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I Saw the Light: History vs. Hollywood

Starring Tom Hiddleston, Elizabeth Olsen, Bradley Whitford | based on the book "I Saw the Light" by Colin Escott

Tom Hiddleston
Born: February 9, 1981
Westminster, London, England, UK
Hank Williams
Born: September 17, 1923
Birthplace: Mount Olive, Alabama, USA
Death: January 1, 1953, Oak Hill, West Virginia, USA (heart attack)
Elizabeth Olsen
Born: February 16, 1989
Sherman Oaks, California, USA
Audrey Williams
Born: February 28, 1923
Birthplace: Banks, Alabama, USA
Death: November 4, 1975 (heart failure)
Bradley Whitford
Born: October 10, 1959
Madison, Wisconsin, USA
Fred Rose
Born: August 24, 1898
Birthplace: Evansville, Indiana, USA
Death: December 1, 1954, Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Maddie Hasson
Born: January 4, 1995
Wilmington, North Carolina, USA
Billie Jean Jones
Born: August 12, 1933
Birthplace: Louisiana, USA
Cherry Jones
Born: November 21, 1956
Paris, Tennessee, USA
Lillie Williams
Born: August 12, 1898
Birthplace: Butler County, Alabama, USA
Death: 1955
Wrenn Schmidt
Born: 1993
Lexington, South Carolina, USA
Bobbie Jett
Birthplace: Nashville, Tennessee, USA
Josh Pais
Born: June 21, 1964
New York City, New York, USA
Dore Schary
Born: August 31, 1905
Birthplace: Newark, New Jersey, USA
Death: July 7, 1980, New York City, New York, USA
Mattie Liptak
Born: April 10, 1996
Walker, Louisiana, USA
Charles Carr
Born: abt 1934
Death: July 1, 2013
Wayne Pére
Born: November 8, 1961
Horace "Toby" Marshall
Born: March 20, 1910
Birthplace: Ishpeming, Michigan, USA
Death: September 1, 1972
Don't take life too serious, you can't get out alive anyhow. -Hank Williams

Questioning the Story:

How did Hank Williams develop an interest in music?

The I Saw the Light true story reveals that Hanks Williams' mother, Lillie Williams, was a church organist who exposed Hank to music from a young age. He began singing in church and he received his first guitar when he was roughly eight years old. Hank often credited an African-American street musician named Tee Tot (born Rufus Payne) for being his biggest musical influence. Tee Tot introduced Hank to blues and other genres that helped him to create his own unique sound. Hank's mother eventually became his de facto manager after the family moved to Montgomery in 1937 when he was 13. She opened a larger boarding house there. Hank dropped out of high school at age 16 and performed on the radio and in and out of bands. -A&E Biography

The real Hank Williams (left) was exposed to music at a young age. His mother Lillie was a church organist. Tom Hiddleston (right) portrays Williams in the I Saw the Light movie.

Did Hank really marry Audrey at a gas station?

Yes. Ten days after her divorce from her previous husband was finalized, Audrey Mae Sheppard married Hank Williams before a justice of the peace at a gas station in Andalusia, Alabama on December 15, 1944 (conveniently, the judicial officer who married them was also the gas station's owner). -Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams

Was Hank's struggle with alcohol and drugs as bad as what's seen in the movie?

Yes. The real Hank Williams' relationship with alcohol began when he was a youth during the prohibition. It intensified and became more of a problem once he started touring, playing at bars, clubs, etc. At times, bandmates refused to play with him and he was fired from his radio show for habitual drunkenness. The I Saw the Light true story confirms that his alcoholism is also part of what led to his divorce from Audrey Williams during the first half of 1952 (his philandering was another factor, along with her own). Hank's addiction to alcohol, morphine and other painkillers was partially the result of being in chronic back pain from a lifelong struggle with spina bifida occulta. The condition is what kept him from entering the military during WWII.

Does actor Tom Hiddleston do his own singing in the movie?

Yes. It is actually British actor Tom Hiddleston who is singing in the I Saw the Light movie.

Did Audrey Williams use Hank's fame to try and make a name for herself in showbusiness?

Yes. Hank guided her when she started playing bass in his band. She urged her husband to let her sing, despite her obvious lack of vocal talent. She performed a series of duets with Hank. In addition to trying to make a name for herself, Audrey also worked hard to promote her husband's career.

The real Audrey and Hank Williams (left) and their onscreen counterparts, Elizabeth Olsen and Tom Hiddleston, in the I Saw the Light movie.

Was Fred Rose Hank Williams' manager?

No. Though it is implied in the movie, while fact-checking I Saw the Light, we discovered that Fred Rose (portrayed in the film by Bradley Whitford) was not Hank Williams' manager. Along with country music star Roy Acuff, Rose was the co-founder of Acuff-Rose Music, a music publishing company that quickly found success in part because Hank Williams was a client. Rose at best acted as a mentor to Williams, guiding his songwriting.

How many times was Hank Williams married?

Like in the movie, Hank Williams was married twice. He first exchanged I dos with Audrey Mae Sheppard on December 15, 1944 (Audrey is portrayed by Elizabeth Olsen in the I Saw the Light movie). She had recently left a troubled marriage and had a young daughter named Lycrecia. Hank and Audrey had a son in 1949, Randall Hank Williams (aka Hank Williams, Jr.), but the marriage was a tumultuous one and ended in divorce in May of 1952 (Audrey had previously filed for divorce from Hank in April of 1948, citing unruly drunkenness and uncontrollable violence, but the divorce was eventually annulled after the pair reconciled). In addition to Hank's alcoholism being a factor, both he and Audrey were alleged to have had affairs behind the other's back.

