The Western writer also earned acclaim for The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment and won an Oscar for his Brokeback Mountain screenplay.

By Christian Holub
March 26, 2021 at 02:17 PM EDT

Horseman, pass by. Larry McMurtry, the American novelist renowned both for historical Westerns like Lonesome Dove and contemporary chronicles like Terms of Endearment, died of heart failure on Thursday surrounded by loved ones, spokeswoman Amanda Lundberg confirmed to EW. He was 84.

McMurtry was born in Wichita Falls, Texas, on June 3, 1936. Despite being the son of a rancher, by his own admission, McMurtry never had much skill as a cowboy. He was much better equipped as a writer and book collector. He graduated from North Texas State University in 1958 and earned a master's degree in English from Rice University in 1960 before taking on a creative writing fellowship at Stanford University, where he studied alongside future One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest writer Ken Kesey. McMurtry's friendship with Kesey lasted for years afterward; he pops up in a scene in Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test about Kesey's drug-fueled road trip with the Merry Pranksters, and even married his friend's widow Norma Faye in 2011.

Shortly after his Stanford fellowship, McMurtry published his first novel Horseman, Pass By in 1961. It was also the first of his books to get adapted for the big screen — as the 1963 film Hud, starring Paul Newman. Right from the start, McMurtry's writing made for good adaptations. The Last Picture Show, his coming-of-age novel set in a dead-end town in '50s Texas, was adapted by Peter Bogdanovich in 1971 and became a defining film of the "New Hollywood" era of American cinema.

Little more than a decade later, James L. Brooks' 1983 film Terms of Endearment (based on McMurtry's 1975 novel about the complex relationship between a mother and daughter) won Best Picture at the Academy Awards. One of McMurtry's most beloved books, the epic "anti-Western" Lonesome Dove, was turned into a popular 1989 TV miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as former Texas Rangers driving a cattle herd from Texas to Montana.

McMurtry was also a good adapter in his own right. He was nominated for an Oscar for his own screenplay of The Last Picture Show, and finally won it in 2006 alongside co-writer Diana Ossana for Brokeback Mountain, which they adapted from a short story by Annie Proulx. When they went on stage to accept the award, McMurtry was wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots beneath his dinner jacket.

Larry McMurtry
Credit: Diana Walker/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Although McMurtry's film work often took him to Hollywood, he stayed rooted in his hometown of Archer City, Texas. That's where EW visited him in 2003. He recommended reporter Mary Kaye Schilling stay at the Lonesome Dove Inn, and took her to the local Dairy Queen where his novels' dust jackets adorned the walls. "Susan Sontag says I live in my own theme park," McMurtry told Schilling.

Another reason McMurtry stayed so rooted in his hometown decades after writing The Last Picture Show was Booked Up, the massive bookstore he founded there. At its height, it occupied six buildings and contained 400,000 books, though he auctioned off two-thirds of the supply in 2012 to make it more manageable for his heirs.

McMurtry is survived by his beloved son James McMurtry, his dear grandson Curtis McMurtry, his dear wife Norma Faye McMurtry, his former wife Jo Ballard, his sister Sue McMurtry (Deen), his sister Judy McMurtry (McLemore), his brother Charlie McMurtry, his goddaughter Sara Ossana and her husband Mathew Provost, their children Sofia and James, his dear friend and long-time writing partner Diana Ossana (with whom he lived), his bookstore manager and dear friend Khristal Collins and her daughter Lexi, and his many beloved nieces and nephews.

Related content: