EXCLUSIVE: Amazon Studios has acquired a package for a film biopic of iconic C&W singer Merle Haggard. Oscar-winning actor Sam Rockwell is circling to play Haggard, and he will do his own singing of Haggard’s standards, recorded during the ‘60s when the picture is set.
Robin Bissell will direct the film, and he will write the script with Merle’s widow, Theresa Haggard, based on the Haggard memoir Sing Me Back Home. Bissell and Haggard will produce the film together.
Pic will be a reunion for Bissell and Rockwell, latter of whom starred with Taraji P. Henson in the 2019 Bissell-directed drama The Best of Enemies, about the face off between civil rights activist Ann Atwater against C.P. Ellis, Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan, in 1971 Durham, North Carolina over the issue of school integration.
Haggard had a long and storied career, but the film will focus on his tumultuous rise from inmate who served three years at San Quentin – where he was among the prisoners who watched the first prison performance of Johnny Cash in a life changing moment – to the clubs in Bakersfield hometown, to Capitol Records in Los Angeles to becoming what Kris Kristofferson called “The greatest artist in American music history” and what the Country Music Hall of Fame calls “The single most influential singer-songwriter in country music history.”
Haggard had a rough upbringing, losing his beloved dad when he died of a stroke while the youth was nine. His mother, Flossie, went to work and left Merle to his own devices in Bakersfield, and by 13 he was a truant who began hopping freight trains to New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma, stealing cars and engaging in petty theft. After racking up a string of arrests. He escaped 17 times from California juvenile facilities as a teen and that stat got him sent to notorious San Quentin as soon as he reached adult age.
The movie covers his subsequent struggle to escape that past to become a better man and legendary artist. Ashamed of his past, Haggard hid his ex-con status from all but those closest to him until finally coming clean on Johnny Cash’s TV show in 1969. The story also focuses heavily on Merle’s complicated love affair, which played out on-stage and off, with singer Bonnie Owens – his singing partner and eventual wife.
Once Haggard figured it all out, he became a symbol of the power of rehabilitation: from 1966-1970, Merle had 9 number one hits, and would record 38 number one tunes overall and 71 in the top ten. His biggest hits included Okie From Muskogee, The Fightin’ Side Of Me, Sing Me Back Home, The Fugitive, Workin’ Man Blues, Mama Tried and Today I Started Loving You Again, to name only a few. He won seven CMA awards including Entertainer of The Year in 1970. Haggard in 1972 was pardoned by Governor Ronald Reagan, and astronaut Charlie Duke took his Merle Haggard tape to the moon on Apollo 16.
Rockwell, who won the Oscar for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, is repped by Gersh and Untitled; Bissell is repped by UTA, Brillstein Partners and attorney Carlos Goodman; Haggard and the estate are repped by UTA and attorney Rayburn Green at Kuta Rock LLP, who was Merle’s attorney for the latter part of his career.