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Aaron Latham, writer of the magazine story that inspired ‘Urban Cowboy,’ dies at 78

Identifying the cultural movement taking place at Gilley's in Houston in the late 1970s was his favorite achievement, said his wife, "60 Minutes" correspondent Lesley Stahl.
Image: Lesley Stahl and Aaron Latham
Lesley Stahl and Aaron Latham at the launch of Little Barrel in New York in November 2008.Patrick McMullan via Getty Images file

LOS ANGELES — Aaron Latham, a screenwriter, journalist and author whose Esquire magazine story inspired the 1980 smash “Urban Cowboy,” died July 23 in Pennsylvania of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 78.

Latham was married to “60 Minutes” correspondent Lesley Stahl. He died at Bryn Mawr Hospital in Bryn Mawr, Pa. Stahl and the couple’s daughter, Taylor Stahl Latham, a producer on the Apple TV+ drama “Servant,” were with him.

“He loved being two things: He loved being a writer and he loved being a father,” Stahl told Variety, noting that he got a good start as a writer at The Washington Post and moved on from there to even bigger accomplishments.

A native of Texas, Latham was known for writing about novels set in the Old West. His magazine journalism also inspired the 1985 movie “Perfect” about the aerobics exercise craze of that moment. The film reunited Latham with the “Urban Cowboy” team of screenwriter-director James Bridges and star John Travolta. He was also involved with the 1993 film “The Program,” which starred James Caan, Halle Berry and Omar Epps and focused on a season of a fictional college football team.

Latham’s novels include 2001’s “Code of the West,” which transports the mythology of King Arthur to hardscrabble Texas, and 2004’s “The Cowboy With the Tiffany Gun.”

Stahl says Latham at first was an intellectual, getting his PhD at Princeton with a dissertation he wrote about F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood. “Hollywood was in his head, even way back,” Stahl said, even if he took a circuitous path to making his mark on the screen. “I think he had a very rich life as a journalist, as a playwright, as a screenwriter.”

Latham grew up in West Texas, where his interest in writing started at a young age. He remarked in a Texas Monthly article that as a child he would create “stories in the form of cartoons.” Then, as for his decision to pursue writing as a career, he stated that he was raised “with the idea that writers were the great heroes of the world, and I wanted to be my mother’s hero.”

Latham was buried in Spur, Texas, a small town about 75 minutes outside of Lubbock, which is where the character played by Travolta in “Urban Cowboy” hails from.

Stahl told Variety that Latham considered “Urban Cowboy” his favorite achievement -- having identified the cultural moment unfolding at the famed Gilley’s nightclub outside Houston. Stahl and Stahl Latham played the movie’s soundtrack for him in his final hours.

In addition to writing books, Latham also contributed to such publications as The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Esquire.