s tour bus, where invited cast and crew would gather to smoke weed. Actor Sonny Carl Davis revealed he was called out by director Wittliff because he was smiling way too much during his impending death scene. “He takes me aside and says, ‘You’ve been on the bus, haven’t you?’ ‘Well don’t look so happy, you’re getting thrown in jail!”
Even though Nelson had a hard time hearing some of the questions posed post-film screening, he had no trouble making out the loud applause from the audience or fans yelling, “I love you Willie.” When Nelson was asked if he was in this for the applause, he gleefully replied, ”Oh hell yes. I live off of it.”