'Lonesome Dove' and 'Brokeback Mountain' writer Larry McMurtry dies at 84

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Friday, March 26, 2021
Larry McMurtry, novelist and screenwriter, dead at 84
McMurtry's depictions of the American West and small-town Texas brought memorable characters to life in books and on screens for decades.

Larry McMurtry, the Texas-born Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist known for bringing memorable characters and scenes to life in books and on screen, has died.

His death was confirmed Friday by a spokesman for his publisher, Liveright.

McMurtry penned more than 50 novels and dozens of screenplays during his career, including "Lonesome Dove" and "Terms of Endearment," just two on a long list of works that were turned into award-winning movies.

Others include "Horseman Pass By" and "The Last Picture Show."

McMurtry won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for "Lonesome Dove," which was the first in a series of novels featuring the adventures of two retired Texas Rangers beginning in the late 1870s. The first book in the Lonesome Dove series became a television miniseries hit in 1989 starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones.

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"'Lonesome Dove' was an effort to kind of demythologize the myth of the Old West," McMurtry told The Associated Press in a 2014 interview. But, he added, "They're going to twist it into something romantic no matter what you do."

"The Last Picture Show," his third novel, became a classic with its coming-of-age story set in a small Texas town. He and director Peter Bogdanovich were nominated for an Academy Award for their script for the movie, filmed in McMurtry's hometown of Archer City, located about 140 miles northwest of Dallas.

McMurtry, who had in his later years split his time between Archer City and Tucson, Arizona, also wrote biographies and essay collections. He simultaneously worked as a bookseller and screenwriter, co-writing the Oscar-winning script for "Brokeback Mountain."

He was born on June 3, 1936 in Archer City to a family of ranchers who owned no books, laying the foundation for his descriptive writings he would be later known for.

McMurtry attended what's now the University of North Texas in Denton and graduated with a master's degree from Rice University in 1960. He returned to lecture there for several years. He also managed and owned book stores during his time in Houston, a secondary occupation he would continue to dabble in throughout his life. He was also a member of Stanford University's Stegner writing fellowship.

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He wrote his first novel, "Horseman, Pass by," at the age of 25 in 1961. It was made into the movie "Hud" starring Paul Newman that came out two years later.

Despite living in several other cities, he praised Houston by once saying, "by any measure the most interesting city" in the state, according to a 2009 story from Houston CultureMap.

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In the mid-1980s, lured by cheap real estate, he opened his Booked Up store in Archer City, despite his contempt for the area.

"Simply put, it's not a nice town," McMurtry once wrote.

Eventually, the store in Archer City was the only one remaining. He downsized the store - both in volume and storefronts - in an effort dubbed The Last Book Sale, but retained about 200,000 volumes.

He had about 28,000 books in his nearby home. "I'm very attached to the books. I need them. I need to be among them," he told The AP in 2014.

McMurtry's writing collaboration with Diana Ossana began after she helped him get out of a slump following quadruple bypass heart surgery in 1991. They won the Academy Award for their screenplay for the 2005 movie "Brokeback Mountain," based on an Annie Proulx short story about two cowboys who fall in love.

He told the Associated Press in 1994 that his life throughout the 1980s had been peripatetic - traveling between his bookstores across the country and a home in Los Angeles. Then the surgery forced him to stop moving. "It just so happened that I stopped at Diana's kitchen table," he said.

The two, both divorced, had met at a Tucson catfish restaurant and struck up a friendship. After the surgery, McMurtry spent his time sleeping in Ossana's guest room, writing "Streets of Laredo" on a typewriter in her kitchen, or staring out the window.

She helped edit "Streets of Laredo" and then began encouraging him to accept screenwriting offers. "I was getting lots of offers then from the movies. I was very popular, but I didn't feel confident. I'd had real serious heart problems. I got a lot of offers and I think that she just got tired of me turning them down," he said.

When the offer came in for a script on the Depression-era bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd, Ossana and McMurtry tackled it together and then wrote the novel "Pretty Boy Floyd." After that they collaborated on more than 40 screenplays.

He married Josephine Ballard in 1959 and three years later, the couple had a son, singer-songwriter James McMurtry. In 1966, they divorced. In 2011, he got married for a second time: to Faye Kesey, the widow of longtime friend Ken Kesey, author of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." They held their marriage ceremony in the Archer City bookstore.

Don Graham, a professor of English and American literature at the University of Texas in Austin, said in a 2014 interview with the AP that McMurtry is "pre-eminently a storyteller." "He's a great creator of characters and dialogue. That's one of the reasons he's had so much success in Hollywood," Graham said.

Larry McMurtry was 84.

The Associated Press's James Stengle and AP National Writer Hillel Italie contributed to this report.