Born: December 28, 1933;

Died: February 17, 2020.

CHARLES Portis, who has died from complications of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, aged 86, was about as ornery as his most famous character Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed marshal introduced to the world in Portis’s 1968 novel, True Grit, and played on screen by John Wayne in a film adaptation and by Jeff Bridges in a well-regarded remake.

Portis was a successful journalist on the New York Herald Tribune when in 1964 he surprised friends and colleagues by going off to live by himself in a cabin in the woods.

Writing about the move from journalism to novels in his essay, The Birth of the New Journalism, in 2008, Tom Wolfe said: “Portis did it in a way that was so much like the way it happens in the dream, it was unbelievable. One day he suddenly quit as London correspondent for the Herald Tribune. That was generally regarded as a very choice job in the newspaper business. Portis quit cold one day; just like that, without a warning.

“He returned to the United States and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas. In six months he wrote a beautiful little novel called Norwood. Then he wrote True Grit, which was a best seller. The reviews were terrific. He sold both books to the movies. He made a fortune. A fishing shack! In Arkansas! It was too god-damned perfect to be true, and yet there it was.”

In 25 years Portis produced just five novels, about loners and misfits and crazy journeys. Despite his background in journalism he shied away from publicity. Yet he was a highly rated and almost mythic figure in literary circles. The American critic and novelist Ron Rosenbaum called him “our least-known great novelist” in 2008, by which time all his novels except True Grit were out of print.

The son of a teacher and a journalist, Charles McColl Portis was born in El Dorado, Arkansas, in 1933. Against his parents’ wishes, he joined the Marines and fought in Korea. He subsequently enrolled at the University of Arkansas and chose Journalism as his major simply because he had to choose something and he thought it seemed an easy option.

Wolfe recalled a TV show with Portis and black activist Malcolm X, who told everyone not to call him Malcolm “because he was not a dining-car waiter”. He wanted to be called Malcolm X, but Portis managed to wind him up by repeatedly calling him Mister X.

His first novel, Norwood, was published in 1966 and featured an ex-Marine’s colourful journey from Texas to New York and back. True Grit appeared in 1968. In it a teenage girl recruits Rooster Cogburn and a young Texas Ranger to avenge the killing of her father. The film came out the following year, winning Wayne his only Oscar. It also featured Glen Campbell and Kim Darby, who were swiftly reunited in a 1970 film of Norwood.

Portis did not write the screenplays and was not involved in the 1975 True Grit sequel, Rooster Cogburn. There was a second television sequel before the Coen Brothers returned to the original story for their 2010 film, with Bridges and Matt Damon. The novel was reissued and reached No 1 in the New York Times bestseller list.

Portis was not married and had no children.