Foote was compared at times to Faulkner, specifically for the way he used a fictional town as a frequent setting for his plays. Faulkner invented Yoknapatawpha County, Miss. Like Faulkner, Foote also brought some of his characters back in several of his works.
Many of the returning characters in Foote's plays are based on his relatives. The Thorntons, the Robedaux and Vaughns, families he wrote about a number of times, were inspired by his parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles. He also drew on family history. "The Orphans' Home Cycle" includes stories about Foote's relatives from the early 1900s. One play in the cycle, "Courtship," is based on the story of Foote's mother, Harriet "Hallie" Brooke, who disobeyed her parents and eloped with Foote's father, Albert. The play was also made into a movie.
Foote never formed his own acting company, but he often wrote roles for specific actors. Duvall appeared in his "The Chase" (1966), "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Tomorrow" (1974) as well as "Tender Mercies." Shirley Knight and Estelle Parsons also worked with Foote more than once.
"You can't make too many false moves with his writing," Duvall once told the New York Times. "You can't push it along. You just have to let it lay there. It's like rural Chekhov, simple but deep."
Foote's daughter Hallie, who played Sissie in the original cast of "The Carpetbagger's Children," seemed particularly suited for his style and is a leading interpreter of his work. "Her father's ear for dialogue is pitched exactly to her flat, nasal twang, which catches both the music and the vacancy of his writing," Lahr wrote.
Foote was born in Wharton on March 14, 1916, the oldest of three sons whose father owned a men's clothing store in town.
Intent on being an actor, Foote moved to California after graduating from high school in the early 1930s and attended the drama school at the Pasadena Playhouse. From there he moved to New York City in 1935, joined repertory companies and looked for work. Steeped in an oral tradition of storytelling, Foote was eager to play the type of characters he later began to write about in his plays.
To fill the slow times between performances, he tried his hand at writing. "Texas Town" was his first play to be performed, in New York City in 1941. It is set in a drugstore that was the social center of a small community, where two brothers are in love with the same woman. Foote was encouraged by members of his acting company and by a friend, choreographer Agnes de Mille, to keep writing.
His first Broadway production, "Only the Heart," opened in 1944. It is the story of a young woman who escapes the rural town where she lives and moves to faster, freer Houston.
Foote had given up acting for writing by 1945, when he married Lillian Vallish. They had four children -- Walter, an attorney, and Daisy, a playwright, along with Horton Jr., an actor and restaurant owner, and Hallie. Lillian Foote produced a number of her husband's plays before she died in 1992. Foote is survived by his two daughters and two sons.
In the early 1950s, Foote moved from stage to television writing for a time. "The Trip to Bountiful" and "The Chase" began as teleplays and were later expanded into feature films. ("The Trip to Bountiful" also premiered on Broadway in 1953.) Through the 1950s he was a contributor to "Studio One" and the "Philco-Goodyear Playhouse" as well as "Playhouse 90."
Moving into film
In the early 1960s, he became more involved in movies. After his start in feature films in 1962 with "To Kill a Mockingbird," which Lee called "one of the best translations of a book to film ever made," he continued over the years to write screenplays, original works as well as adaptations. His "The Traveling Lady" became "Baby the Rain Must Fall," a 1965 film starring Steve McQueen and Lee Remick.
Through the 1980s, Foote and his wife regularly went back to the house in Wharton where he grew up. He wrote his memoirs, "Farewell, A Memoir of Texas Childhood" (1999), and "Beginnings," (2001) about the start of his theater career.
At times he looked back over the years with a sense of wonder. "When I left Wharton, if you told me I was going to be a playwright, I would have told you you were crazy," Foote told the Associated Press in 2004. "Things can work out beyond your imagination."
Private funeral services will be held in Texas in the spring. Instead of flowers, the family has asked that memorial donations be made to one of Foote's artistic homes: Goodman Theatre, Hartford Stage, Lincoln Center Theater, Primary Stages or Signature Theatre.
Rourke is a former Times staff writer.
An appreciationFoote reflected loving forbearance toward the everyday eccentrics he created. PAGE D1