EARLY IN HIS HIT MOVIE CAST AWAY, screenwriter Bill Broyles has Tom Hanks’s character deliver to his Federal Express employees in Moscow a lecture on the intrinsic value of time. We live or die by the clock, Chuck warns his people. A few scenes later Broyles isolates his protagonist on a remote island in the Pacific, with nothing to his name except a pocket watch, a pager, and whatever he can claim from the rocks and sea. His options: reinvent or perish. Chuck reinvents himself—otherwise there would be no Act III—and eventually gets off the island.
Chuck isn’t all that different from his creator. Bill Broyles is a man alone on an island of his own making, isolated from his peers by an obsession with greatness and the desire to do something new and better whenever he seems to achieve it. Life for the 57-year-old Austin writer has been a spectacular run of conquests, challenges, disappointments, and reinventions, yet he requires more. Not more of the same, understand, but more … what? What do you call the affliction when a man has everything but peace of mind? The curse of the clock, perhaps. It’s Chuck again: living or dying by it, never for a moment being unaware of the passage of irretrievable time in his own life. Chuck found himself in a place where time was irrelevant. Broyles never has.
His list of achievements includes student body president at Rice University, Marshall Scholar at Oxford (equal to Rhodes but not as well known), and commander of a platoon of Marines in Vietnam. He went on to become the founding editor of Texas Monthly and later the editor in chief of Newsweek. He wrote a first-rate book about returning to Vietnam, Brothers in Arms; co-created a critically acclaimed television series, China Beach; received an Oscar nomination for co-writing Apollo 13; wrote a late version of the screenplay for Sean Connery’s Entrapment and received the screen credit for last year’s remake of Planet of the Apes; and in his spare time climbed the highest peak in the Americas.
This month he will be inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame, which recognizes that he is one of a handful of A-list writers in Hollywood, someone whose mere presence at the table can jump-start a film project. “People want to be in business with him,” said David Friendly, the producer who hired Broyles for the Apollo 13 job. He works on two or three projects simultaneously, starting at his home office before daylight and later going to his West Austin office, where he takes phone calls from Los Angeles. His current projects include a screenplay about the siege at Khe Sanh, Vietnam, that he is writing for Tom Hanks and an original Western for Twentieth-Century Fox. On three occasions he has been hired to “doctor” screenplays by writers with Oscars on their mantel. One is a submarine movie, K-19, the Widowmaker, that stars Harrison Ford and is set for release in July, two months after the debut of another Broyles rewrite, Unfaithful. “Script-doctoring during production is like sliding down a fire pole in the middle of a fire,” he said.
Along with success, though, Broyles has known his share of failure, including three marriages that ended in divorce and enough professional setbacks to cripple most men. Through it all, he continues to grapple with the central question of his life: If you think your destiny is greatness, how do you know when you’ve reached it?
LIKE ALL OF BROYLES’S LONGTIME FRIENDS, I regard him as one of the most complex and interesting men I know. I’ve suspected almost from the moment we met that Broyles is from another galaxy. It was the fall of 1972, and we drank beer at Scholz Garten in Austin and talked about a story on Dallas Cowboys running back Duane Thomas that he had asked me to write for the maiden issue of Texas Monthly the following February. Broyles tilted back in his chair, his intense blue eyes drinking in every word. I wasn’t saying much, but from the depth of his attention I might have been reciting Milton’s Paradise Lost. I remember thinking, “This guy operates on a different level than the rest of us.” He seemed too good to be true—tall, muscular, curly brown hair, movie-star good looks, a smile that would charm a rattlesnake—but he was intelligent, honest, and above game playing. He was 28, about ten years my junior, and had minimal journalism experience—a few pieces written for the Rice student newspaper, The Thresher, three months with the old Houston Post, and freelancing for The Economist. Yet he already had the persona of an editor: He appreciated good writers and good writing, and he had a vision for the magazine.
In an amazingly short time Broyles learned the world of magazines. The early staff was heavily peppered with friends from his Rice days—Griffin Smith, Jr., Gregory Curtis, Paul Burka. The fledgling publication won a National Magazine Award for general excellence following its first year of existence. “The three things in my life I’m proudest of,” Broyles says now, “are Texas Monthly, Brothers in Arms, and Cast Away, in that order.
By the late seventies, though, it was clear that editing Texas Monthly wasn’t as fulfilling as it had once been. A pattern was beginning to form in his life: If it’s easy, it must be wrong. That’s why he could oppose the Vietnam War and still join the Marines and lead men into battle, and why, to research Cast Away, he marooned himself on a remote Mexican beach on the Sea of Cortez and subsisted on raw stingrays that he speared with a stick he’d sharpened with a stone. When he was in his forties, with his personal and professional life at a low ebb, he took up mountain climbing at the urging of Richard Bangs, who gave Broyles the assignment about conquering the 23,000-foot Aconcagua in Argentina