By Erin Free

FilmInk salutes the work of creatives who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: screenwriter William D. Wittliff, who penned Country, Raggedy Man, Barbarosa, Honeysuckle Rose, The Black Stallion and The Perfect Storm.

Few things in America might be “bigger than Texas”, but its creative denizens have long received short shrift when it comes to deserving credit. The hipster likes of Richard Linklater, Wes Anderson, Ethan Hawke, Robert Rodriguez, Terrence Malick, Larry McMurtry, Tobe Hooper et al might get peeled out whenever the virtues of the expanisve Lone Star State are sung, but there’s a whole frontier of writers and directors who remain wholly unsung outside of Texas and in the world at large. One such figure is the late screenwriter, novelist, photographer and one-time-only director William D. Wittliff, who stands as one of the great documenters of this big, broad, bold corner of the United States. “You couldn’t grow up in the ’40s without being subjected to all the cowboy matinees: Roy and Gene and The Durango Kid, all of that,” Wittliff told The Austin Monthly in 2014. “But it was the stories that got me. I always wanted to tell stories.”

Wittliff was born in Taft, Texas, on January 21, 1940, and moved to Blanco as a teenager. He studied journalism at The University Of Texas at Austin and worked for a publishing house in Austin before eventually becoming business and production manager for The Southern Methodist University Press in Dallas. In 1964, the diligent and hard-working Wittliff started his own publishing house, Encino Press, which ran through to 1981. Wittliff eventually made the move to the screen in 1978 with his screenplay for the superior 1978 telemovie Thaddeus Rose And Eddie. Expertly directed by the under-celebrated Jack Starrett (Race With The Devil, A Small Town In Texas, The Losers), the film is a loose, freewheeling, down-home affair starring Johnny Cash and Bo Hopkins as two chancers just trying to make their way in life. Also starring June Carter Cash and Diane Ladd, Thaddeus Rose And Eddie marked a low-key but fitting screen debut for William D. Wittliff.

William D. Wittliff

From there, Wittliff contributed to the screenplay for Caroll Ballard’s poetic, lyrical and profoundly moving 1978 boy-and-horse adventure The Black Stallion, and then quickly established himself as a burgeoning heartland storyteller of note by co-writing the now largely forgotten 1982 drama Honeysuckle Rose, a reworking of the 1936 film Intermezzo and a vehicle for country legend turned actor Willie Nelson vehicle. A gritty and authentic but also winsome and elegant look at a successful country singer’s confused romantic entanglements and longtime life on the road from director and fellow Unsung Auteur Jerry Schatzberg (Scarecrow, The Panic In Needle Park), Honeysuckle Rose is a gorgeous little jewel of a film. It was also where Wittliff met Willie Nelson, a relationship that would have much import throughout his career.

Also cruelly under-appreciated is Wittliff’s next work, the 1981 drama Raggedy Man, directed with extraordinary tenderness and grace by acclaimed production designer and first-time helmer Jack Fisk. Sensitively written and highly redolent of that towering American classic To Kill A Mockingbird, the film stars a luminous and perfectly cast Sissy Spacek (the wife of Jack Fisk) as a divorcee with two sons who has an affair with a young sailor (played by the great Eric Roberts in one of his sweetest and most low-key performances) passing through her Texas town in 1944. The film is wonderfully characterised, brilliantly performed and truly beautiful in tone, but Wittliff also threads through an air of violence and threat, along with some richly feminist social commentary, that gives this quiet near-masterpiece a real core of toughness and heart.

Sissy Spacek and Eric Roberts in Raggedy Man

Wittliff penned the script for Fred Schepisi’s forgotten western Barbarosa, which saw the writer reunited with Willie Nelson, who played outlaw to Gary Busey’s young innocent in this slow-moving but highly rewarding film, which plays inventively with myth and western motifs. After penning the excellent 1984 rural crisis drama Country (directed by Richard Pearce and starring partners Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard), Wittliff agreed to write a script based on Willie Nelson’s acclaimed 1975 album Red Headed Stranger. Wittliff finished a draft in 1979 and Universal Studios wanted Robert Redford to play the lead role, even though Willie Nelson saw himself in the role. Robert Redford ultimately turned the part down, and Nelson and Wittliff returned their advances to buy the script back. 1986’s resultant Red Headed Stranger marked William D. Wittliff’s one and only stint in the director’s chair. A rock-solid revisionist western with Nelson in good form as a gun-toting preacher, Red Headed Stranger was an impressive debut from Wittliff, whose ease with and affinity for the material was obvious.

From there, Wittliff penned or co-wrote a succession of fine films dealing with the American heartland, and often in the western genre. Wittliff worked on the adaptation for Simon Wincer’s truly brilliant and utterly majestic 1989 mini-series treatment of Larry McMurtry’s epic western masterpiece Lonesome Dove, and also helped adapt Jim Harrison’s same-named novella for Edward Zwick’s slightly confused but still entertaining 1994 drama Legends Of The Fall. Wittliff did a solo adaptation of Sebastian Junger’s book The Perfect Storm, which director Wolfgang Petersen didn’t really capitalise on to great effect, and the 2000 film was a disappointment. 1994’s Woody Harrelson-Kiefer Sutherland starrer The Cowboy Way was rollicking entertainment, but Wittliff’s best late-career (and ultimately final) screen effort was undoubtedly 2013’s A Night In Old Mexico. Directed by Emilo Aragon, this tough-minded neo-western sees a laconic and grizzled Robert Duvall protecting his grandson from a crew of drug dealers. Wonderfully elegiac and truly compelling, A Night In Old Mexico once again saw Wittliff digging deep into the western ethos to create something rich and profound.

Robert Duvall in A Night In Old Mexico

After establishing a number of foundations and collections that helped preserve the rich cultural history of Texas, and writing a large array of novels and screenplays that are fertile with the complex imagery of his home state, Wittliff D. Wittliff died on June 9, 2019, in Austin from a heart attack at the age of 79, leaving behind a body of work deserving of more celebration outside of Texas.

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Tom DeSimone, Ulu GrosbardDenis SandersDaryl DukeJack McCoyJames William GuercioJames GoldstoneDaniel NettheimGoran StolevskiJared & Jerusha HessWilliam RichertMichael JenkinsRobert M. YoungRobert ThomGraeme CliffordFrank HowsonOliver HermanusJennings LangMatthew SavilleSophie HydeJohn CurranJesse PeretzAnthony HayesStuart BlumbergStewart CopelandHarriet Frank Jr & Irving RavetchAngelo PizzoJohn & Joyce CorringtonRobert DillonIrene KampAlbert MaltzNancy DowdBarry Michael CooperGladys HillWalon GreenEleanor BergsteinWilliam W. NortonHelen ChildressBill LancasterLucinda CoxonErnest TidymanShauna CrossTroy Kennedy MartinKelly MarcelAlan SharpLeslie DixonJeremy PodeswaFerd & Beverly SebastianAnthony PageJulie GavrasTed PostSarah JacobsonAnton CorbijnGillian RobespierreBrandon CronenbergLaszlo NemesAyelat MenahemiIvan TorsAmanda King & Fabio CavadiniCathy HenkelColin HigginsPaul McGuiganRose BoschDan GilroyTanya WexlerClio BarnardRobert AldrichMaya ForbesSteven KastrissiosTalya LavieMichael RoweRebecca CremonaStephen HopkinsTony BillSarah GavronMartin Davidson, Fran Rubel Kuzui, Elliot SilversteinLiz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy Kelly, Paul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne Ramsay, Vernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne Fletcher ,Bobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.