NEW YORK — Jim Harrison, the fiction writer, poet, outdoorsman and reveler who wrote with gruff affection for the country’s landscape and rural life and enjoyed mainstream success in middle age with his historical saga “Legends of the Fall,” has died at age 78.

Spokeswoman Deb Seager of Grove Atlantic, Harrison’s publisher, said Harrison died Saturday at his home in Patagonia, Arizona. Harrison’s wife of more than 50 years, Linda King Harrison, died last fall.

The versatile and prolific author completed more than 30 books, most recently the novella collection “The Ancient Minstrel,” and was admired worldwide. Sometimes likened to Ernest Hemingway for the range and kinds of his interests, he was a hunter and fisherman who savored his time in a cabin near his Michigan hometown, a drinker and Hollywood script writer who was close friends with Jack Nicholson and came to know Sean Connery, Orson Welles and Warren Beatty, among others. He was a sports writer and a man of extraordinary appetite who once polished off a 37-course lunch, a traveler and teller of tales, most famously “Legends of the Fall.”

Published in 1979, “Legends of the Fall” was a collection of three novellas that featured the title story about Montana rancher Col. William Ludlow and his three sons of sharply contrasting personalities and values, the narrative extending from before World War I to the mid-20th century, from San Francisco to Singapore.

“Late in October 1914 three brothers rode from Choteau, Montana to Calgary, Alberta, to enlist in the Great War,” reads Harrison’s celebrated opening sentence, which author Vance Bourjaily would praise for establishing “both the voice and manner of the epic storyteller, who deals in great vistas and vast distances.”

The book was a best-seller, and Harrison worked on the script for an Oscar-nominated 1994 film of the same name starring Brad Pitt, Anthony Hopkins and Aidan Quinn. Harrison’s screenplay credits also included “Revenge,” starring Kevin Costner, and the Nicholson film “Wolf.” But he would liken the unpredictable and nervewracking process to being trapped in a “shuddering elevator” and reminded himself of his marginal status by inscribing a putdown by a Hollywood executive, “You’re just a writer,” on a piece of paper and taping it above his desk.

Harrison could have been a superb character actor, a bearded, burly man with a disfigured left eye and a smoker’s rasp who confided that when out in public with Nicholson he was sometimes mistaken for the actor’s bodyguard. Erudite enough to write reviews for The New York Times and to quote Wallace Stevens from memory, he also had a strong affinity for physical labor and a history of writing stories for and about men.

“My characters aren’t from the urban dream-coasts,” he told The Paris Review in 1986. “A man is not a foreman on a dam project because he wants to be macho. That’s his job, a job he’s evolved into.

“How is it macho that I like to hunt and fish? I’ve been doing it since I was 4.”

Harrison was an accomplished poet and sports journalist and a fiction writer with a strong feel for the pull and consequences of history. He set many works in the rural north of his native Michigan, including the detective novels “The Great Leader” and “The Big Seven.”


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