Born in Texas, Wittliff studied journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, and became a writer and photographer, forming his own publishing company. In the 1970s he turned to screenwriting, co-writing Honeysuckle Rose, basing some of the events on his own childhood. The film starred singer Willie Nelson, and the two became friends. Wittliff agreed to write a script based on Nelson’s “The Red Headed Stranger” — and Universal gave it the nod …but wanted Robert Redford to play the lead. Wittliff had written the role for Nelson to play, and when Redford turned down the role, Nelson and Wittliff bought the script back from Universal: the film finally hit the screen in 1986, starring Nelson and directed by Wittliff.
Wittliff adapted a Western novel by Larry McMurtry into a script for a hit TV miniseries: Lonesome Dove (1989), and served as executive producer. The four-part series won seven Emmy Awards. He also wrote the screenplays for Raggedy Man (1981), Legends of the Fall (1994), and The Perfect Storm (2000), among others. On the photography front, he donated more than 19,000 pictures of the Southwest and Mexico to Texas State University (as well as his screenwriting papers and production notes he had saved from his films) to create The Wittliff Collections. “Bill could usually be found in the corner of the room surrounded by students as he patiently answered questions about the creative process,” said Texas State University President Denise Trauth. So, what was that process? “The process for me is you put one thing down and you see where it comes from and where it goes,” he had said in 1981. “A lot of time you have to throw them away. That’s where it goes.” Wittliff died on June 9, from a heart attack. He was 79.