May 10, 2023–(NOTE: Joining the scrum of fans telling their connection to Willie Nelson on his 90th birthday, I’m resharing the story of the time he came to the Texas Hill Country to film a movie.)
I was perched on the low limb of a live oak tree. The sun was beginning to set behind me, casting long shadows over the sparse hill country brush. There was no sound, except for the cautious approach of footsteps on dry grass. A cedar limb moved slightly. Out stepped Willie Nelson, dressed in boots, leather chaps and vest, and wide brimmed sombrero. I knew it was Willie by his full red beard.
Barbarosa, I hissed between clenched teeth. I leveled the pistol through the leaves, sighting directly at the outlaw’s heart.
The action stopped. Willie leaned back and smiled.
“Thanks, Phil,” the director said. “Okay, Danny, we are ready for you.”
A crew member brought in a stepladder, and I climbed down from my perch. Danny De La Paz, the young actor who played Eduardo, walked over from behind the cameras and took my place. I sat in my folding chair and watched for the next hour as they shot and reshot the scene of “Eduardo” shooting Willie Nelson.
The year was 1980. I was passing through this cute little town of Fredericksburg, planning to play drums for a few weeks with my old friend Bill Smallwood. Around Thanksgiving the word went out that Willie Nelson would be in the area filming a new movie called Barbarosa, and they were looking for extras.
(Plot synopsis: Willie Nelson played a legendary outlaw, with Gary Busey as a young farmer who joins him, and both are on the run from a border family bent on revenge. Screenwriter was William Wittliff, who later worked on some obscure movies called Lonesome Dove and The Perfect Storm.)
Young, single, and with absolutely no direction in life, I headed out Tivydale Road along with half the residents of Gillespie County to be in a movie.
For several days I stood in horse pens and pretended to buy livestock as Willie and Busey rode past over and over. I was an earnest actor, frowning, scratching my chin, and engaging in auction banter with the other amateur actors. (Turned out my acting was unnecessary, as not a bit of it appeared on screen.)
On what I thought was my final day of shooting, I was waiting to board the bus back to town. Smallwood caught me and said, “Hey, Phil… I overheard the director saying they were looking for a stand-in for Eduardo. You kinda look like him. Why don’t you go over and talk to them?”
I had no idea what a stand-in was or what a stand-in did, but, being young, single, and with absolutely no direction in life, I tacked over to a group of people talking off to the side. I tapped a young man on the shoulder and announced, “I understand you are looking for a stand-in?”
The actor turned and slowly looked me up and down. I did the same to him. It was like Lucy and Harpo doing their “mirror” routine. Then he said to the director, “Fred, I think we’ve found him.”
I was a dead ringer for De La Paz at the time. Same height, same build. We even had the same color curly hair and we both wore thin beards. He was supposed to be from Mexico, but I spoke as much Spanish as he did.
“Can you ride a horse?” the director asked.
“Sí,” I said.
“Be here at 6:00 tomorrow morning,” he said.
Next week, I’ll tell you what a stand-in does.
And how Willie repaid me for shooting him.