Bill Wittliff passes

Willie Nelson with Bill Witliff
Photo: Michael O’Brien
by: Mike Barnes

The Emmy-nominated Texan also wrote ‘The Perfect Storm,’ three films starring Willie Nelson and two toplined by Sam Shepard.

William D. Wittliff, the elegant Texas screenwriter who penned the teleplay for the acclaimed miniseries Lonesome Dove and worked on such features as Legends of the Fall, Honeysuckle Rose and The Perfect Storm, has died. He was 79.

Wittliff died Sunday in Austin of a heart attack, Hector Saldana of Texas State University told The Hollywood Reporter. In 1986, he and his wife, attorney Sally Wittliff, founded The Wittliff Collections, a research center and archive at the San Marcos school that is home to more than 500 collections of literature, photography, music and film.

Wittliff’s wonderful body of work also includes The Black Stallion (1979), starring Mickey Rooney; Raggedy Man (1981), starring Sissy Spacek, Eric Roberts and Sam Shepard; Country (1984), featuring Shepard and Jessica Lange; The Cowboy Way (1994), starring Woody Harrelson and Kiefer Sutherland; and A Night in Old Mexico (2013), starring Robert Duvall.

Wittliff co-wrote Honeysuckle Rose (1980), directed by Jerry Schatzberg and starring Willie Nelson, Dyan Cannon and Amy Irving. He then wrote two other features that starred Nelson: the Fred Schepisi-helmed Barbarosa (1982) and Red Headed Stranger (1986), which he also directed.

The four-part Lonesome Dove, based on Larry McMurtry’s 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, collected seven Emmy Awards and was a ratings smash for CBS in 1989. Wittliff earned nominations for writing and producing, two of the project’s 18 noms.

Wittliff was born in 1940 in Taft, Texas. During World War II, his mother ran a small telephone office in Gregory, Texas, and he used that as the foundation for Raggedy Man, with Spacek playing a version of his mom.

After he graduated from the University of Texas, Wittliff and his wife founded The Encino Press, an Austin-based book publishing company that specialized in tales about Texas and the Southwest, in 1964. 

He and Susan Shilliday combined for the screenplay to Edward Zwick’s Legends of the Fall (1994), starring Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins, and he adapted Sebastian Junger’s book for Wolfgang Petersen’s The Perfect Storm (2000), starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.

He also wrote Ned Blessing: The True Story of My Life, a pilot for a CBS series that starring Daniel Baldwin.

The Wittliff Collections include manuscripts from the likes of McMurtry, J. Frank Dobie and Horton Foote; more than 19,000 photographs of the Southwest and Mexico (Wittliff was an accomplished photographer in his own right); and music from Nelson, Stevie Ray Vaughan and many others. 

Wittliff and his wife had celebrated their 56th wedding anniversary Saturday, and he died after visiting their Plum Creek ranch near Luling, Texas, said Saldana, who serves as Texas music curator for The Wittliff Collections.

His survivors also include his children, William and Allison; his brother, James; and several grandchildren.

Leave a Reply