October 28, 1991|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Sun Book Editor

You think of the characters in Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "Lonesome Dove," and imagine not especially Gus McCrae and W. F. Call, but Robert Duvall and Tommie Lee Jones, the actors who played them in the memorable TV miniseries. "Terms of Endearment" brings to mind actresses Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger, but not the characters of Aurora and Emma Greenway. The dominant images of "The Last Picture Show" are of Cybill Shepherd, Ben Johnson and Cloris Leachman, rather than Jacy Farrow, Sam the Lion and Ruth Popper.

Unlike William Faulkner, Nathanael West and a host of other writers, Larry McMurtry and Hollywood have always gotten along well.

And given his affinity with both the printed word and the film world, it's not surprising that Mr. McMurtry will speak on writing fiction and for the screen when he delivers the G. Harry Pouder Lecture at Johns Hopkins University tomorrow night.

"My books are novels of character," Mr. McMurtry said by telephone from his ranch in Archer City, Texas. "They're rather old-fashioned. And films are still financed on actors. My novels contain strong and interesting characters, which attract major actors and actresses and directors."

These days, Mr. McMurtry is putting the finishing touches on his 15th novel, "The Evening Star," which he plans to deliver to his publisher by Dec. 1. It's a sequel to his 1975 book, "Terms of Endearment," and is scheduled for publication in April.

"I enjoy doing sequels," he said. "I have no problem coming back to the characters."

Mr. McMurtry, 55, has been interested in film almost as long as he has been writing fiction. He has written a number of screenplays and numerous commentary pieces for American Film magazine, which were included in the recent collection, "Film Flam: Essays on Hollywood." From his first novel, "Horseman, Pass By" (made into "Hud," with Patricia Neal and Paul Newman), to the recent "Lonesome Dove," Hollywood has been kind to Mr. McMurtry. Only "Texasville," his sequel to "The Last Picture Show," was not successfully done on film.

He acknowledged that despite his affection for the film adaptations of his novels, "for me, the excitement is in writing the book. Usually I see the movie and am aware that I have been very lucky, have been filmed well. But I don't get too excited. In fact, sometimes I don't even get to see the movie."

He wouldn't say which of the film versions of his books he prefers -- nor, for that matter, was he particularly disposed to say much in general. By all accounts an unassuming sort (most of his novels do not even have a photo of him on the dust jacket), he gives few interviews and prefers to live the quiet life on his ranch, where he continues his prolific output and maintains an interest in buying and selling rare books. He lived near Washington in the 1970s and early '80s, but now leaves Texas only "when there's something to do with the book business."

Mr. McMurtry was suggested as the Pouder lecturer by John Irwin, who heads the Writing Seminars Department at Johns Hopkins. Dr. Irwin was a graduate student at Rice University in the late '60s, when Mr. McMurtry was writer-in-residence there.

"His writing is probably at its peak now," Dr. Irwin said. "I've been a fan of Larry's for a long time."

He recalled Larry McMurtry, the teacher, as "a very nice guy, very soft-spoken. What everybody who was at Rice remembers was both his talent and his modesty. He used to go around campus wearing a sweat shirt reading, "Minor Regional Novelist."

If that convenient critics' depiction fit Mr. McMurtry after his early novels, all set in his native Texas, it doesn't anymore -- certainly not since "Lonesome Dove," the engrossing saga of a Texas-to-Montana cattle drive, that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986. That book not only marked Mr. McMurtry's return to Western themes and locales after several novels situated out of Texas ("Hollywood Jack," "Desert Rose"), but gained him new critical and popular success.

That was especially true in Texas. Mr. McMurtry had become an enfant terrible of sorts in Texas intellectual circles for his frequent and withering pronouncements on the quality of the state's literary output ("disgracefully insular and uninformed," he wrote in 1981). He had even moved out of state, to Virginia, after starting Booked Up, a rare-book store, in 1971 in the Georgetown section of Washington.

But he moved back to Archer City to live full time after "Lonesome Dove" -- he had kept the ranch while living in Virginia -- and wrote more novels about the West: "Anything for Billy" (1988), based on the life of Billy the Kid, and "Buffalo Girls" (1990), which includes Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill Cody among its characters.

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