"He was the hub. We are all the spokes.”
Bill Wittliff, a celebrated writer, filmmaker, and photographer who authored the screenplay for the iconic 1985 television miniseries “Lonesome Dove” and co-founded the definitive archive of Southwestern writers and other artists at Texas State University, died suddenly last Sunday, June 9, 2019, from a heart attack. He was 79.
Wittliff’s death was announced on Monday morning by Texas State University President Denise M. Trauth in a Facebook post:
It saddens me greatly to share that Dr. Bill Wittliff, a Texas State Hero, and a dear friend, passed away on June 9, 2019.
Bill and his wife, Dr. Sally Wittliff, founded The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in 1986 to create a special collections research archive, library, and exhibition gallery focused entirely on the creative spirit of Texas and the Southwest. Because of their continued support, today The Wittliff includes more than five hundred special collections in literature, photography, music, and film, and attracts visitors, researchers, and lifelong learners from around the globe. It stands as a tribute to Bill’s legacy.
Bill was a gifted writer, filmmaker, photographer, artist, and visionary. 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.
Because of Bill and Sally’s generosity and vision, people from across the U.S. and around the world have come to know Texas State through the remarkable collections of The Wittliff.
Wittliff was born in Taft in 1940. He attended Blanco High School and graduated from the University of Texas with a degree in journalism. Right out of UT, Wittliff worked as a business and production manager for Southern Methodist University Press in Dallas. In the meantime, he and his wife founded Encino Press, which they moved to Austin.
Wittliff’s film credits include screenplays for the films Raggedy Man (1981, starring Sissy Spacek), Barbarosa (1982, starring Willie Nelson), Legends of the Fall (1994, starring Anthony Quinn, Aidan Quinn, and Brad Pitt), as well as the 2000 blockbuster The Perfect Storm, starring George Clooney. He also wrote and directed the 1986 film Red Headed Stranger, which starred Nelson and Morgan Fairchild.
Last year Wittliff completed his “Popa Tales” trilogy about a boy’s adventures in the Texas Hill Country. Critics have compared these dialect novels, published by the University of Texas Press, to those of Mark Twain, Larry McMurtry, and J. Frank Dobie. Wittliff was also an accomplished photographer, having published a coffee table book, VAQUERO: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy, about Mexican cowboys.
Remembrances have poured in. “I’m still in shock,” screenwriter Bill Broyles Jr. told the Austin American-Statesman. “Bill was my mentor and friend and inspiration for almost fifty years. The Wittliff Collections truly embrace and define Texas culture. He was the hub. We are all the spokes.”
“It’s impossible to overstate the influence Bill had on writers, photographers and filmmakers, all throughout Austin, Texas, and United States,” said his friend, author and journalist Stephen Harrigan, also to the Statesman. “He made it possible for people with raging ambition to plant a flag in Austin and Texas and make this their hometown. He defied the dictum that you had to move to Hollywood to be successful. He is completely irreplaceable.”
“Bill was an artist, a mystic, a tale-spinner, and a mentor to the Austin arts community,” said author, playwright, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Lawrence Wright. “I also think of Bill as the great appreciator. He bought J. Frank Dobie’s estate so our greatest folklorist’s legacy could be preserved. And then, to house it, he built the Wittliff Collections at Texas State. Some years ago, Bill came to me in a dream. If you knew Bill, you’d know that was normal behavior. In the dream, he told me, ‘Austin is Florence.’ If there’s any truth in that prophecy, it’s in part because of Bill’s work and his joyful spirit.”
The Wittliffs have two children, Reed Wittliff and Allison Andrews, along with four grandchildren. Sally Wittliff said a memorial will be timed to the return of his son to this country.
The Wittliff is dedicated to collecting, preserving and sharing the creative legacy of the Southwest’s literary, photographic, and musical arts, and to fostering the region’s “Spirit of Place” in the wider world. The Wittliff presents major exhibitions year-round; hosts readings, artist talks, lectures and other events; publishes significant books from its holdings; and makes its collections available to statewide, national, and international researchers. The Wittliff welcomes visitors, tours, and classes. Admission is always free.