Bill Wittliff was born in Taft, a small town in south Texas, in 1940. After his parents divorced, he and his brother Jim moved with their mother to Gregory, Texas, where Mrs. Wittliff ran a small telephone office during World War II (these experiences provided the basis for "Raggedy Man," Wittliff's feature film). Later, when his mother remarried, the family moved to a ranch in Blanco, a rural community of 700 in the hill country of central Texas.
In 1964, shortly after graduating from the University of Texas, Wittliff, with his wife Sally, founded a book publishing company, The Encino Press, which specialized in regional material about Texas and the Southwest. To date, Encino has won over 100 awards for quality of design and content. The press operated out of a 19th-century Victorian house in Austin in which O. Henry once lived and wrote
An accomplished photographer, Wittliff's photographs documenting the life of the Mexican vaquero (taken 1969-71) have been exhibited in numerous galleries and institutions throughout this country and in Mexico, including the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City, and the Texas Capitol. In Japan, they represented the United States during its bicentennial year. After twenty years, the exhibit is still shown as a traveling display in the U. S. and Mexico under the auspices of the Institute of Texan Cultures.
At 29, Wittliff was elected to the Texas Institute of Letters. He served as president during 1974-78, and sat on the Executive Council until 1990. In 1993, he was elected Fellow of the the Institute. He is a member of the historic Texas Philosophical Society, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences; and he served for six years on the Executive Board of Trustees of Robert Redford's Sundance Institute.
In 1985, with the donation of their lifelong collection of original manuscripts and books, Bill and Sally founded the Southwestern Writers Collection at Southwest Texas State University. Since that time the collection has grown rapidly, supported by donors from all over the country. It features original manuscripts by J. Frank Dobie, John Graves, Larry McMurtry, Walter Prescott Webb, Bud Shrake, Larry L. King, Horton Foote, Preston Jones, Sam Shepard, Willie Nelson, and many others. It also includes paintings by numerous regional artists including William Lester, Tom Lea, John Groth, Jerry Bywaters, Kermit Oliver, Robert Wade. Expanding the scope of the current facility, in 1996 the Wittliffs endowed the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern & Mexican Photography which already includes works by Russell Lee, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Ansel Adams, Keith Carter, Henri Cartier Bresson, Lola Bravo, Laura Gilpin, Edward Weston, Graciela Iturbide, Edward Curtis, Nacho Lopez, Erwin E. Smith, Marco Antonio Cruz, Jim Bones, Paul Strand, Mariana Yampolsky, and many others. Both collections are housed in eight specially designed rooms and a large, chambered gallery on the top floor of the Albert B. Alkek Library on the university campus.
Wittliff started sending ideas to the best television dramas of that era- Kraft Television Theatre, Playhouse 90, Robert Montgomery Presents.
Bill Wittliff had never seen a screenplay when he sat down in the early seventies to start writing a movie based on a story his grandfather had told him years before. He didn't use an outline; he simply wrote down whatever came to him next. Within a month he had a screenplay. Bud Shrake saw it sitting on Wittliff's desk, read it, and asked if he could show it to his agent. The script eventually was given to the producers of The French Connection, who loved it, and a few years later it appeared as Barbarosa. Starring Willie Nelson as a onetime outlaw hunted down by a vengeful family, it was highly praised.
One Christmas when he was in high school, Wittliff received a present from his aunt who lived in Houston. It was J. Frank Dobie's Tales of Old-Time Texas, a folklore collection. In the book was a story titled "The Wild Woman of the Navidad," about a runaway slave whose footprints were often seen in the settlements along the river. Wittliff realized that this was the same story he had heard the hardware store owner tell years before. "The book absolutely set me on fire," he says.
Perhaps his biggest claim to fame during his university days was the horseshoe-shaped bar he built in his room at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house. At night, he and his roommate would turn the room into a gambling den, where Wittliff won most of the poker games and sold cheap Scotch that he had poured into empty Chivas Regal bottles. Among the regular visitors to his gambling den, he says, was Frank Erwin, who was the fraternity's legal adviser and later became the chairman of UT's board of regents.
Bill Wittliff wrote one movie based on his mother's life as a telephone operator ( Raggedy Man, starring Sissy Spacek), another about the life of country musicians on the road ( Honeysuckle Rose, again starring Willie Nelson), and a third about a family nearly losing its farm ( Country, starring Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard).
Wittliff submitted an article for its column My Most Unforgettable Character. The story, entirely invented by Wittliff, was about his close relationship with Lyndon Johnson, then a U.S. senator, who had a ranch near Blanco. When that article was rejected, he sent several made-up quotes-which he claimed he had heard LBJ say-to the Quotable Quotes section. Reader's Digest turned him down again.
Bill Wittliff wrote the screenplay for Lonesome Dove and suddenly found himself on Hollywood's rarefied A-list, being offered eyeball-popping amounts of money to move to Los Angeles and work on movies or television series. Yet he refused to leave Texas.