From the Archives: Horton Foote dies at 92; playwright, screenwriter chronicled small-town Southern life
Horton Foote, whose bittersweet stories of heartbreak and regret set in small Southern towns earned him wide popular acclaim as well as two Academy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, died Wednesday. He was 92.
Foote died in his sleep at his apartment in Hartford, Conn., said Paul Marte, a spokesman for the Hartford Stage theater company. Foote was in Hartford with his family, including his actress daughter Hallie and son-in-law Devon Abner, who are appearing in a stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
Foote emerged on the national scene when he won an Academy Award for his screen adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the 1962 movie based on Harper Lee’s novel about a black man in a Southern town unjustly accused of rape.
He won a second Oscar for his original screenplay for 1983’s “Tender Mercies.” A low-budget film about a popular country singer trying to beat alcoholism and start a new life, it starred Robert Duvall, who won a best actor Oscar for his performance.
Foote was a contender for a third Academy Award with “The Trip to Bountiful,” a 1985 movie about an elderly woman who takes one last journey back to the place where she was raised. The screenplay did not win an Oscar, but Geraldine Page won a best actress award for her performance as the homesick Carrie Watts.
After 50 years as a successful playwright, Foote received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1995 with “The Young Man From Atlanta.” The play concerned a middle-age couple from Houston trying to deal with their son’s suicide and revelations that he was gay.
In his gentle way, Foote reaffirms common wisdom in the play, about our blind spots and the unforeseen consequences.
“He has years of high-quality work to his credit,” said Morris Dickstein, a literary critic and professor of English and theater at the City University of New York. “His Pulitzer when he received it was like a lifetime achievement award.”
‘I can’t quit’
Foote wrote at least 60 plays, a dozen movie scripts and more than a dozen teleplays before the age of 90. He had been living with his daughter Hallie at her home in Pacific Palisades in recent years, and he continued to write, always longhand. “I can’t quit,” he said a few years ago. “I woke up last night at 1:30 and had to get up and write. It’s compulsive.”
At the time of his death, he was finalizing work on “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” his nine-play theater event that will be co-produced by the Hartford Stage and New York’s Signature Theatre next fall.
Last fall, his play “Dividing the Estate” opened to rave reviews on Broadway. New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it “one of the masterworks” of Foote’s career.
Clear-sighted and compassionate, the writer based many of his plays on stories his parents told him when he was growing up in Wharton, Texas. He drew stories from as far back as the Civil War and set many of his works in Harrison, a fictional town based on Wharton. His characters were generally average folks trying to cope with change.
“His whole body of work is one long memoir,” Dickstein said. “He is not the same as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and so many Southern writers who give us extreme characters and explosive situations. He better compares with some of the writers he has influenced, particularly Larry McMurtry. Foote is nostalgic, without being sentimental.”
“Early on,” Foote told the Houston Chronicle in 1995, “I said to myself that I would like to write a kind of moral and spiritual history of a place. It sounds a little pretentious, I know. But that’s really what I set for myself.”
He didn’t choose his subject, but it chose him, he believed. “What an unlikely thing,” Foote said about writing plays centered on Wharton. “I was advised over and over again to give it up, that people wouldn’t be interested. But I just couldn’t help it. If I’d never had a play staged or published or a film made, I still would have written about Wharton.”
The experience taught him something about his profession. “A writer has an inescapable voice,” Foote said in a 2001 interview. “I think it’s inherent in the nature and I think that we don’t control it, anymore than we control what we want to write about.”
The result was subtle, honest — at times disturbing. “For more than 60 years, Foote has used his gentle, penetrating intelligence to bear witness to the vagaries of life,” wrote John Lahr, reviewing Foote’s play “The Carpetbagger’s Children” for the New Yorker in 2001.
In that play, three sisters inherit their father’s ill-gotten estate and continue to evade the truth about his violent, abusive ways, even after he has died.
Each sister in turn speaks directly to the audience, bending the truth to protect herself from the pain that is a large part of her inheritance. “It’s hard to convey the bittersweet music, the rhapsody of ambivalence, that Foote expresses through these narratives of joy and hurt,” Lahr wrote.
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.
He adapted a number of Faulkner stories as teleplays, including “Old Man” (1958) and “Tomorrow” (1960) for “Playhouse 90,” which featured works by modern American authors. He also adapted Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” (1980), which aired on PBS.
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.
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