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  4. ‘Lonesome Dove’ screenwriter Bill Wittliff dies
  5. “The Talmud of Texas” – revisiting ‘Lonesome Dove’ 20 years later

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An assiduous book collector — he owned first editions of the published works of J. Frank Dobie, another key Texas storyteller — sculptor and ink sketch artist, Wittliff was born in Taft in As with the rest of his life, however, Wittliff did it his way. He never did learn.

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He wrote everything by illegible hand. In the meantime, he and his wife founded Encino Press, which they moved to Austin. He joked that he financed the press with poker winnings, a skill he also said got him through UT. Encino Press served as his primary job as he launched his writing career. A natural storyteller, Wittliff was game for almost anything.

Noting a pressing need to preserve the creative process of authors and artists in this region, Bill and Sally Wittliff created the Wittliff Collections in During special programs at the Wittliff attended by hundreds of people of all ages, Bill could usually be found in the corner of the room, surrounded by students as he patiently answered questions about the creative process. And then, to house it, he built the Wittliff Collections at Texas State. Most especially Texas writers.

Extraordinarily generous to all his fellow writers, Bill gave me the television writing job that helped launch my career in screenwriting. I will miss his wisdom, his humor, and ever again hearing the best story about Elvis Presley ever told. At public speaking events, Wittliff sometimes told the story of how he and two teenage friends from Blanco drove to San Antonio in for an Elvis Presley concert, only to find it was sold out. Though New Mexico would stand in for many of the more northern locations, one of the things Wittliff insisted upon was that the Texas parts be shot in Texas.

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  • The ranch outside Del Rio on which the production company had set up shot contained 56, acres. Within its fence lines were landscapes that could credibly represent anything from desert to brushland to Hill Country glade.

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    Today an impounded stretch of Pinto Creek just upstream from the ranch headquarters was being used as the Canadian River. Down by the creek the Shotmaker—a half-million-dollar four-wheel-drive vehicle with a soaring camera crane—was already in position, and workers were shuttling back and forth across the creek in a makeshift ferry in order to set up another camera on the opposite bank. In a nearby field Tommy Lee Jones was running the Hell Bitch in figure eights to get her or him—this particular Hell Bitch was a gelding into a calm frame of mind.

    They were framey, wild-looking beasts with substantial horns, and there were a few in the herd that were as shaggy and humpbacked as buffalo. The wranglers herded the cattle down to the creek and then escorted them—via a much shallower crossing just upstream—to the top of the high bluff on the far side. Jimmy Medearis remained on the near bank, a bag of range cubes hanging across his saddlehorn.

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    He planned to strew the feed into the path of the oncoming cattle to slow them down after the excitement of the crossing. Nearby, an EMT team moved into position. Everybody please clear. Stay off the radios, please. No idle chitchat. Cattle at twenty yards. Jones appeared over the bluff first. He was wearing his long underwear and riding the Hell Bitch down the steep embankment with the herd of cattle behind him. The other actors—some of them total naked except for their hats, others in their long johns—followed, swinging ropes and heyahhing the cattle along to the water.

    The herd plunged without complaint into the water and held their stricken faces high while they groped for the bottom with their hooves. Beside them the cowboys struggled to hold on while their horses stroked awkwardly across the narrow creek.


    In an instant the pretty green water had changed into a roiling mass of suspended mud and dislodged vegetation. The crew was applauding as the drovers, sopping wet and buzzing with adrenaline, emerged from the creek. Duvall had not been involved in the river crossing, because in the movie he is waiting for the cowboys on the far bank, having just come back from the various thundering adventures involved in his rescue of Lorena from Blue Duck. In the scene remaining to be shot, he would talk to Call and the others while the cattle crossed the river in the background. They went through it several more times, waiting for the complicated shot to be set up.

    When it was ready, Jones and the rest of the drovers who would be emerging from the river rode their horses into the water to get wet again. Through it all Duvall was as mute and still as an equestrian statue. All this artifice fell away when the cameras started to roll and Jones and the others rode up from the creek as if they had just crossed with the cattle. The cattle themselves were crossing again for real, and so the background was full of marvelous chaos as Jones and Duvall delivered their lines.

    The takes were all good, but on the third take something extraordinary happened, something you could not explain. At that moment I was convinced.

    Gus and Call seemed utterly real to me, and I was struck with a vague sense of premonition that at first I could not account for. Then I remembered something I had seen the day before, when I had been poking around the set of Lonesome Dove. Leaning against the wall was a human form, wrapped in burlap and lashed to a board. When I saw that the form had only one booted leg, I realized what it was.

    It was Gus, who dies of gangrene in Montana and is hauled back by Call to be buried in Texas. That burlap-wrapped mannequin was an unaccountably poignant sight, as if Gus were real and the body was really Gus. You get confused on a movie set, because for all the chaos and tedium the urge to believe that it is all not just a movie is as strong as it is in the theater.

    Clay Blaker & The Texas Honky Tonk Band - Lonesome Rodeo Cowboy

    Watching Duvall and Jones speak to each other as Gus and Call now above the noise of the cattle and the whistles and grunts of the drovers, I found myself particularly susceptible. I was sad that Gus would die, sad that Call would end up haunted and bereft, but most of all I was sad because I could not help knowing that the myth they represented, for all its immediacy and ageless power, was still a myth. When the scene between Gus and Call was finished and the cattle had crossed the river for the seventh and last time, somebody noticed a solitary cow still standing on the other side of the creek.

    ‘Lonesome Dove’ screenwriter Bill Wittliff dies

    Swinging his rope, he kicked his horse toward the water. You guys are not cowboys! Trudell, a St. Louis pastry chef who had fled to Fort Smith, Arkansas, amid allegations that he murdered an elderly society dowager—along with her entire bridge club—by serving them a poisoned charlotte russe. Brilliant, sardonic, mysteriously attractive to women, Trudell is one of the most complex characters ever conceived for the screen.

    Simon Wincer, the director, allowed me unusual latitude in bringing the character to life. Wincer clearly believed so strongly in the necessity for an actor to prepare in solitude, in the sanctum of his own soul, that he paid me the ultimate professional tribute of not consulting me at all.

    The role of Trudell was particularly challenging because of the meager screen time allotted to the character—perhaps two or three seconds—and the limitations imposed by the lack of any dialogue whatsoever. That he was not mentioned either in the screenplay or in the novel added considerably to my creative burden.

    It was the sort of performance that an ordinary actor might not dare essay.

    “The Talmud of Texas” – revisiting ‘Lonesome Dove’ 20 years later

    But I was not an ordinary actor—I was an extra. One of the best ways to do this is to create character for yourself. I had been an extra once before. I have to admit I was a little disappointed when I reported to the wardrobe trailer and, after a great deal of measurement and thoughtful scrutiny, was issued a black suit, a pair of clodhoppers, and a derby.

    Here I was, in Lonesome Dove, the quintessential cowboy epic, and I had to wear a derby! Not only that, but my scene did not even take place in Texas but in Arkansas. I could have sulked and held up production, the way Marlon Brando did on the set of Mutiny on the Bounty, but I knew if I behaved like a prima donna I risked losing the respect of the crew.

    So I listened quietly as Matt explained the scene. During this scene, the undertaker would be seated on a bench, comforting a widow, while I, Cornelius J. I held back a little at first, searching for the essential rhythm, the emotional fundament of the scene.