Remembering ‘Beneficent Genius’ Bill Wittliff

When I hear the great musical theme of Lonesome Dove, I am immediately grateful to Bill Wittliff because I know we wouldn’t have the deeply treasured miniseries if not for him. We would have Larry McMurtry’s novel for sure, but we would not have Wittliff’s equally brilliant adaptation of that masterwork if not for his undeterred resolve to get it done.

Bill Wittliff died on Sunday. I was, like millions of his fans around the world, and especially those in Texas, sad to see his rare intellectual light and his beneficent genius leave us. He was a man who often worked his magic behind the scenes and so many people were touched by his artistic brilliance without knowing it. He wrote the screenplays for much loved movies like Lonesome Dove, Legends of the Fall, The Perfect Storm, Raggedy Man, and for highly Texcentric films like Barborosa and Red-Headed Stranger. Some say Wittliff launched the Austin film industry.

Though Renaissance man is often overgenerous in its use, it fit Wittliff to perfection. He was a novelist, and a screenwriter, a photographer, a publisher and movie producer, a collector, an archivist, a historian and a lifelong professor who generously shared his knowledge of all things all the time. In more than a few instances over the past few years I’d fire off an email to him to ask for his insights on some obscure subject and he’d invariably surprise me with an authoritative answer within five minutes, sometimes less.

Four years ago I interviewed Bill for his new novel The Devil’s Backbone. Naturally we talked a good deal about Lonesome Dove and I want to share some of that interview because it gives us insights into the making of that masterpiece and into the mind and methods of Wittliff as well.
I first asked Bill about how long it took to produce Lonesome Dove and if he knew it would be the huge hit it turned out to be?

“For me Lonesome Dove was a solid two years,” Wittliff said. “It was a year writing the script, and then it was another year from locations and casting and all of that, to actually shooting it and then editing and the scoring – all of it – and distribution. Here’s what I did know. I knew, because I saw the dailies every morning – and I knew, you know, that what was going through the cameras was incredible stuff, incredible performances. What I didn’t know was that the audience would take to it the way they did. That I didn’t know. I knew it was going to be great and I knew it was going to be well really phenomenal. It was just incredible to watch – to sit there every day and watch Duvall and Tommy Lee and all of them deliver those lines. You simply could not be there and not know. But what I didn’t know is that the audience would take to it the way the did.”

One reason for this surprise, Bill told me, is that in 1988 there was only one thing deader than Westerns and that was the miniseries. And, he said, “we were making both.”

I was curious about his method of adapting the novel for television. I asked him how, out of this tumultuous novel of nearly 1,000 pages, he could choose what to include and what to exclude.

“Here’s what I did,” Wittliff said. “At that time I was driving a pickup. Suzanne, my partner, had someone read it on tape. We have a place on South Padre Island. It’s six hours to drive down there. So I would strike out in my pickup, which is to say you were in a closed in space. And start playing that and listening to it. You could see it. In listening to it you would say oh I don’t need that or oh that’s too close to this. Because I was driving I could kind of see a version of the movie unfold as I drove along. In six hours, as it turned out, of listening to Larry’s novel was just about one episode. So I’d drive to South Padre and when I got there I then I would start adapting that six hours, boiled down to two hours. Anyway, that’s how I did it.”

Finally, since McMurtry had written a number of screenplays himself, I asked Bill why Larry hadn’t written it himself.

“When they asked me to do it, I called Larry and I said, ‘Don’t you want to do this,’ and he said, ‘no, I’m cooked,'” Wittliff said. “Larry’s always been smart about movies and his books. I don’t know what Larry had his thumb on when he wrote it, but boy it rang all the bells. And Larry got up from the typewriter and walked off from it at least three times maybe four times. He said ‘well, no, that’s enough,’ but then he always came back. And Lonesome Dove, both Larry’s book and now the miniseries, have absolutely become a part of the American fabric. It’s just astonishing. I’ve got calls from Ireland, Europe and England, caught up in the Lonesome Dove thing as much as Americans and Texans are. It’s just been astonishing.”

You notice there how he shuns credit for his success. He was a selfless man. That is why he created the Wittliff Collections with his wife Sally at Texas State University. There you can find the papers of great Southwestern writers like McCarthy, Dobie, Graves, Cisneros and some of McMurtry’s, which will be his greatest legacy, because it provides a place and resources for young writers, and artists, and filmmakers to come and dream about works they might animate and worlds they might create.

Steve Davis the curator there, said, “Bill embodied the best of Texas — he was incredibly creative and was very generous to others — as seen in this wonderful collection that he founded, which will continue to inspire others for generations to come.”

Finally, it is only fitting that we hear from McMurtry himself. Larry sent this touching note to me just yesterday.

He wrote: “I met Bill years ago when he and his wife asked permission to publish IN A NARROW GRAVE, my first volume of essays under their singular and distinctive Encino Press. It is the most impressive of my more than fifty published volumes. He was an absolute genius photographer, as you can see from his Wittliff Collection photos. Bill skillfully adapted LONESOME DOVE into a beloved miniseries, and I know he will be deeply missed by Texans everywhere.”

Bill lived a beautiful, fun and inspirational life. I believe firmly that in thinking about his life he would agree with Gus McCrae, who said, “It’s been quite a party, ain’t it?”

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Laura Rice