(from left) Lawrence Wright with the late Bill Wittliff and his wife Sally Wittliff in February 2018.
(from left) Lawrence Wright with the late Bill Wittliff and his wife Sally Wittliff in February 2018. Credit: FlickrCC / LBJ Library

Bill Wittliff, the writer known for the acclaimed 1980s miniseries “Lonesome Dove” and feature films such as “The Perfect Storm” and “Legends of the Fall,” died Sunday. He was 79.

A lifelong Texan, Wittliff was born in Taft in 1940 and went to Blanco High School. He attended The University of Texas at Austin and graduated with a journalism degree. He went on to work as a business and production manager at Southern Methodist University Press, and founded Encino Press in 1964. The publishing house issued its last book in 1981, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

Wittliff continued to work with the written word and wrote for 15 different film and TV projects, according to his IMDb page. He produced many of those projects, acted in two, and directed one: “Red Headed Stranger,” a movie inspired by and starring Willie Nelson. Wittliff also became an accomplished photographer, and his work has been printed in many publications.

Wittliff debuted his first novel in 2014. The Devil’s Backbone is set in 1880s Central Texas and follows a young boy named Papa who searches for his mother after she left to escape his father. It is the first of the “Papa’s Tales” trilogy; the final installment was published last October.

Wittliff told the Rivard Report in 2014 that he let himself sink into the creative writing process while working on The Devil’s Backbone. As a screenwriter, he could not be self-indulgent when crafting a story, he said.

“I’ve spent a number of years writing movies. The problem with movies is you can’t make a movie by yourself – there are too many fingers in the plot,” he said. “If I had written this book as a movie, there would have been executives making decisions, but I’m one of the luckiest people in movies. I’ve never lived in L.A. but I’ve been able to get a number of things made, and I’ve done very well.”

His wife Sally told the Austin American-Statesman about Wittliff’s stubborn nature. The author refused to take typing lessons while studying at UT–Austin, she said.

“He walked around with his arm in a sling for a year, so he didn’t have to learn typing,” she said. “He never did learn. He wrote everything by illegible hand.”

Bill WittLiff. Photo by Ted Albracht.
Bill Wittliff Credit: Courtesy / Ted Albracht

Wittliff and his wife Sally founded an archive of work from Texas and the Southwestern U.S. at Texas State University in 1986. The Wittliff Collections includes more than 500 special collections of literature, photography, music, and film. Texas State President Denise Trauth said Monday that the archive serves as a tribute to Wittliff’s legacy.

“Bill was a gifted writer, filmmaker, photographer, artist, and visionary,” Trauth said in a letter. “He was an inspiration to all who knew him, but particularly to our students. During special programs at The Wittliff attended by hundreds of people of all ages, Bill could usually be found in the corner of the room surrounded by students as he patiently answered questions about the creative process.”

Hector Saldaña works as the music curator for The Wittliff Collections. He saw Wittliff last Tuesday, when Wittliff came to Texas State University to meet with some publishers about an upcoming book series about his photography. The Wittliff Collections is currently expanding its footprint, and Wittliff toured the area under construction.

“By coincidence … the space was clear,” Saldaña said. “You could envision what it was going to look like. He was just very happy that day. At one point, there were some folding chairs the workers had left there and he just sat there and soaked it in. He was a dreamer, and he got to see part of a dream that he and his wife Sally started together in 1986. I keep going back to that moment. Bill got to see it, taste it a little.”

Saldaña said he would watch over the collection in the same joyful manner that its namesake brought to his work. Wittliff never micromanaged, but worked closely with the collection staff with good humor and lots of energy, Saldaña said.

“He spent those last days doing what he loved – planning for the future at The Witliff,” Saldaña said. “And Saturday was the 56th anniversary for him and Sally. On Sunday, they spent some of the day out on their ranch near Luling – that’s where he did a lot of his photographs. That’s how they spent some of the day.”

Wittliff died of a heart attack later that Sunday.

Pulitzer Prize winner and bestselling author Lawrence Wright said the way Wittliff lived his life was an inspiration.

“As an artist, he had total integrity and would never compromise his vision,” Wright said in an email. “But as a citizen, he was the great appreciator. He rejoiced in the talents of his peers, and even built a shrine—the Wittliff Collections—to their achievements. His contributions to Texas are mighty. But to his friends, the loss of his companionship is irreplaceable. God, we loved him.”

Wittliff told the Rivard Report in 2014 that he and his wife hope the collection will continue for generations, “long after we’re gone.”

“The collection is hugely inspirational to young writers,” he said. “They can go there and see it doesn’t just pour directly from God – you have to sit there and scratch out words.

“A lot of it is just work and being able to endure. If you have the manuscripts and you can see the moment when John Graves or Cormac McCarthy finds just the right word — that’s the thing I’m most proud of.”

Wittliff is survived by his wife Sally, his older brother James, children Reed and Allison, and four grandchildren. Memorial details have yet to be finalized.

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Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.