Four Hank Williams biopics have chronicled chapters from the meteoric rise and tragic death of a foundational figure in the development of American popular music-- much less a genre-defining country singer.
The oldest and most recent movies on our list brought star power and Hollywood sheen, with two lesser-known yet superior efforts made in between. By no stretch has an actor portraying Williams pulled off a performance on par with Sissy Spacek's Oscar-winning turn as Loretta Lynn. Though to be fair, the weakest Williams films' shortcomings have more to do with their script than their star.
Read on for brief rundowns of each actor to portray Williams.
George Hamilton -- Your Cheatin' Heart (MGM, 1964)
The original Williams biopic starred heartthrob and Tennessee native Hamilton (not to be confused with '50s teen idol turned '60s country hitmaker George Hamilton IV).
What became MGM's final black-and-white musical film fails for the same reason as the more recent I Saw the Light. Both lean so heavily into Williams' drinking problem and erratic behavior that they turn him into a one-dimensional character with zero redeeming qualities. You come away understanding why the Grand Ole Opry fired Williams in 1952 without grasping why the Opry and a similar radio show, the Louisiana Hayride, coveted his services in the first place. Nor do you learn much about a Pulitzer Prize-winning lyricist's creative process.
However, Hamilton's charm shines through as he does his best with a script that's riddled with historic inaccuracies, beginning with an over-the-top scene during which musical mentor Rufus Payne (Tee-Tot) dies in the arms of pre-teen Williams (played by Donald Losby). Instead, Payne died on March 17, 1939 at a charity hospital in Montgomery, Ala.
The film falls short despite Williams family involvement. Williams' first wife, the former Audrey Sheppard (played here by Andy Griffith Show, Bonanza and Rawhide extra Susan Oliver), had creative input on a script by Stanford Whitmore. In addition, Hamilton lip-synched to versions of "Long Gone Lonesome Blues", "I Can't Help It," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Hey, Good Lookin'" and other classics sung by Hank Williams Jr.
Sneezy Waters -- Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave (Simcom Limited/ Film Consortium Of Canada, 1980)
Canadian singer-songwriter Sneezy Waters sings 23 different Williams songs in what's the best and most obscure movie about the country music legend.
The low-budget television film follows the same story as the Waters-starring play of the same title. During the final car ride of his life, Williams daydreams about the intimate show at a roadside bar he'd rather play than his scheduled theater gig in Ohio.
It's the best musical representation of Williams in any film, and the script rightfully paints him as a complicated figure who wrestled with faith, family, fame, addiction and chronic pain.
Fun aside: young Jim Carrey appears frequently during concert footage as an uncredited extra.
Henry Thomas -- The Last Ride (Mozark Productions, 2011)
Elliott from E.T. grew up to play a country great in a film with way more heart than bigger-budget tellings of Williams' life story.
In The Last Ride, Williams goes by the aliases Mr. Wells and Luke while being driven during the final hours of his life by a teenager from Alabama. The driver (played by Jesse James) and his new boss slowly bond without the youngster having a clue that he was chauffeuring around a generational talent.
Like Your Cheatin' Heart, The Last Ride's soundtrack spotlights one of Williams' children. In this case, it's his daughter Jett Williams, whose birth just five days after her father's death gets referenced in the film.
The Last Ride also stars Kaley Cuoco and former Tennessee senator and presidential hopeful Fred Thompson.
Tom Hiddleston -- I Saw The Light (Sony Pictures Classics, 2015)
Despite being inspired by the crucial research of Colin Escott, George Merritt and William MacEwen (Hank Williams: The Biography), I Saw The Light paints a limited and bleak image of its subject.
Issues with writer, producer and director Marc Abraham's vision aside, Hiddleston -- a British actor synonymous with the character Loki from the Thor and Avengers movies-- delivered a solid performance alongside fellow Marvel Cinematic Universe fixture Elizabeth Olsen. Hiddleston took the role serious enough to handle his own singing (with pro tips from Rodney Crowell), so he at least deserves an A for effort.
Beyond its marquee stars, I Saw The Light features Bradley Whitford as Acuff-Rose co-owner and Nashville, Tenn. tastemaker Fred Rose; David Krumholtz as New York journalist James Dolan; Cherry Jones as Williams' mother, Lillie Skipper Williams; Wrenn Schmidt as Jett Williams' mother, Bobbie Jett; and Maddie Hasson as Williams' second wife, Billie Jean.
The film garnered negative reviews by the likes of Rolling Stone and scathing criticisms from third generation country singer Hank Williams III. Worse yet, it flopped at the box office, earning only $1.7 million worldwide despite a $13 million budget.
READ MORE: 3 Genre-Blending Highlights From ZZ Top and Brooks & Dunn's 2002 'CMT Crossroads' Special
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