Larry McMurtry, who has died aged 84, was a bestselling novelist whose books spawned films as varied as The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment. He was also the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Brokeback Mountain and an essayist who featured in America’s most serious critical journals.
He shot to stardom in 1961 with his first novel, Horseman, Pass By, which became the movie Hud (1963), starring Paul Newman as the eponymous son of a traditional Texan rancher who plays fast and loose with the accepted ways. Melvyn Douglas, as his father, and Patricia Neal, as the housekeeper whom Hud rapes, both won Oscars.
His second novel, Leaving Cheyenne (1963), was in many ways his best, a Texas-set Jules et Jim love triangle told in three sections, set at 20-year intervals and each narrated by one of the three. It was filmed as Lovin’ Molly (1974) by Sidney Lumet, with Anthony Perkins, Beau Bridges and Blythe Danner caught in Lumet’s awkward mix of New York sensibilities and Texas narration.
The third of what McMurtry later labelled his Thalia trilogy (after the town in which the first book was set) was The Last Picture Show (1966), the title referring to the closing of the movie theatre in a dying Texas town. He co-wrote the screenplay, which won a Bafta, with Peter Bogdanovich for the director’s 1971 film, which produced supporting actor Oscars for Ben Johnson as the father-figure and Cloris Leachman as the unhappy wife of a high school football coach having an affair with Timothy Bottoms.
McMurtry’s subject, throughout his career, was his native Texas, and he wore with pride a T-shirt bearing the label once slapped upon him by a critic, “minor regional novelist”. But his fiction also followed the path of his life, which expanded beyond the bounds of his home state even if it always returned to its roots.
He was born in Wichita Falls in Texas, but grew up outside Archer City, 25 miles south, on his grandfather’s ranch with his parents, Hazel (nee McIver) and William McMurtry. It was a book-free environment, but when Larry was six, a cousin who went off to the second world war left a box of 19 novels, mostly adventure stories, which he read and re-read.
He graduated from North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) in 1958, and earned an MA in English at Rice University in Houston in 1960, by which time he had married Jo Scott, a fellow student. A short story produced in a writing class, which he eventually expanded into his first novel, won him acceptance as a William Stegner fellow on Stanford University’s creative writing programme, where classmates included Wendell Berry and Ken Kesey.
McMurtry taught creative writing for a year at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, then back at Rice. In 1966 he spent a year teaching at George Mason University outside Washington DC; he and Jo divorced the same year. After the publication of his first three novels he won a Guggenheim fellowship that led to a seminal book of essays about Texas, In a Narrow Grave (1968), whose themes included some of those reflected in his fiction. In 1969 he left Rice for the American University in Washington DC, and after three years there he gave up teaching altogether.
Instead he opened a bookshop, Booked Up, in Washington DC, where his extensive knowledge of rare book collecting made it a success. His writing turned back to Texas, but to Houston this time, to look at the expanding modern suburbia encroaching on the old Texas. His style became more expansive and picaresque, starting with Moving On (1970). Characters continued between books, most notably Danny Deck, a would-be novelist who is the centre of All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers (1972), “half in love” with Emma Horton, his best friend’s wife, and all in love with Jill Peel, whom he cannot have.
The novelist Jim Harrison compared the writing in All My Friends to that of Saul Bellow and Norman Mailer, marking it out as “disproportionately sensual and violent … tempered by comic genius”. This style came to the fore in Terms of Endearment (1975), which introduced Emma’s mother, the magnificently self-centred Aurora Greenaway, one of the best female characters from a writer who wrote many memorable women. James Brooks’s 1983 film version of the book won five Oscars, including for best picture and best actress for Shirley MacLaine as Aurora.
In 1985 McMurtry’s flowing style and his love of Texan history melded to produce Lonesome Dove, a vast novel about two ageing Texas Rangers, Woodrow Call and Augustus McRae. It became a bestseller, won a Pulitzer prize, and spawned a TV miniseries starring Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall that won 18 Emmy awards. But McMurtry was chagrined. “I wanted to write a novel that demythologised the west,” he said. “Instead it became a chief source of western mythology”. Lonesome Dove became a franchise, with TV miniseries adaptations of his books and two original TV series featuring younger versions of the characters.
He wrote three sequels, including the uncharacteristically dark Streets of Laredo (1993), his first novel after a 1991 accident in which the car he was driving hit a cow. In the aftermath he suffered a heart attack. By then McMurtry had met Diana Ossana, a waitress in Tuscon, Arizona, and moved in with her, though they always denied a romance. After his open-heart surgery she helped him resume writing, originally copying and editing his typewritten pages onto the computer disks his publishers required, then becoming his writing partner; their first co-authored book was Pretty Boy Floyd (1994).
It was Ossana who suggested he read Annie Proulx’s short story Brokeback Mountain. McMurtry bought the film rights and wrote the screenplay with Ossana; the 2005 film won a best director Oscar for Ang Lee, while McMurtry and Ossana shared the best adapted screenplay award. In 2002 he began a darkly comic four-novel series called The Berrybender Narratives, about British aristocrats on an ill-fated hunting expedition in the US in 1832.
After his friend Kesey died in 2011, McMurtry married Kesey’s widow, Norma Faye, on whom, he said, he had had a crush 50 years before. With little ado, they moved into Ossana’s house in Tuscon.
In 2012 he organised The Last Book Sale, an epic auction of more than 300,000 items from the four bookshops he by then owned. “One store is manageable for my heirs,” he said. “Four stores would be a burden”. For one week, Archer City, where he had one of his shops, was flooded with bibliophiles, as McMurtry had hoped it would be.
His final novel was The Last Kind Words Saloon (2014) an elegiac, dark comedy featuring Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, ending at the OK Corral. It recalled the last words of Johnny McCloud in Leaving Cheyenne, more than 50 years earlier: “Nobody gets enough chances at the wild and sweet.”
He is survived by Norma and by a son, James, from his first marriage.