The Real Life Secrets Behind 'August: Osage County'

Wednesday, December 25th 2013, 9:03 pm
By: News On 6

This is the week of the long awaited release of the film, "August: Osage County." Shot here in Oklahoma and based on the Pulitzer prize winning play by Tulsa native Tracy Letts, lots of people here are anxious to see familiar landmarks and perhaps even friends and neighbors on the big screen.

But there are real-life secrets behind this story.

"We're so dysfunctional: my family, his family, our family. What family isn't?" asked Billie Letts.

Oklahoma native Billie Letts was nationally known even before her son rose to fame. Her book "Where The Heart Is" was a best-seller, chosen for Oprah's book club and later made into a movie starring Ashley Judd.

But its the story of her dysfunctional family that was Tracy Letts' inspiration for "August: Osage County,"starting with the death of her father.

"The woman who plays the mother is based on my mother. And Barbara, the older sister who takes over, is based on me," she said. 

I talked to Tracy earlier this year at his home in Chicago. 

"My mother's father committed suicide when I was ten years old. He drowned himself in Fort Gibson Lake," he said.

"Those events from my childhood have haunted me my whole life."

It had been in his mind since he was ten years old. and he knew someday he was going to write about it.

"I guess he overheard a lot of conversations that I wouldn't have wanted him to hear," Billie Letts said.

The movie's similarities to Billie's life don't stop there.

"I'm a drug addict - that's the truth," says Meryl Streep's character.

Like the character played by Meryl Streep, Billie's mother descended into addiction. And like the family in the movie, the family in real life paid a terrible price.

"It had a tremendous impact on our larger family as well as our nuclear family," said Tracy Letts.

"An impact that is still felt today, frankly."

Of course, many things in the movie are simply made up. Tracy never meant for it to be a true story.

But the line between real life and fiction is often blurred, and that was certainly the case when the play was first produced on stage in Chicago. A real member of the Letts family stepped into the fictional world of "August: Osage County." 

Tracy's own father, a retired college professor, played the role of the family patriarch who commits suicide.

12/23/2013 Related Story: 'August: Osage County' Opens In Movie Theatres Friday

The show was a huge hit and quickly moved to New York. 

"When Tracy called and said 'dad, we're going to take this play to Broadway, and I really want you to play the part,' Dennis was just over the moon. He was so happy," Billie said. 

But by the time the play opened on Broadway, Dennis Letts had been diagnosed with cancer. He stayed in the production for just a few months, then came home to Tulsa, where he died. 

"August: Osage County" was really the cherry on top for him at the end - it's absolutely true - and I'm so happy he got the chance to do it," Tracy said.

Terry Hood: "Your mom said you really couldn't watch that scene anymore after."
Tracy Letts: "I didn't. I never did. I never watched it again."

So how does Billie Letts feel about having such a personal story revealed to the world?

She says she didn't know Tracy was going to write about her family, but she's been on board since the day he sent her a copy of the play.

"After I finished it, I called him and he said, 'well, go ahead - tell me what you think?' and I said, 'I think you've treated my mother very gently.'"

You have to see the movie to appreciate that.

"August: Osage County" comes out Friday in limited release. It opens nationwide - including the Tulsa area - on January 10th.