Sam Rockwell in Talks to Star in Merle Haggard Biopic — and Do His Own Singing

     July 27, 2020

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Sam Rockwell is in talks to star in a biopic of country singer Merle Haggard that would also find the Oscar-winning actor doing his own singing.

Amazon Studios just acquired the package, which finds Robin Bissell directing from a script he’s co-writing with Theresa Haggard, Merle’s widow. The two of them will also produce the film, which will be based on Merle Haggard’s memoir Sing Me Back Home — also the title of one of his biggest hits.

Deadline broke the news, reporting that the story will be set in the ’60s and will focus heavily on Merle’s complicated love affair with his singing partner Bonnie Owens, who later became his wife. The old-fashioned project feels like a better fit under Amazon’s former strategy, as it doesn’t strike me as terribly commercial, though I may be underestimating the number of country music fans willing to pay to see Haggard’s life unfold on the big screen.

Before going on to a long and storied music career, Haggard had a rough childhood growing up in Bakersfield, California. His father died when he was nine years ago and he was largely left to his own devices, which led to him acting out by skipping school, stealing cars, and engaging in petty theft.

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Image via Samuel Goldwyn Films

After escaping from more than a dozen juvenile facilities, Haggard was sent to San Quentin State Prison when he reached adult age, and it was there where he watched Johnny Cash‘s first prison performance, which became a life-changing moment for Haggard, who spent the rest of his days trying to become a better man. He even owned up to his criminal past on Cash’s TV show in 1969. Three years later, he was officially pardoned by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, while Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke took one of Haggard’s albums with him to the moon.

With nine #1 hits to his name and dozens of other popular songs, Haggard is considered “the single most influential singer-songwriter in country music history” by the Country Music Hall of Fame, while Kris Kristofferson once called him “the greatest artist in American music history.”

Rockwell and Bissell recently worked together on the civil rights drama The Best of Enemies, in which the actor played KKK leader C.P. Ellis. Rockwell won an Oscar for playing a racist cop in Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and he’s also coming off two of last year’s best films — Jojo Rabbit and Richard Jewell. He’s widely expected to earn an Emmy nomination on Tuesday morning for his turn as Bob Fosse in FX’s Fosse/Verdon.

Music biopics are growing in popularity of late, and it’s encouraging to hear that Rockwell will be doing his own singing in this film, unlike Rami Malek in his Oscar-winning turn as Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. Then again, who can blame him for deferring to the real deal? After all, there was only one voice like Freddie’s! That sentence reminds me… Rockwell voices the titular gorilla in The One and Only Ivan, which will debut on Disney+ on Aug. 14. To watch the latest trailer for that family film, click here.

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