In early December, when I drop by Bill Wittliff’s office just off Sixth Street in the heart of Austin, he is, as he puts it, “a little busy.” On his desk are stacks of notes for two screenplays he is writing for major studios—one about the building of the transcontinental railroad, the other about the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the sixteenth century. Next to those stacks is a screenplay about a runaway slave; although he has already sold it, he feels it could use some polishing.And those are just a few of his projects for the day. He tells me he needs to take some time to peruse the first copies of his new book, Boystown: La Zona de Tolerancia, which have just arrived. The book is a collection of riveting photographs that Wittliff began gathering in the mid-seventies from itinerant Mexican photographers who took pictures of sad-eyed prostitutes and their drunken, leering customers in an unnamed town just south of the Texas-Mexico border. Then, for a planned book of his own photographs, he needs to spend a few minutes flipping through some of the eerie, slightly blurry black and white portraits of bullfights, cowboys, and religious statues he took with cameras that he jury-rigged himself to diffuse light in startling new ways.
Of course, he can’t attack any of these tasks until he finishes talking with the woman seated on the other side of his desk. She is Connie Todd, who helps him oversee his two collections housed at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos, just south of Austin: the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography, with around 8,700 photographs, and the Southwestern Writers Collection, which includes, along with historic manuscripts and first drafts of novels, such Texas literary memorabilia as the white suit worn by J. Frank Dobie when he gave lectures, the old Smith Corona used by Larry L. King to write The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and a book of lyrics written by Willie Nelson when he was eleven years old.
Dressed in his favorite uniform—blue jeans, a button-down shirt with a fish print, and white tennis shoes that always look nice because he never runs in them—Wittliff pulls at an unruly tuft of gray hair flipping over one ear and starts to discuss upcoming exhibits with Todd. Yet the phone never stops ringing, and Wittliff often picks it up on the first ring. There’s an agent, a writer, a real estate broker, a lawyer. “What’s going on?” Wittliff says every time, genuinely interested in what the other person has to say.
Suddenly, the front door opens and in walks a struggling young photographer who just wants to say hello. Wittliff stops everything, gets up, offers the photographer a few minutes of reassuring conversation, then walks him back to the front door and shakes his hand good-bye.
“You know that this is the way he operates every day,” says Todd, who was Wittliff’s personal assistant for sixteen years before she began working full-time on the collections at Southwest Texas State.
“And he still gets everything done?” I ask.
“I feel a little sick to my stomach,” I say—a reaction that Todd assures me is not unusual among self-absorbed, pseudo-artistic types who, upon meeting Wittliff for the first time, begin to realize just how little they are accomplishing with their own careers. Wittliff is Texas’ Renaissance man, as versatile as a utility infielder in baseball. He is a writer, a photographer, a book publisher, a film producer, a book collector, a historical archivist, a pen-and-ink artist, and according to his closest friends, a poker player of such skill that he could make a living on seven-card stud alone if he ever decided to move to Las Vegas. And now, at the age of sixty, he seems to be hitting his stride. Although Wittliff has been revered in Hollywood circles since he wrote and produced 1989’s Lonesome Dove, the Emmy-winning television miniseries based on the Larry McMurtry novel, he is finding himself inundated with offers from producers and directors, thanks to the success of last year’s film The Perfect Storm, which he wrote based on the Sebastian Junger book. (So far the movie has grossed more than $340 million.) He was asked to write the screenplay about the transcontinental railroad, for instance, at the behest of Martin Scorsese, who plans to direct the film, and Steven Spielberg, who plans to produce it. When he let it be known that he wanted to write about Spaniard Hernán Cortez’s conquest of Mexico, various studios immediately began bidding for the rights to produce it. “Let me tell you, it’s not only rare for someone at the age of sixty to be at the top of the screenwriting game, it’s almost unheard of,” says Bud Shrake, a novelist and screenwriter and Wittliff’s longtime friend. “Very few writers age sixty or over can even make a living at screenplays. There’s Larry Gelbart, Elaine May, William Goldman, Bill Wittliff—and that’s about it.”
And it’s a safe bet that he’s the only screenwriter of any age who can juggle so many other projects at the same time too. “I didn’t exactly plan to be doing so much,” Wittliff tells me in his deep, twangy voice, wagging a cigarette between his fingers. “If you want to know the truth, I never had any totally conscious plan about where my life would go.” He gives me an apologetic grin as he reaches for the telephone that’s ringing once again on his desk. “I don’t even have a plan now. I just sort of go where the wind blows me.”
If he wanted to, Wittliff could play the role of the bearded sage. He could sprinkle his conversation with references to all the writers and photographers he knows. He could fill you in on just how important he is in Hollywood, how no one turns him down for meetings, how he’s gotten at least 25 calls in the past few months from producers willing to pay him stratospheric sums for one