Barbara Walters, one of the first female television news anchors and a true trailblazer in television, has passed away at 93 years old.
Barbara was known for her commanding presence and no-nonsense school of thought, but in 1982 she became known as one of the only hosts who scored a sit-down interview with elusive country star, Willie Nelson.
The interview was one that Willie had turned down on several occasions – a mega celebrity of his own right, he didn’t need the press that an exclusive interview with Barbara would bring, and according to People Magazine who tracked the meet up between the two, it was only due to her cornering him at a Burt Reynolds’ event they both attended that he finally agreed.
The popular news anchor later admitted that these types of “celebrity interrogations” were gentler than her usual interviews:
“These are people, like Nelson, who are doing me a favor. They’re superstars who don’t need this publicity.”
And maybe it’s because of this dynamic that Willie Nelson showed up for his sit down in none other than running shorts, a t-shirt, and a bandana pushing back his long hair. The kind of apparel that all Willie Nelson fans had come to expect and appreciate, and the exact opposite of the three hours Barbara spent in hair and makeup in preparation for their meeting.
But Barbara was nervous about the interview, a shocking admission for someone who did hundreds of similar Q & As in her full-time career:
“Willie’s a tough one, he’s not a talker. But I’ve got 90 questions, and if I can get eight minutes out of him, I’m okay.”
Scoring an interview with Willie Nelson in the height of his fame was no small task, especially considering his reluctancy to partake in any type of interview exclusives at all.
In 1983, Dave Letterman inquired about Barbara’s tactics in getting a Willie Nelson interview. He even shared that his own show had contacted Willie several times, with no affirmative response:
“On April 26th, we contacted Willie Nelson, again on May 5th and May 6th, we then wrote to him on March 16th and April 28th, and we can’t Willie on the show…”
Barbara giggled and encouraged Dave to be persistent before again sharing some of her thoughts on Outlaw Willie Nelson, even admitting that he’d made her a country fan:
“Willie Nelson we were worried about when we finally did it, because he does so few, and we had heard that he was very monosyllabic, and I didn’t know that much about country music, although I’m a big Willie Nelson fan now. And I was afraid that he just wouldn’t open up. But he did and he was terrific.
Part of it I think is that we went down to his ranch in Texas, where he has his own golf course, just for him. His own country club, just for him… It’s a marvelous place that’s his haven.”
Barbara’s hard-earned interview with Willie was surprisingly calm and easy, much different than her regular interview tactics. She asked Willie basic questions like, “does he like himself? Would he consider himself serene? What is the attention of lady fans like?” all of which he answered matter-of-factly.
She wrapped with a lackluster clincher, “If you had three wishes what would you do with them?”
After she wrapped the interview, Willie jokingly said, “Now let’s burn one down,” referencing an earlier comment made by Barbara that she’d never smoked marijuana, versus Willie’s famous fondness for the substance.
She later told the crew that Willie had mentioned stopping the use of marijuana after his lung collapsed the previous August, but he did offer to try one with her if she ever changed her mind.
Willie recalled the moment a bit differently in future interviews sharing:
“Barbara told me she’s never tried grass, but she said she would with me.”
Willie marveled that the interview with Barbara was surprisingly easy and pleasant, and that he figured she would ask more tough questions than she did particularly about his controversial drug usage. But Barbara kept most of that talk off-camera.
Later in the film editing process, Barbara commented that Willie Nelson was an old soul.
In her TV special, Barbara mixed in clips from The Willie Nelson Show and a clip of him from a live performance, as well as him singing the National Anthem for the 1980 Democratic National Convention.
She chose to personify Willie as the “outlaw turned hero” and an activist. After only two days with him, she left his ranch saying she was impressed with Willie although the actually the film offered little out of the norm.
In her sit down with Dave Letterman the next year she shared of Willie:
“I liked him a lot. We got along very well. We had a nice relationship… He’s a nice, mellow, sweet, good man, and I think it shows.”