Horton Foote, Chronicler of America in Plays and Film, Dies at 92
Horton Foote, who chronicled a wistful American odyssey through the 20th century in plays and films mostly set in a small town in Texas and who left a literary legacy as one of the country’s foremost storytellers, died on Wednesday in Hartford. He was 92 and lived in Pacific Palisades, Calif., and Wharton, Tex.
Mr. Foote died after a brief illness, his daughter Hallie Foote said. He had recently been living in Hartford while adapting his nine-play “Orphans’ Home Cycle” into a three-part production that will be staged next fall at the Hartford Stage Company and the Signature Theater in New York.
In a body of work for which he won the Pulitzer Prize and two Academy Awards, Mr. Foote was known as a writer’s writer, an author who never abandoned his vision even when Broadway and Hollywood temporarily turned their backs on him.
In screenplays for movies like “Tender Mercies,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Trip to Bountiful,” and in plays like “The Young Man From Atlanta” and “The Carpetbagger’s Children,” Mr. Foote depicted the way ordinary people shoulder the ordinary burdens of life, finding drama in the resilience by which they carry on in the face of change, economic hardship, disappointment, loss and death.
Robert Duvall, an actor who was one of Mr. Foote’s most frequent interpreters, making his screen debut in “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) and winning an Oscar for best actor in “Tender Mercies” (1983), said on Wednesday that “Horton was the great American voice.” He added, “His work was native to his own region, but it was also universal.”
Frank Rich, who as chief theater critic of The New York Times in the 1980s was one of Mr. Foote’s champions, once called him “one of America’s living literary wonders.” On Wednesday Mr. Rich described Mr. Foote as “a major American dramatist whose epic body of work recalls Chekhov in its quotidian comedy and heartbreak, and Faulkner in its ability to make his own corner of America stand for the whole.”
In 1986, in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, Mr. Foote expounded on the themes that run through his work, saying, “I believe very deeply in the human spirit and I have a sense of awe about it because I don’t know how people carry on.” He added: “I’ve known people that the world has thrown everything at to discourage them, to kill them, to break their spirit. And yet something about them retains a dignity. They face life and they don’t ask quarters.”
Mr. Foote spent most of his life writing about such people. In more than 60 plays and films, most set in the fictive town of Harrison, Tex., he charted their struggle through the century by recording their familial conflicts.
He often seemed to resemble a character from one of his plays. Always courteous and courtly, he spoke with a Texas drawl. He enjoyed good food and wine, but he usually opted for barbecue and iced tea or fried chicken with a Coca-Cola when he was home in Texas. He was jovial with a wry humor, and his white hair and robust frame gave him the appearance of a Southern senator or the favorite uncle who always had a story. Harper Lee, a lifelong friend since Mr. Foote adapted her novel “To Kill a Mockingbird,” once said that Mr. Foote “looked like God, only cleanshaven.”
Albert Horton Foote Jr., one of three sons of Albert Horton Foote and the former Hallie Brooks, was born March 14, 1916, in Wharton, Tex., a town about 40 miles southwest of Houston. His father was a haberdasher and his mother taught piano.
Although he boarded a train for Dallas at 16 to pursue acting, Mr. Foote never really left home. From his first efforts as a playwright, he returned again and again to set his plays and films amid the pecan groves and Victorian houses with large front porches on the tree-lined streets of Wharton. His inspiration came from the people he knew and the stories he heard growing up there.
Mr. Foote spent two years studying acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in California, then went to New York to become a Broadway star. He continued his studies there with Tamara Daykarhanova, a Russian émigré, and joined Mary Hunter’s American Actors Company. While rehearsing a production of one-acts, Ms. Hunter had her cast perform improvisations based on life in the actors’ hometowns. After Mr. Foote performed his, Agnes De Mille, who was doing choreography for another show, asked Mr. Foote if he had ever considered writing.
“No,” he replied. “What on earth would I write about?”
Ms. DeMille, who became a lifelong friend, gave Mr. Foote the age-old advice to every beginning playwright. “Write what you know about,” she said.
Mr. Foote went home that night and wrote a one-act called “Wharton Dance,” about the Friday-night dances in his hometown. He wrote the lead part for himself. The company performed the play in an evening of one-acts.
Mr. Foote continued to pursue acting and appeared in a few other plays. Then, during a trip home, he decided to write another play. This time he spread a large canvas, writing a three-act, multilayered drama set in a small-town drugstore. He called it “Texas Town,” and the American Actors Company staged it in 1941, with Mr. Foote in the lead.
To Mr. Foote’s and the company’s surprise, Brooks Atkinson, the critic for The Times, came to see it. Atkinson called it an “engrossing portrait of small-town life.” He praised it for being “simply written” and for giving “a real and languid impression of a town changing in its relation to the world.” He added, “Mr. Foote’s play is “an able evocation of a part of life in America.”
To support himself, Mr. Foote took various jobs, including night elevator operator and bookstore clerk. While working in the bookstore a Vassar student came in looking for a summer job. Her name was Lillian Vallish. Mr. Foote asked her on a date, and the two were married the next year, on June 4, 1945. They had four children and remained together until Ms. Foote’s death in 1992.
Besides his daughter Hallie, an actress who became a main interpreter of her father’s plays, Mr. Foote is survived by his three other children — Horton Jr., who also acted and directed and is a restaurant owner in New York; Walter, a lawyer; and Daisy, also a playwright — and two grandchildren.
