Bill Wittliff
1940 - 2019
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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 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

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Published in Austin American-Statesman from Jun. 13 to Jun. 16, 2019.
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Memories & Condolences
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13 entries
November 24, 2019
Your memories linger on in your true son of Texas spirit. Besides your many wonderful creative pursuits, which we all love, there is a special time when you shot the cannon off on Texas Independence Day on the porch of your UT.

I did not know you personally, but appreciated you and your talents through the eyes of your loving brother. My condolences to him and the rest of your family.
camp longhorn
August 17, 2019
A sad loss of a great storyteller with a true insight into our Texas and Southern souls. He will be missed. Condolences to all who feel a vital part of their own soul has gone.
Roy Faires
June 26, 2019
A mutual friend of Billy and Sally called to alert me to the recent death of Bill Wittliff.
I perused the obituary and tried to relocate the experience of meeting my new classmate in the wrinkles of my mind. He was certainly not an ordinary person even at the young ages we were in the fourth or fifth grades of Blanco Elementary School. He and his brother Jimmy, were well liked and assimilated easily.
Probably the best description I ever remember of Billy is "scatter-shot genius." His many successes have been a joy to watch and such talent is a loss to our society. Sally I have recently experienced a family loss so my prayers will be for your time of transition.
nancy carter speck
June 23, 2019
I was sorry to read of Mr Wittliff's passing . Que vaya con Dios. I never met him but knew him by reputation. I followed many of the high points of his career , but learned many new things form his obituary. The fact that he wore a milagro of Don Pedrito Jaramillo surprised me and made an impression on me , as the northeast corner of the northeast pasture on my home place is only several hundred yards from the Don Pedrito shrine. Small world for such a big state. My sincere condolences to his family . His contributions to our state and region will live on indefinitely.
john kruse
June 19, 2019
Best story teller around the campfire. Lonesome Dove true to the man and to Texas. Rest in Peace
June 18, 2019
Last time we saw him.
Carlos Austin
June 17, 2019
Bill was a great talent and inspiration. I'll honor his memory at his namesake Wittliff Collections at Texas State University. He was one of the very last (if not THE last) great Texas journalists.
Trey R
June 14, 2019
We have lost a great one. Bill was a class act in every respect and will be missed by all. His wonderful family is in our hearts during this time of sorrow.
Don and Joyce Butler
June 14, 2019
What a talented man and what a great friend!
You will be dearly missed Bill (aka: Blanco)from here to eternity.

J. David Holmes
John David Holmes
June 13, 2019
Walter Prescott Webb, James Michener and Robert Caro wrote compelling Texas history and stories. That though was print. Witliff's legacy was to make that time live again onscreen in totally credible ways. I will miss that!

We were looking forward to seeing "The Last Captive" to which he owned the film rights. Perhaps in his honor someone will will bring it to life.

Thanks to his family for supporting this great life in full.
Vincent Guarino
June 13, 2019
A legend on earth; now in the stars. All who knew him were inspired. Comfort to Sally and family.
WIth gratitude , Susan Aspinall Block
Susan Block
June 13, 2019
My deepest condolences for your familys loss. May the memories of them warm your heart as you look forward to the time when you will see your loved ones again. (1Thess. 4:14)
June 13, 2019
This obituary comes as close as any words can to describe the great and wide ranging talents of a good and brilliant man who never stopped learning, growing, and wondering. I will always treasure the kindness that Bill and Sally showed me many years ago. Many will always treasure his legacy and the wonderful things he left for future generations to enjoy and be inspired by.
Jack Canson
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