On This Day: Willie Nelson Western ‘Red Headed Stranger’ Premieres in 1987

by Emily Morgan

On this day, 34-years-ago, country music, and Western fans would join forces when Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger film premiered in Austin, Texas.

On Feb. 19, 1987, the Western, which starred Nelson alongside Morgan Fairchild and Katharine Ross, was based on Nelson’s 1975 album of the same name.

In the film, 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, Willie Nelson’s character guns her down and then tries to find redemption for his heinous act.

The studio initially asked Robert Redford to play the Red Headed Stranger, even though Nelson had envisioned the role for himself. After two years, Redford turned down the role and casting booked Nelson for the part. 

Willie Nelson Appropriately Dubs Western Set ‘Willieville’

On Apr. 29, 1985, Red Headed Stranger began production. The main set, a western town appropriately named “Willieville,” was built for two years across the road from Willie Nelson’s golf course, thirty miles west of Austin, Texas. 

While the production crew shot most of the scenes in “Willieville,” they also used nine other locations around Texas. Two months later, on Jun. 14, 1985, production wrapped.

William D. Wittliff wrote and directed Red Headed Stranger and co-produced the project with Willie Nelson. They previously worked together on other Nelson westerns such as Honeysuckle Rose and Barbarosa.

HBO also expressed interest in the movie, but when Red Headed Stranger’s original director, Sam Peckinpah, left the film due to budget concerns, Nelson and Wittliff paid for the film with their own money.

The film debuted at the Denver International Film Festival in October 1985. The response from critics called the Western “mediocre” and “dull” as well “an insipid story.” 

Despite the initial criticism, when the film opened in Nelson and Wittliff’s home state of Texas, it received a much warmer welcome. 

The movie then had a national release in cities such as Seattle, Washington, and Philadelphia.

In 1986, Nelson starred in another Western, a made-for-TV movie called Stagecoach. The country legend appeared in the film alongside friends Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, and David Allan Coe.