Hank Williams then married Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar on October 18, 1952 when she was 19 and he was 29. It was Billie Jean's second marriage as well. The marriage was short-lived, however, as Hank died roughly two and a half months later.

Before marrying Billie Jean, Hank had been involved with a woman named Bobbie Jett, which resulted in a daughter, Jett Williams, born five days after Hank passed away.

Hank Williams died approximately two and a half months after marrying Billie Jean Jones Eshlimar.

Did Hank Williams drug use escalate after he fell and hurt his back on a hunting trip?

Yes. The true story behind I Saw the Light reveals that the fall finally forced Hank to deal with his back problems. He had surgery at Vanderbilt Medical Center on December 13, 1951 with only marginal success. Bedridden for weeks, Hank missed a New Year's Eve show. In addition to recovering from back surgery, Audrey filed for divorce on January 10, 1952. Still suffering from back pain, Hank eventually met a fraudulent doctor, Tobey Marshall, who gave Hank more and more prescription drugs, which likely contributed to the heart attack that claimed his life. -A&E Biography

Did Hank Williams star as a leading man in an MGM movie?

No. In the I Saw the Light movie, we see Hank Williams and Fred Rose sit down with MGM President Dore Schary (Josh Pais), who offers Hank a leading role in a movie. We are never told whether the movie was made or not. A little research into the I Saw the Light true story reveals that the project never went forward.

Was Hank Williams fired from the Grand Ole Opry?

Reportedly, Hank missed an important August 9, 1952 Opry broadcast. His personal problems, especially his alcoholism, were spilling over into his performing. It is uncertain whether Hank was fired, quit, or forced into long-term exile until he could get his life together. Regardless, he left Nashville and returned to Shreveport where he got his old job back on the Louisiana Hayride broadcast. -A&E Biography

Why doesn't the movie explain how Hank Williams died?

Due to the amount of uncertainty surrounding Hank Williams death, director and screenwriter Marc Abraham chose to avoid addressing it. "No matter which account you pick, there are going to be people who say, 'That's not how it happened,'" says Jack Neely, director of the Knoxville History Project. Williams died on New Years Day 1953, just six years into his recording career.

The night before, on New Year's Eve 1952, he had been given a shot of morphine and B12 by the hotel doctor at the Andrew Johnson Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee. Williams had suffered from a nagging back problem that stemmed from a lifelong battle with spina bifida occulta. His regular doctor, who allegedly had purchased a fake medical diploma, was rumored to routinely overprescribe medications. This, coupled with the fact that Williams' young driver, a college student named Charles Carr, may have taken him to a local hospital for another shot of morphine in the morning, could have led to a drug overdose. This would explain heart failure, which is what is listed as Hank Williams' cause of death. However, contusions on Williams' body revealed that he had recently been in a fight, raising questions of foul play.

While driving to a New Year's Day show in Canton, Ohio, Charles Carr eventually realized that his passenger was dead. Rigor mortis had already set in, suggesting that Williams may have died at the hotel in Knoxville and was carried to the car by hotel porters who believed that he was simply unconscious. Colin Escott suggests this theory in his book I Saw the Light, which provides the basis for the movie.

The death of the real Hank Williams (left) has been shrouded in controversy, something the I Saw the Light movie (right) chose not to explore.

What does Hank Williams' family think of the movie?

While fact-checking I Saw the Light, we learned that Hank Williams' relatives have varying opinions on the movie. One of the most vocal has been his grandson, Hank Williams III, who was upset that the part went to a British actor. In 2014, he told Fox411, "The way it should be done you need certain aspects in the mix to make right... [The actor] needs to be [an] American from the South who has eat [sic], lived, and breathed these kinds of roles before." He went on to suggest that Matthew McConaughey would have been a better choice and later suggested Clint Eastwood as the director (Facebook).

Hank Williams' granddaughter, Holly Williams, was more supportive of the film and the idea of actor Tom Hiddleston playing her grandfather. After seeing the movie, she told Rolling Stone, "I'm personally very happy with it." She admits that she was initially worried as to whether Tom Hiddleston, a London-born actor, could effectively capture her Alabama-born grandfather. "Tom really put his whole heart and soul into it. He worked so hard to embody everything about Hank, all of his nuances and who Hank really was."

What happened to Audrey Williams after Hank died?

In exploring the I Saw the Light true story, we learned that Audrey never remarried. She too had problems with drugs and alcohol and became estranged from their son, Hank Jr., after he graduated from high school. Substance abuse coupled with her out-of-control emotions made it hard for others to work with her. In her later years, she attempted suicide and was plagued by financial problems. Years of substance abuse contributed to heart failure, which claimed her life on November 4, 1975 at the age of 52.

Hank Williams and his wife Audrey share an embrace (left). Elizabeth Olsen and Tom Hiddleston recreate a similar moment in the movie.

Hank Williams, Sr. Interviews & Related Music Videos

Watch the Hank Williams videos below that include Hank Williams music videos, live performances, and a rare radio interview.

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