In memory of
WITTLIFF, Bill Bill Wittliff's career was too various, and his influence too widespread and powerful, to be corralled into any one category. He was a scattershot genius: filmmaker, photographer, storyteller, impresario of statues and public monuments, water dowser, publisher; also collector of books, paintings, sculptures, arrowheads, spear points, incised deer antlers, prehistoric mammoth teeth, and of various mystical power emblemsa coin from a sunken 16th century Spanish treasure ship, a milagro of the Mexican folk healer Don Pedrito Jaramillothat he habitually wore on a chain around his neck. He was born in Taft, a cotton hamlet near Corpus Christi, on January 21, 1940. His parents divorced shortly after he was born, and he and his brother Jim were left in the care of their mother, the small-town telephone operator immortalized by Sissy Spacek in the 1981 movie that was made from Wittliff's screenplay Raggedy Man. He grew up enthralled by the tales of buried treasure and ancient Texas mysteries he heard from local storytellers. One of those stories, "The Wild Woman of the Navidad," haunted him all his life and served as part of the imaginative underpinning for The Papa Stories, a cycle of three novels published when he was in his seventies. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 1963, after managing to drop out of four other schools during his freshman year alone. His major was journalism, a profession for which he was markedly unsuitable, both because he was more raconteur than reporter, and because he refused to learn to type. But he was still drawn to the written word andincreasingly-- the published word, so much so that he and Sally began Encino Press, the influential publisher of books related to Texas and the Southwest whose volumes (including an essay collection by Larry McMurtry, In A Narrow Grave) are still much sought after by discerning book lovers. Then there was screenwriting and filmmaking. He first made his name with 1979's The Black Stallion, for which he wrote the shooting script. After that he was an A list Hollywood screenwriter, though without the Hollywood part. He remained resolutely in place in Austin, resolutely himself, as he wrote screenplays for Honeysuckle Rose, Raggedy Man, Barbarosa, Red Headed Stranger (which he also directed), Legends of the Fall, The Perfect Storm, A Night in Old Mexico and many others. In the late 1980's, he took on the massive task of adapting Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize winning novel Lonesome Dove as a television miniseries. Wittliff was the project's executive producer and sole screenwriter. There were multiple ways it could have gone wrong, but Wittliff kept the epic trail drive on course, refusing to cut corners or tamper with the integrity of McMurtry's novel. "The thing I keep preaching to everybody," he said, "is that Lonesome Dove is the star. If we take care of Lonesome Dove, it'll take care of us." He kept his part of that bargain, and Lonesome Dove, starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in forever-iconic roles as Gus McRae and Woodrow Call, remains in the opinion of many viewers the best western ever made. On the set, Wittliff took a series of black and white photographs, some of which were Lonesome Dove character portraits, others action scenes of cattle drives and Indian battles. The images, published in A Book of Photographs from Lonesome Dove, are a thrilling mash-up of past and present, of authenticity and artifice. This fall will see the publication of SunriseSunset, a collection of the long-exposure photos"solargraphs"-- that Wittliff took at his beloved Plum Creek Property southeast of Austin. The Spanish title of Bill Wittliff's 1986 book of pinhole photographs, La Vida Brinca, translates to "life jumps." That phrase became his all-purpose personal motto. To Wittliff, La Vida Brinca meant that unpredictability and surpriseof both the welcome and grievous variety-- were not just givens of human existence but drivers of human wonder and creativity. Life jumped when the boy who had heard a small-town hardware dealer tell him about The Wild Woman of the Navidad encountered the same story in written-down form in a book by J. Frank Dobie. It was a teenage epiphanythe first time he realized that his own home ground was worthy of inclusion in print. Life jumped again in the 1980's, when Wittliffby now a Texas institution himselfstumbled upon an estate sale of Dobie's archival materials. Bill and Sally bought it all, and it became the nucleus for the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. For all his achievements in film and photography, it may be the Wittliff Collections that will stand as his most resonant legacy. Wittliff wanted the Collections to be exactly the opposite of a stuffy archive. He wanted it to be a place of inspiration, where young writers and photographers and musicians could study the early breakthroughs or false starts of artists like Cormac McCarthy, Sandra Cisneros, Keith Carter, Kate Breakey, Willie Nelson, or Jerry Jeff Walker. The Wittliff Collections is a seamless continuation of the inspiration that Wittliff supplied during his lifetime to generations of fellow writers and filmmakers and photographers. During the many years he was at work in his headquarters on Baylor Street, there was always a procession of movie stars and literary and music legends, but also countless creative aspirants with no reputation. It didn't matter to Bill if you were famous or unknown. If you were serious about your craft, he was serious about you, and would be your friend for life. Bill and Sally were married for 56 years. They met after he saw a picture of a "Bluebonnet Belle" named Sally Bowers in the pages of the 1960 University of Texas yearbook and told a friend "That's the girl I'm going to marry." It was another La Vida Brinca momentthe best jump of his life. Bill Wittliff was a father figure to many, but a father in full to his two children. Along with Sally, he is survived by his son Reid Wittliff, his wife Susan, and their children Sloan and Leigh; by his daughter Allison Andrews, her husband James, and her children Tegan Spencer and Wade Spencer; and by his brother and sister-in-law Jim and Mitzi Wittliff. One of the gifts he left to them and to all his many friends is the suspicion that he isn't all that far away from what he called "the spinning globe." It seems obvious now that in his later photographic workthose pinhole camera images of half-glimpsed forms and ghostly tracings of the sun's procession across the skyhe was trying to tell us something. He always believed that there was a permeable zone between the familiar and the ungraspable, between things visible and things withheld. In The Papa Stories he wrote about the "shimmery people", those who had passed away but lingered to watch over the confused inhabitants of mortal earth. It's not hard to imagine him now as one of them, still alive somehow at the mysterious border between Texas and the Great Beyond. Memorial contributions can be made to the Wittliff Collections, 601 University Drive, San Marcos, TX 78666, or through https://donate.txstate.edu/wittliff A private family burial will take place at The Texas State Cemetery. Information on a Celebration of Life will be announced soon. Remembrances may be left at www.wcfish.com .
View Full Obituary ›