HomeEntertainmentMusicCountry MusicWillie Nelson’s 5 Best Movie Performances Ranked

Willie Nelson’s 5 Best Movie Performances Ranked

by Craig Garrett
(L-R) Singers Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson on set of film "Songwriter."
(Photo by John Bryson/Getty Images)

Country Music legend Willie Nelson has been starring in movies since the ’70s and has built up a respectable resume, to say the least. With dozens of acting credits, it’s easy to forget that several of Nelson’s roles don’t rely on his music background, famous marijuana advocacy, or larger-than-life presence. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of Shotgun Willie’s strongest acting performances in movies over the years.

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5. The Electric Horseman

Nelson makes a solid screen debut in 1979’s The Electric Horseman. He co-starred in this comedy-drama alongside Robert Redford and Jane Fonda. Willie plays the best buddy to Redford’s rodeo champ Sonny Steele. Nelson gets to shine as something of the Greek chorus of the film. He pushes Redford’s character into action and gets to dole out sage-like advice from time to time. Though the film only has a 64% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it showcases Nelson’s comedic timing and natural acting chops.

4. Songwriter

Nelson and the Grammy-winning musician Kris Kristofferson star in 1984’s Songwriter. It’s a humorous, yet realistic movie based on Nelson’s life experiences. Part road picture, part satire on the music industry, the film doesn’t require Nelson to do a lot of heavy lifting. He’s essentially just playing a version of himself. Still, it’s impossible not to be charmed by Nelson and real-life buddy Kristofferson playing off each other. Obviously, the film also showcases a lot of great music, too. Generally, critics enjoyed this one. Though the reviews were overall modest, it managed a perfect 100% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

3. Red Headed Stranger

Red Headed Stranger showcases a darker side of Nelson’s persona. Katharine Ross and Morgan Fairchild both starred alongside Willie in Red Headed Stranger, which was inspired by Nelson’s 1975 album of the same name. Nelson stars as the repentant Rev. Julian Shay in this film, a man who had ventured to Montana to spread his teachings with his wife by his side. She left him for another suitor and was shot down by Julian’s own hand out of rage. He then embarks on a quest to reclaim redemption for what he has done.

Though the 1986 film is a slow burn, it pushes Willie outside of his comfort zone as an actor. He’s not playing the most likable of fellas, and he’s not going for laughs like most of his popular roles. One might concede this is more of an interesting movie than a traditionally good one, but there’s a lot to admire about this passion project.

2. Barbarosa

1982’s Barbarosa is another solid Western on Willie’s resume, and perhaps his strongest leading role. Just like in the Red Headed Stranger, he plays the titular character.

Set in the pre-Civil War era of Texas, Karl Westover (Gary Busey) finds himself on a desperate flight south to Mexico after killing his brother-in-law. Along his journey, he meets Nelson’s character, Barbarosa. He’s an outlaw with plenty of experience surviving against all odds while running from the law. Through their adventures they find themselves captured by another outlaw and hunted down relentlessly by Don Braulio (Gilbert Roland). The film boasts a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

1. Thief

The best Willie Nelson movie came in a film didn’t rely on his iconic status in Country Music or require him to play a tune. He’s also never seen smoking a joint or playing for laughs. It’s a somber, understated supporting role in Michael Mann’s 1981 neo-noir classic Thief that really highlights Nelson’s acting potential. Sitting with a 79% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film is a well-regarded first feature film entry in director Mann’s resume (one that includes classics such as Heat and The Insider).

Thief is only Nelson’s third major acting performance, after The Electric Horsemen and Honeysuckle Rose. Mann manages to get a heartwrenching performance out of Willie in the role of James Cann’s mentor, a terminally ill prison inmate. Though Cann is at peak swagger as a criminal vault cracker in the film, his chemistry with Nelson brings out some much-needed vulnerability. Their scenes together flow with an undercurrent of regret and unfulfilled potential. It’s a glimpse at how well Nelson’s acting abilities can shine with the right script and direction.