Larry McMurtry, the Texas-born novelist who authored Lonesome Dove, The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment and won an Oscar for co-writing the adapted screenplay for Brokeback Mountain, has died. He was 84.
McMurtry died Thursday night of heart failure, his rep Amanda Lundberg told The Hollywood Reporter. He died surrounded by loved ones he lived with, including his longtime writing partner, Diana Ossana; his wife, Norma Faye; and their three dogs.
His son, singer-songwriter James McMurtry, grandson Curtis and goddaughter Sara also were at his bedside.
McMurtry was the author of 29 novels, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, three memoirs, two collections of essays and more than 30 screenplays. He wrote five pages a day — no more, no less — on a manual typewriter.
His first published novel, 1961’s Horseman, Pass By, set in Texas ranching country, became the 1963 Paramount drama Hud, starring Paul Newman, Melvyn Douglas and Patricia Neal. The movie rights were optioned by Newman and director Martin Ritt’s Salem Productions “almost before the last period [was] put on the book,” he author said. (Husband-and-wife team Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. adapted his work and shared an Oscar nom.)
McMurtry received his first Oscar nomination (shared with director Peter Bogdanovich) for adapting his 1966 semi-autobiographical book for The Last Picture Show. The poignant 1971 film, about teenagers learning about sex, love and loss in the dusty town of Thalia, Texas, starred Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd, Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson (the last two won supporting actor Academy Awards).
His 1975 novel Terms of Endearment, set not amid the Texas tumbleweeds but in the big city of Houston, was adapted by writer-director-producer James L. Brooks and raked in five Oscars in 1984 — two for Brooks, including the one for best picture, and one apiece for Jack Nicholson and Shirley MacLaine.
For Brokeback Mountain (2005), McMurtry and longtime collaborator Ossana transformed an 11-page short story by Annie Proulx that ran in The New Yorker in 1997 into the groundbreaking cowboy love story that starred Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal and was directed by Oscar winner Ang Lee.
For all his accomplishments, McMurtry is probably best identified with Lonesome Dove, published in 1985. The subsequent four-part miniseries, starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones and featuring a teleplay by William D. Wittliff, collected seven Emmy Awards and was a ratings smash for CBS in 1989, drawing an average of 26 million viewers a night.
“People are always telling me that I had everything to do with [the miniseries],” McMurtry told NPR’s Linda Wertheimer in 2009. “The people that had everything to do with it are the producers, the writers, the set designers, all the people that actually worked on it. I was never on the set. I turned the key in the ignition. I didn’t drive the car.”
He followed Lonesome Dove with the 1993 sequel Streets of Laredo (which became a 1995 CBS miniseries starting James Garner and Sissy Spacey) and the 1995 and ’97 prequels Dead Man’s Walk (a 1996 ABC miniseries featuring F. Murray Abraham) and Comanche Moon (a 2008 CBS miniseries starring Steve Zahn).
Asked by Wertheimer why his novels had such success in Hollywood, McMurtry replied, “I can write characters that major actors want to play, and that’s how movies get made.
“It’s practical. People want to play my characters, major actors that you can get money for, from a bank. You’ve got to finance it, and nobody’s come up with a better way to finance it than the star system.”
Larry Jeff McMurtry was born on June 3, 1936, in Wichita Falls, Texas, and raised on a ranch in nearby Archer City. He graduated from North Texas State College in Denton in 1958 and earned his master’s degree from Rice University in Houston in 1960.
While he was writing Horseman, Pass By and The Last Picture Show — he latter took him just three weeks to complete, he said — he was teaching English at Texas Christian University from 1961-62 and at Rice from 1963-69.
In its book review of The Last Picture Show, The New York Times described McMurty’s Thalia as “desiccated and shabby physically, mean and small-minded spiritually. [The author] is expert in anatomizing its suffocating and dead-end character. Although the town faces the open prairie, it has no horizons and is as joyless as a 24-hour movie house at 10 in the morning. It is a place in which a man can live all his life and end up feeling anonymous.”
McMurtry, though, proved he could make himself at home in the big city, setting 1970’s Moving On, 1972’s All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers and Terms of Endearment in contemporary Houston, which he once called “more or less my Paris, or such Paris as I had.”
He placed 1978’s Somebody’s Darling in Hollywood, 1982’s Cadillac Jack in Washington, D.C. and 1983’s The Desert Rose in Las Vegas.
McMurtry also wrote an original screenplay for another feature, Falling From Grace (1992), which starred John Cougar Mellencamp, who directed as well, and Mariel Hemingway. (Mellencamp produced his son’s first studio album, 1989’s Too Long in the Wasteland.)
McMurty first met Ossana, who had done some writing and worked as a legal assistant, in 1985, and she invited him to recuperate at her home in Tucson, Arizona, after he had a heart attack and quadruple bypass surgery in 1991. She helped edit Streets of Laredo, which he dedicated to her and her daughter, Sara.
McMurtry rose very early to write each day, usually finishing his five pages by 8:30 a.m. “They come through rather skeletal,” Ossama noted, “and then I fill them in and then expand them. And we do that every single day, seven days a week, through holidays and whatever.”
Their second project was a screenplay for a movie about gangster Pretty Boy Floyd that they sold to Warner Bros. and expanded into a book published in 1994.
The pair took Proulx’s New Yorker story and “fleshed it out along clearly suggested lines,” McMurtry said. “That is, we put in the domestic life. We put in the kind of parallel story of the women in their lives and showed them how complicated this tragedy actually was.”
Their most recent collaboration was a screenplay for Good Joe Bell, a 2020 movie about a real-life Oregonian father (played by Mark Wahlberg) who sets out on a walk across America with his son.
McMurtry’s novels also included 1963’s Leaving Cheyenne, filmed as the Sidney Lumet drama Lovin’ Molly (1974); 1987’s Texasville, which became the 1990 sequel to The Last Picture Show; 1990’s Buffalo Girls, made into a 1995 miniseries starring Anjelica Huston and Melanie Griffith; and 1992’s The Evening Star, the Terms of Endearment follow-up that hit theaters in 1996.
Years after The Last Picture Show was filmed in Archer City, McMurty bought up stores in the town to build a rustic book-selling empire. He also owned bookstores in Washington, Houston and Tucson. He was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama in 2015.
McMurtry married Faye Kesey, the widow of writer Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), in 2011. Survivors also include his siblings Sue, Judy and Charlie. He will be buried in his cherished home state of Texas.
Jackie Strause contributed to this report.