Larry McMurtry, Oscar Winner for ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and Author of ‘Lonesome Dove,’ Dies at 84
Art and Experience:
Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer whose novels, such as “The Last Picture Show,” “Terms of Endearment” and “Lonesome Dove,” were turned into award-winning films and who won an Oscar for co-adapting “Brokeback Mountain,” has died, according to The New York Times. He was 84.
A spokesperson for McMurtry’s family confirmed his death to The New York Times. No cause of death was given.
McMurtry and his frequent collaborator Diana Ossana penned “Brokeback Mountain” based on Annie Proulx’s short story, taking the Western genre in which McMurtry so frequently worked in a new direction: a gay love story. The film saw this theme welcomed by large mainstream audiences for the first time and also won the Oscar for best director and was nominated for best picture.
McMurtry also shared a 1973 Oscar nomination with Peter Bogdanovich for the adaptation of McMurtry’s novel “The Last Picture Show.”
With William D. Witliff, McMurtry adapted his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove,” an elegy for the disappearing frontier, into a hugely successful and Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning 1989 CBS miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones. Before he wrote the novel, McMurtry had planned “Lonesome Dove” as a feature that would have been directed by Bogdanovich and starred James Stewart, John Wayne and Henry Fonda.
“Lonesome Dove” was the first of several novels in a series, and the miniseries spawned several miniseries follow-ups, including 1995’s “Streets of Laredo,” “Dead Man’s Walk” (1996) and “Comanche Moon” (2008).
McMurtry adapted these “Lonesome Dove” sequels with Ossana, with whom he also penned 2002 miniseries “Johnson County War,” based on a novel by Frederick Manfred.
“Lonesome Dove” also inspired two brief series spinoffs in the mid-’90s.
Even as Hollywood courted McMurtry for film and television material, however, the Texas-born writer largely steered clear of showbiz.
His humor-laden family dramas like “Terms of Endearment” adapted well to the screen. The 1984 feature won the best picture Oscar; producer James L. Brooks also won for writing and directing, and Shirley MacLaine and Jack Nicholson took home Academy Awards for their performances. McMurtry’s novel “The Evening Star” continued the story, but the 1996 feature adaptation was not a success.
McMurtry’s elegiac “The Last Picture Show” was brought to the screen in the early ’70s by director Bogdanovich, and Bogdanovich later adapted McMurtry’s “Last Picture Show” sequel “Texasville” into a considerably less successful film.
Earlier, his first novel “Horseman, Pass By,” an elegiac work about cowboys set in 1950s Texas that he later described as sentimental, became the hard-edged 1963 movie “Hud,” starring Paul Newman and Patricia Neal; the latter walked home with an Oscar for best actress. Less successful was director Sidney Lumet’s 1974 film “Lovin’ Molly,” based on McMurtry’s second novel, 1963’s “Leaving Cheyenne,” which also dealt with the passage of youth to maturity.
Their screenplay to the 2005 film “Brokeback Mountain” brought McMurtry and writing partner Ossana into the spotlight. At the Golden Globes, where the pair won for their adapted script (they also took the WGA Award), McMurtry declared that “Brokeback” is an important story about the West with a simple message: “Life isn’t for sissies, whether you’re gay or straight. It’s a difficult road.” Elsewhere he told blogger Daniel A. Kusner that he first became familiar with the notion of a gay cowboy when he was eight years old — when he was introduced to his gay cousin’s boyfriend. “There might have been a little awkwardness, maybe. But my parents were never angry about my cousin. Everyone’s lives went on. And they went on for 20 years,” McMurtry told Kusner.
McMurtry also did original work for television, penning the story for the miniseries “The Murder of Mary Phagan,” for which he shared an Emmy nomination, and the scripts for telepics including “Montana.”
Though born and raised in Texas, McMurtry wrote many of his Southern regional novels from his home base of Washington, D.C. He returned to the South for both contemporary and classic Western stories and also wrote about Hollywood and Washington politics. His novels always reflected what one writer described as a “Rabelaisian comic wit.” His mixture of humor and drama didn’t always please critics, but it made for good drama, as “Terms of Endearment” proved.
McMurtry was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, and grew up near Archer City, to which he dedicated the novel “The Last Picture Show,” about a dying movie theater that is the victim of television.
Rather than follow his family into the cattle raising business, McMurtry avidly pursued writing by studying at Rice University and then moving on to North Texas State University, where he wrote for the student literary magazine Avesta. After earning his B.A. in English, he returned to Rice and picked up his M.A. and moved on to Stanford on a Wallace Stegner Fellowship in fiction in 1960 and 1961. He taught teaching at Texas Christian and Rice for a time and won a Guggenheim for creative writing in 1964.
McMurtry brought semi-autobiographical elements to his 1966 novel “The Last Picture Show,” and because of its then-bold treatment of sexuality, it was banned in places like Australia. The 1971 feature was his first cinematic collaboration, and the film brought Oscars to supporting actress Cloris Leachman and supporting actor Ben Johnson.
Bitten by the film bug, McMurtry developed a second career as a screenwriter and also contributed criticism to American Film, which published his articles on screenwriting in the mid-1970s.
By the late ’60s, he had moved to the Washington, D.C., area and intermittently taught writing at George Mason and American University. He also helped operate his own bookstore in Georgetown. His 1975 novel “Terms of Endearment” was the final part of trilogy that on the urban Southwest that also included “Moving On” and “All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers.”
Like many writers who dealt with the movie capital, McMurtry wrote a novel of Hollywood disenchantment, “Somebody’s Darling,” in 1978. He also wrote “Flim Flam: Essays on Hollywood.”
McMurtry is survived by his second wife, Faye Kesey, previously the widow of novelist Ken Kesey, and by a son from his marriage to his first wife.