Larry McMurtry Dies: Prolific ‘Lonesome Dove’ Novelist & Oscar-Winning ‘Brokeback Mountain’ Screenwriter Was 84

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Erik Pedersen
·5 min read
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Larry McMurtry, who won an Oscar for penning Brokeback Mountain, earned a nomination for The Last Picture Show and authored books that spawned Emmy winner Lonesome Dove and Best Picture Oscar winner Terms of Endearment, died Thursday of heart failure. He was 84. The news was confirmed to media outlets by family spokeswoman and 42West CEO Amanda Lundberg.

McMurtry — whose son is the singer-songwriter James McMurtry — won the Pulitzer Prize for writing Lonesome Done, which became a popular 1989 CBS miniseries and spawned a sequel and a syndicated series, and was awarded the 2014 National Humanities Medal by President Obama.

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McMurtry’s 1975 book Terms of Endearment became the 1983 film from writer-director-producer James L. Brooks. Starring MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Jeff Daniels and John Lithgow, the pic was a commercial smash and led all films with 11 Oscar noms. Along with Best Pictrure, it earned Academy Awards for Shirley MacLaine, Nicholson and two for Brooks for Director and Adapted Screenplay.

Hollywood also made films from his Horseman, Pass By, which became the 1963 Paul Newman pic Hud; Leaving Cheyenne, adapted for the big screen as Sidney Lumet’s Lovin’ Molly (1973); and The Evening Star, a Terms of Endearment sequel headlined by MacLaine in 1996.

McMurtry’s western Lonesome Dove was published in 1985, and the six-hour miniseries hit TV in time for the February 1989 sweeps. Featuring an ensemble led by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, Angelica Huston, Danny Glover and Diane Lane and Glenne Headly — who all earned Emmy noms for their roles — it drew a massive audience for its three-night run and went on to win seven Emmys among 18 nominations. The National Television Critics Association named it Program of the Year, and CBS received a Peabody for the show.

The mini was following by sequel Return to Lonesome Dove, which CBS aired over four nights in November 1993, and the syndicated Lonesome Dove: The Series, which premiered in 1994 and whose second and final season was titled Lonesome Dove: The Outlaw Years.

The Last Picture Show hit bookstores in 1966 and became the 1971 Best Picture Oscar nominee starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybill Shepherd and Ellen Burstyn. Supporting actors Cloris Leachman and Ben Johnson won Academy Awards for their roles. The book was the third in his “Texas Trilogy” set in the small town of Thalia, following Horseman, Pass By and Leaving Cheyenne.

“How lucky am I that my first acting experience was in a film (The Last Picture Show) written by Larry McMurtry and directed by Peter Bogdanovich,” Shepherd said in a statement to Deadline through her publicist. “They both became my mentors and lifelong friends. Many years ago Larry gave me a sterling and turquoise necklace that I cherish and hold close to my heart. Especially today.”

Another McMurtry book, Texasville, followed Last Picture Show‘s character Duane Moore and was adapted for film in 1990. Both were scripted and directed by Peter Bogdanovich, who shared the Adapted Screenplay Oscar nom with the author. Last Picture Show also was a Best Picture nominee.

In 2005, McMurtry and producer Diana Ossana adapted the 1997 short story Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx, winning the Adapted Screenplay Oscar. Directed by Ang Lee — who won his first Oscar for it — the film starred Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as cowboys who develop a complicated sexual relationship over the course of two decades. Premiering at Venice that year, Brokeback Mountain earned eight Academy Award nominations, losing Best Picture to Crash. McMurtry and Ossana also eared a WGA Award for the film.

McMurtry’s career honors also include BAFTA Awards for the Brokeback Mountain and The Last Picture Show scripts and the 2013 Scripter Literary Achievement Award, shared with Ossana — his longtime writing partner, with whom he lived.

Born on June 3, 1936, in Archer City, Texas, McMurtry would pen 30-plus novels along with nonfiction books, essays and Books: A Memoir, published in 2008. His other writings that were adapted for the screen include the 1995 miniseries Streets of Laredo, starring James Garner and Sissy Spacek; the 1995 mini Buffalo Girls with Huston and Melanie Griffith; Johnson County War, a 2002 telefilm featuring Tom Berenger, Luke Perry, Rachel Ward and Burt Reynolds; and the 2020 Toronto Film Festival entry Good Joe Bell starring Mark Wahlberg.

McMurtry also wrote the screenplay for Falling from Grace, the 1992 film starring future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Mellencamp. Around that time, the writer’s son James met Mellencamp, who would go on to produced James’ debut album. James McMurtry contributed to the film’s soundtrack as part of Buzzin’ Cousins, a short-lived supergroup that also featured Mellencamp, John Prine, Joe Ely and Dwight Yoakam.

James McMurtry has gone on to become an acclaimed singer-songwriter-guitarist whose most popular songs include “Choctaw Bingo” and the protest anthem “We Can’t Make It Here.” Admired rock critic Robert Christgau named the latter as best song of the 2000s decade.

Along with his son and Ossana, Larry McMurtry is survived by his wife, Norma Faye; sisters Sue McMurtry (Deen) and Judy McMurtry (McLemore); brother Charlie McMurtry; grandson Curtis; and goddaughter Sara Ossana. No memorial service is set, but McMurtry’s family said he will be buried in his native Texas.

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