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30 Years Ago: Willie Nelson’s ‘Red Headed Stranger’ Film Premieres

Thirty years ago today, on Feb. 19, 1987, Willie Nelson‘s Red Headed Stranger film premiered in Austin, Texas. The movie, which also starred Morgan Fairchild and Katharine Ross, was based on Nelson’s 1975 album of the same name.

In Red Headed Stranger, Nelson plays Rev. Julian Shay, who travels to Montana to  preach, along with his wife, Raysha Shay (played by Fairchild). When his wife leaves him for another man, Julian Shay guns her down … and then tries to find redemption for his actions.

William D. Wittliff wrote and directed Red Headed Stranger; he also co-produced the project with Nelson. (The two men had previously worked together on the films Honeysuckle Rose and Barbarosa, both starring Nelson.) Wittliff’s first draft of the movie was finished almost 10 years earlier, and Universal Studios expressed interest in the film — but they wanted seasoned actor Robert Redford to play Nelson’s character instead. When Redford turned the role down, Nelson and Wittliff returned their advances to regain the rights to make the film their way.

HBO also expressed interest in the movie, but when Red Headed Stranger‘s original director, Sam Peckinpah (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Wild Bunch), left the project due to budget constraints, Nelson and Wittliff bankrolled the film themselves. Most of the production, which took two months, occurred on Nelson’s Luck, Texas, ranch and in other areas in central Texas.

Nelson starred in another Western, a made-for-TV movie called Stagecoach, in 1986. The country icon appeared in that film alongside Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and David Allan Coe, among others.

Red Headed Stranger is available for purchase on Amazon.

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