William Dale “Bill” Wittliff, celebrated screenwriter, photographer, publisher, novelist, film director, and major benefactor, described as a “Renaissance hombre” by Texas Monthly, was born in Taft, Texas, on January 21, 1940. He was the youngest of two children of Laura (Sachtleben) Wittliff and William Albert Wittliff. His father was an alcoholic, and his parents divorced when he was two years old. The children lived with their mother and moved to Edna, Texas, when she found work as a twenty-four-hour-a-day telephone operator for $30 a month during World War II. Wittliff’s memories of this bleak but loving time later influenced his screenplay for one of his most acclaimed films, Raggedy Man (1981), which starred Sissy Spacek in the role based on his mother.
As a young child, Wittliff was always interested in books, and at the same time he enjoyed hearing the local hardware store proprietor tell stories. Among them was an old Texas folk tale about a runaway slave woman whose footprints had been seen for years along the banks of the Navidad River, though the woman herself was never found. Wittliff’s fascination with this story came full circle one Christmas when his aunt gave him the book Tales of Old-Time Texas (1955) by J. Frank Dobie. When Wittliff read the book, he saw in print the same story he had heard at the hardware store. “The book absolutely set me on fire,” he said later. “Until that moment it never occurred to me that books and writing could come out of your own experience, your own soil.” This realization informed and inspired his creative vision for the rest of his life.
Wittliff’s mother remarried, and the family moved to Blanco, Texas. After graduating from Blanco High School in 1957, Wittliff briefly attended a succession of schools: Texas Tech University, San Antonio College, Durham’s Business College, and Southwest Texas State Teachers College at San Marcos (now Texas State University). In the fall of 1958 he transferred to the University of Texas. There he met his future wife, Sally Virginia Bowers, a “Bluebonnet Belle” and math major. Sally, as a gift for Wittliff, purchased a copy of J. Frank Dobie’s I’ll Tell You a Tale (1960) and got Dobie to sign the book for him. This led to Wittliff’s own visit to Dobie’s house on the edge of campus. Dobie, who was known to mentor and inspire younger people throughout his life, took an interest in Wittliff and invited him back for more visits. He often presented Wittliff with gifts of signed books and other materials.
Wittliff graduated from the University of Texas in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. He married Sally Bowers on June 8, 1963, and they later had two children. He began working for Southern Methodist University Press in Dallas as its business and production manager. In 1965 the Wittliffs relocated to Austin, where Wittliff worked as the sales manager at the University of Texas Press while Sally found work as a math teacher. That same year they cofounded a publishing company, The Encino Press, which produced books focusing on Texas and the Southwest and designed, illustrated, and edited by Wittliff. J. Frank Dobie gave the Wittliffs permission, royalty-free, to publish one of his essays in book form to help launch the press. Its first book, Bob More: Man and Bird Man by J. Frank Dobie, appeared in 1965. The Encino Press became a noted standard-bearer of southwestern letters and won more than 100 awards for its distinctive works of history, biography, fiction, and photographic studies. Its authors included many leading southwestern writers such as John Graves, Tom Lea, and Larry McMurtry, whose influential book of essays, In a Narrow Grave, was published by The Encino Press in 1968.
In 1969, at age twenty-nine, Wittliff was elected to membership in the Texas Institute of Letters (TIL), becoming its youngest member. He served as president from 1974 to 1978. Wittliff designed and printed many TIL programs over the years, and his Encino Press published a history of the Institute, The Texas Institute of Letters, 1936–1966 (1967).
Wittliff became increasingly interested in photography, and in the early 1970s historian Joe Frantz invited him to help document traditional ways of cattle ranching in northern Mexico. The resulting series of photographs, Vaquero: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy, became a traveling exhibit for the Institute of Texan Cultures in 1972. The exhibition has remained popular and continued to travel on behalf of Humanities Texas throughout the 2010s. In 2004 the University of Texas Press published a book version, Vaquero: Genesis of the Texas Cowboy. Wittliff went on to publish three more books of his photography: La Vida Brinca (University of Texas Press, 2006), A Book of Photographs from Lonesome Dove (University of Texas Press, 2007), and SunriseSunset: Solargraphs from Plum Creek (Texas A&M University Press, 2019).
In the early 1970s, while Wittliff was finding his vision as a photographer and keeping busy designing, illustrating, and editing other peoples’ books, he began writing his first screenplay, which was based on an old folk tale he’d heard about an outlaw along the Texas-Mexico border. The resulting script became Barbarosa, which was eventually filmed in 1982 and starred Willie Nelson. Wittliff’s first produced script was Thaddeus Rose and Eddie (1978), a television movie starring Johnny Cash. His first screenwriting credit for a feature film became The Black Stallion (1979). He also cowrote the screenplay for Honeysuckle Rose (1980), starring Willie Nelson. Other films that followed included Raggedy Man (1981), Country (1984) starring Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard, and Red Headed Stranger (1986), which Wittliff wrote and directed and is based on Willie Nelson’s album of the same title. In the late 1980s Wittliff adapted Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Lonesome Dove, into an acclaimed television miniseries that was nominated for eighteen Emmy Awards. Lonesome Dove (1989) starred Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones and also featured Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, Danny Glover, and several other notables. In addition to writing the teleplay, Wittliff served as a co-executive producer on the film. Following Lonesome Dove, Wittliff created a limited television series, Ned Blessing, that aired from 1992 to 1993. He wrote or co-wrote screenplays for the feature films The Cowboy Way (1994), Legends of the Fall (1994), and The Perfect Storm (2000.) In 2013 a script that he’d begun writing in the 1970s, A Night in Old Mexico, was finally produced and starred Robert Duvall.
In the 2010s, while in his seventies, Wittliff turned to writing novels and created a trilogy of “Papa Stories” set in rural Texas during the late nineteenth century and published by the University of Texas Press. The first novel, The Devils Backbone, appeared in 2014. It was followed by The Devil’s Sinkhole (2016) and The Devil’s Fork (2018.)
As a benefactor, Wittliff, along with his wife Sally, founded the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University (then known as Southwest Texas State University) in 1986 with a gift of J. Frank Dobie papers rescued from an estate sale in Austin. In 1996 the Wittliffs founded the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern & Mexican Photography at Texas State. The two collections were later renamed The Wittliff Collections. In 2017 a Texas music pillar was added. Wittliff saw the collections as a place of inspiration, where young artists “who have the itch but not yet the courage” can be inspired by seeing the creative process of acclaimed writers, photographers, and musicians. Among the notable holdings at the Wittliff are major archives of Cormac McCarthy, Sandra Cisneros, Keith Carter, Graciela Iturbide, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Tejano music. At the time of Wittliff’s death, Texas State University president, Denise Trauth, noted, “The Wittliff includes more than 500 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.”
Wittliff received many honors during his lifetime, including the Texas Medal of the Arts, the Lon Tinkle Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Texas Institute of Letters, the Texas Writers Award from the Texas Book Festival, a Benefactor Award from the Texas Library Association, inaugural induction into the Texas Film Hall of Fame, and an honorary doctorate in humane letters from Texas State University. As a screenwriter he was nominated for an Emmy and won the Writers Guild of America Award for his work on Lonesome Dove. He also won three Western Heritage Awards from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Bill Wittliff died of a heart attack in Austin on June 9, 2019. He had just returned with his wife from a visit to their ranch at Plum Creek. The day before his death had been the couple’s fifty-sixth wedding anniversary. “He got to be a habit,” Sally Wittliff said. Wittliff’s ashes were interred at the State Cemetery.