In Memoriam: Bill Wittliff

Legendary writer/photographer/collector/benefactor dead at 79

A giant of Austin's film, literary, and art scenes, and a proud son of the Lone Star State who seemed to devote as much energy to preserving its culture as writing about it, is gone. One day after celebrating his 56th wedding anniversary with his wife Sally, William Wittliff – oh, let's just call him "Bill" – suffered a heart attack and died. He was 79.

Bill Wittliff and his dog Chica in 2014 (Photo by Joe O'Connell)

Where do you start in talking about Wittliff?

Most people would go to the screenplays, especially his epic adaptation of Larry McMurtry's epic Lonesome Dove. In that, he did as fine a job of transfering the character and sweep of that Western novel as anyone could have. And that achievement shares a shelf with his memorable screenplays for The Black Stallion, The Perfect Storm, Legends of the Fall, Raggedy Man, Red Headed Stranger, Honeysuckle Rose, Country, Barbarosa, and A Night in Old Mexico.

Of course, Wittliff didn't write just for the screen. In the last decade of his life, he turned out a trio of Western novels featuring a boy named Papa, and those books – The Devil's Backbone, The Devil's Sinkhole, and The Devil's Fork – are one helluva yarn after another, incorporating loads of Lone Star locales and legends, and proving equally satisfying to fans of Elmer Kelton, J. Frank Dobie, and Mark Twain.

But then, long before he was writing books, Wittliff was publishing them. He was the ripe old age of 24 when he and Sally used Bill's poker winnings to found the Encino Press on the kitchen table of their apartment in Dallas. The idea: an independent imprint focused on Texas and the Southwest. Over the next two decades (after a move back to Austin), Wittliff would publish (and often design) books by such luminaries as Dobie, McMurtry, John Graves, Bud Shrake, and Mary Faulk Koock, and on subjects as varied as military history during the years Texas was a Republic, family recipes, the ethics of cowboys, Portugese bullfighting, and Arturo Toscanini's tour of Texas in 1950. The quality and care of the press' publications earned it some 100 awards.

But just around the time that Bill and Sally were winding down Encino, they established a new way to promote and celebrate writers from their home state and region: the Southwestern Writers Collection, housed at Texas State University in San Marcos. Wittliff had chanced upon about 30 boxes of materials belonging to J. Frank Dobie, and he felt that could be the cornerstone for an archive of work by writers in the Southwest. With the connections he and Sally had made during the Encino years, they began pulling writers of note into their collection and acquiring important books, like one of the 20 remaining volumes by Cabeza de Vaca relating his adventures after being shipwrecked on Galveston Island in 1528. Now, the collection holds the archives of 100 writers from Sam Shepard to Sandra Cisneros, Katherine Anne Porter to Cormac McCathy. In time, that expanded to include screenplays (600 and counting) and production archives for film and television works such as King of the Hill and, naturally, Lonesome Dove.

Bill and Sally Wittliff on the red carpet during the Austin Film Society's 15th Annual Texas Film Awards in 2015 (Photo by Gary Miller)

But with Wittliff, the work doesn't stop with the written word. There's all the photography to consider – his own, to start with. He began to take a real interest in cameras in the late Sixties and put them to serious use documenting vaqueros as they worked cattle and horses on El Rancho Tule in northern Mexico. In the late Eighties, he kept cameras with him throughout the filming of Lonesome Dove and produced outstanding images, many of which were collected into two books. Wittliff continued to photograph Hispanic culture in Mexico, Texas, and New Mexico, and his fascination with pinhole cameras – or "light swallowers," as he liked to call these lensless cameras – allowed him to create images with an otherworldly, mystical beauty. They were captivating enough to earn him exhibitions in galleries across the U.S. and in Japan and Mexico, where he also showed at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.

And as with writing, he was as much of a collector as he was a practitioner. Starting with a Manuel Álvarez Bravo print in 1971, Wittliff assembled an exceptional collection of images that, on the 10th anniversary of the Southwestern Writers Collection, became the Southwestern and Mexican Photography Collection. That archive now boasts 19,000 images ranging from art photography to photojournalism and includes the holdings of such important photographers as Graciela Iturbide, Mariana Yampolsky, Russell Lee, Edward Curtis, Kate Breakey, and Keith Carter. It was Carter who, at the inaugural exhibition of the Photography Collection at Texas State, said that Wittliff has "that vision thing," referring to his gift for choosing photographs and willingness to share his passion with the community.

"That vision thing" may well be the quality that ties all of these aspects of Wittliff's life – screenwriter, novelist, photographer, collector, archivist – together and that also explains why so many people circled around him for inspiration, for mentorship, for friendship. He had a sense of the Big Picture: in what made for compelling drama, in what made for a good yarn, in what was valuable from the past, in what needed to be preserved for the future, in what makes a community, in what makes Texas.

In a 1999 feature on local screenwriters, Jesse Sublett wrote: "Shrake and Wittliff proved it was possible to park your typewriter here, keep writing your scripts, and not starve. So many of the films that helped put Austin on the map – Barbarosa, Red Headed Stranger, Raggedy Man, and the monumental miniseries Lonesome Dove – were written by Bill Wittliff. It's hard not to give the man too much credit, much less a full measure of jaw-dropping awe at his incredible gifts."

In the same feature, the man himself said, "I've been very lucky all the way through, from the very first moment. I never had to go through all the rat shit that most writers have to go through, like looking for an agent, and all that other business. And I've always been able to stay here. Twenty-five years ago everybody you talked to out there said you can't live in Austin, Texas and write movies that are gonna be made in Hollywood. And that's just not so. And I was lucky, I was really ignorant. I didn't know that could be true, so I just didn't pay any attention to it and just kept writing."

Bill Wittliff is survived by his wife Sally, his children Reed Wittliff and Allison Andrews, and four grandchildren. A memorial will take place at a later date.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

More Bill Wittliff
<i>The Devil’s Sinkhole</i>
The Devil’s Sinkhole
by Bill Wittliff

Joe O'Connell, Nov. 4, 2016

Telling Stories
Telling Stories
Wittliff seeks the "yes" in his debut novel, The Devil's Backbone

Joe O'Connell, Dec. 5, 2014

More by Robert Faires
Valoneecia Tolbert Geeks Out in <i>Tales of a Blerd Ballerina</i>
Valoneecia Tolbert Geeks Out in Tales of a Blerd Ballerina
The actress looks back at what it was to be young, geeky, and Black

April 9, 2021

Vote for New Music in Golden Hornet's String Quartet Smackdown VII
Vote for New Music in Golden Hornet's String Quartet Smackdown VII
For the seventh year, Golden Hornet referees this composition competition while you decide the winner

March 26, 2021


Bill Wittliff, Sally Wittliff, Bud Shrake, Southwestern Writers Collection, Southwestern and Mexican Photography Collection, J. Fran k Dobie, Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle