DALLAS — Larry McMurtry, the prolific and popular author who took readers back to the old American West in his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Lonesome Dove” and returned them to modern-day landscapes in works such as his emotional tale of a mother-daughter relationship in “Terms of Endearment,” has died. He was 84.
McMurtry died Thursday night of heart failure, according to a family statement issued through a publicist on Friday. The statement did not say where he died but noted that he’ll be buried “in his cherished home state of Texas.”
McMurtry, who had in his later years split his time between his small Texas hometown of Archer City and Tucson, Arizona, wrote almost 50 books, including novels, biographies and essay collections. He simultaneously worked as a bookseller and screenwriter.
In 2006, McMurtry won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay with Diana Ossana for Ang Lee’s feature film “Brokeback Mountain.” It was his first win and second nomination for an Academy Award, having been previously co-nominated for best adapted screenplay with Peter Bogdanovich for “The Last Picture Show.” In his acceptance speech, McMurtry — noting that “Brokeback Mountain” was a book before a movie — thanked “all the booksellers in the world... from the humblest paperback exchange to the masters of the great book shops of the world, all of our contributors to the survival of the culture of the book, a wonderful culture, which we mustn’t lose.”
The film adaptation of “Terms of Endearment,” released in 1983, was written and directed by James L. Brooks and received Oscars for best picture, director and screenplay, with awards for star Shirley MacLaine and supporting actor Jack Nicholson.
“Sitting here thinking of the greatness of Larry McMurtry,” Brooks tweeted Friday. “Among the best writers ever. I remember when he sent me on my way to adapt “Terms” — his refusal to let me hold him in awe. And the fact that he was personally working the cash register of his rare book store as he did so.”
McMurtry was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1986 for “Lonesome Dove,” which was later adapted for the 1989 television miniseries starring Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover and Diane Lane. The four-part television event, one of the most-watched miniseries in history, went on to win seven Emmy Awards.
“’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 Archer City, located about 140 miles northwest of Dallas.
McMurtry was born on June 3, 1936, into a family of ranchers. McMurtry attended what is now the University of North Texas in Denton and Rice University in Houston and was member of Stanford University’s Stegner writing fellowship.
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.
McMurtry opened his first used and rare bookstore in 1971 in Washington, D.C., and later opened other stores in Houston, Dallas and Tucson.
In the mid-1980s, lured by cheap real estate, he opened his Booked Up store in Archer City. 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 in Archer City. “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.
In 2015, President Barack Obama awarded McMurtry the the National Humanities Medal. “Mr. McMurtry’s work evokes the character and drama of the American West with stories that examine quintessentially American lives,” the White House’s official statement noted.
Contributing: Miriam Di Nunzio, Chicago Sun-Times