Cormac McCarthy, Author of ‘No Country for Old Men,’ Dies at 89

Cormac McCarthy, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who endured decades of obscurity and poverty before film versions of “All the Pretty Horses,” “No Country for Old Men” and “The Road” brought him a wide readership and financial security, died Tuesday in Santa Fe, N.M. His publisher, Penguin Random House, said his son John McCarthy announced his death from natural causes. He was 89.

Extremely reclusive, McCarthy shunned publicity so effectively that one critic observed, “He wasn’t even famous for it.” But Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2008 adaptation of 2005 novel “No Country for Old Men” put him momentarily in the limelight; the crime thriller, which starred Tommy Lee Jones, Javier Bardem and Josh Brolin, won Oscars for best picture, director, adapted screenplay and supporting actor.

While McCarthy’s first novel, “The Orchard Keeper,” was published in 1965, commercial success eluded him until his 1992 National Book Award-winning “All the Pretty Horses” and the film version in 2000 began to turn his career around.

Set in west Texas between 1949-1951, “Pretty Horses” was the first in McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, followed by “The Crossing” in 1994 and “Cities of the Plain” in 1998. But the film, directed by Billy Bob Thornton and starring Matt Damon, Penelope Cruz and Henry Thomas, opened to mostly negative reviews.

Peter Biskind reports in his book “Down and Dirty Business” that Thornton had been forced to cut an hour from the film by producer-distributor Harvey Weinstein, though critics questioned whether the additional footage would have improved the movie’s “arty imagery and leaden pace.”

In 2009 John Hillcoat directed a powerful film version of McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2006 novel “The Road.” A post-apocalyptic father-son story, the film starred Viggo Mortensen, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Charlize Theron and Robert Duvall. Critical reception was largely favorable, but the bleak movie opened to modest returns at the box office.

In 2013 director Ridley Scott turned out crime drama “The Counselor” based on an original script by McCarthy. Critics were divided on the film, about the disastrously violent results of a drug deal gone bad. The movie sported A-list actors such as Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz and Penelope Cruz but for many viewers McCarthy’s excessive philosophical verbiage undermined what was essentially a simple genre exercise.

The same year saw James Franco direct and co-script what Variety called an “extremely faithful” and “suitably raw” adaptation of McCarthy’s chilling 1973 novel “Child of God” that, like the book, was awash in the violence and degradation of its central character, courageously played by Scott Haze.

A bigscreen adaptation of McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” the novel considered by many to be his masterpiece, was long in development. In April, it was announced that Hillcoat would return to direct the adaptation with McCarthy’s son John as executive producer. 

McCarthy’s work for television includes 1977’s “The Gardener’s Son,” a two-hour episode of the PBS anthology series “Visions.” Directed by Richard Pearce, it starred Penelope Allen, Ned Beatty and Kevin Conway. The author adapted his own 2006 play for the 2011 HBO telepic “The Sunset Limited.” Before filming commenced, McCarthy spent weeks in rehearsal with director Tommy Lee Jones, who starred with Samuel L. Jackson. Critics found the adaptation alternately claustrophobic — it takes place in one room — gritty and light on plot.

McCarthy also penned the five-act play “The Stonemason,” first performed in 1995.

In 2022, he published two novels, “The Passenger” and “Stella Maris.”

Born Charles McCarthy in Providence, R.I., McCarthy was 4 when his family moved to Knoxville, Tenn. He acted in high school, later drifting in and out of the U. of Tennessee as a liberal arts major without taking a degree. While stationed in Alaska with the Air Force in the 1950s, he hosted a radio show.

McCarthy was married three times. He has two sons: Cullen McCarthy, born in 1962 to his first wife Lee Holleman, and John Francis McCarthy, born in 1999 to third wife, Jennifer Winkley. He divorced his second wife, Annie DeLisle, in 1981.

 

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