After World War II, Mr. Foote and Lillian moved to Washington to run the King Smith School along with Vincent Donehue. (Mr. Foote had been barred from serving in the military during the war because of a hernia.) The new theater fashion in those years was to blend words, music and dance into one theatrical experience, and Mr. Foote tried to write in the new form. One achievement during the Washington years was that Mr. Foote opened the King Smith theater to all races, the first integrated audiences in the nation’s capital.
Mr. Foote returned to New York in 1950, just as television was beginning to command America’s attention and producers like Fred Coe were recruiting writers to work for it. Mr. Donehue was hired by Mr. Coe to produce a weekly TV show for children that starred Gabby Hayes, the cowboy movie star and Roy Rogers sidekick.
Mr. Foote went to work for Mr. Coe at NBC, and his first assignment was to help write weekly half-hour episodes of “The Gabby Hayes Show.” In his spare time he continued to write plays. One, “The Chase,” in 1952, introduced Kim Stanley to Broadway, although it did not have great critical success.
Mr. Coe shortly signed Mr. Foote to a contract to write nine one-hour dramas for television. Mr. Coe liked to have one-page plot synopses from his writers, but for his third TV drama, Mr. Foote recalled, he didn’t know how to put it on paper. So, by his account, he just told Mr. Coe the plot.
“It’s about an old lady who wants to go home,” Mr. Foote said.
“That’s it?” Mr. Coe asked
“That’s it,” Mr. Foote replied.
“Go ahead,” Mr. Coe said. “I trust you.”
“The Trip to Bountiful” starred Lillian Gish as the gentle and long-suffering widow Carrie Watts. The play would have several incarnations over Mr. Foote’s life, including a version on Broadway, a revival Off Broadway, a London production and, three decades later, a 1985 movie for which Geraldine Page would receive an Academy Award for best actress and Mr. Foote was nominated for the screenplay.
Mr. Foote went on to write 10 plays for television, mostly for Television Playhouse and mostly directed by Mr. Donehue. When Mr. Coe moved from NBC to CBS, Mr. Foote wrote several teleplays for “Playhouse 90,” including adaptations of the Faulkner stories “Old Man” and “Tomorrow.” Faulkner was so impressed with the latter that he offered to split the publication royalties with him.
Television had moved to the West Coast by this time, and Mr. Foote’s work in TV there led to his first film projects. One of them was to adapt a screenplay of Ms. Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” about a white Southern lawyer defending a black man on rape charges. For his screenplay Mr. Foote received his first Academy Award. Gregory Peck won best actor for his performance as the lawyer, Atticus Finch, and the film introduced to the screen a young actor named Robert Duvall as the eccentric Boo Radley.
Mr. Foote had another film success with “Baby, the Rain Must Fall” (1965), a reworking of his play “The Traveling Lady.” The film starred Steve McQueen.
But Mr. Foote’s Hollywood honeymoon began to sour. His next Hollywood venture was to adapt his play “The Chase” into a screenplay. But studio executives were unhappy with the script, and the producer Sam Spiegel hired Lillian Hellman to rewrite it. When the final film version was released, almost none of Mr. Foote’s original material remained. Mr. Foote was then hired by Otto Preminger to work on a screenplay for “Hurry Sundown” (1967), but the producer never used a word of his dialogue, although Mr. Foote appeared in the credits as a co-writer.
The experiences so depressed Mr. Foote that he moved to New Hampshire to live on a farm, and even contemplated giving up writing. It was after the death of his parents that Mr. Foote began the nine-play cycle called “The Orphans’ Home,” inspired by his father’s family and spanning 1902 to 1928. The first of these plays were staged in New York by Herbert Berghof, who with his wife, Uta Hagen, ran the H-B Theater workshop. It marked the start of the Foote revival.
If Brooks Atkinson helped launch Mr. Foote’s first career as a writer, it was Mr. Rich, of The Times, who helped start his revival with enthusiastic reviews of the cycle’s plays. Producers started paying attention to Mr. Foote’s work again, and a new generation of audiences was introduced to his work.
One of those who applauded Mr. Foote’s return was the director and producer Alan J. Pakula, who had hired him to write the screenplay for “Mockingbird.” “In a seemingly undramatic way,” Mr. Pakula said, Mr. Foote “has a specific voice, a specific style, and he has never abandoned it, even though it has cost him.”
While Mr. Foote worked on “The Orphans’ Home” cycle, his agent, Lucy Kroll, suggested he write an original screenplay. He began working on a story about a group of young singers trying to break into country and western music. When his daughter Hallie reminded him that Mr. Duvall could sing, Mr. Foote started molding a character for him.
The movie, “Tender Mercies,” was written specifically with Mr. Duvall in mind for the role of Mac Sledge, a washed-up, alcoholic singer who finds redemption in the love of a young Vietnam War widow and her small son. The film was shot in Waxahachie, Tex., for only $4.5 million, and at first no studio wanted to distribute it. But, Mr. Duvall went on to win the best-actor Academy Award and Mr. Foote received his second Oscar for the screenplay.
With his new success, Mr. Foote again turned toward writing movies, but this time he pursued an independent route. With his wife, Lillian, as producer and the rest of his family acting or working behind the scenes, he made movies of two plays in the “The Orphans’ Home” cycle, “1918” and “On Valentine’s Day.” Both were shot in Waxahachie, cost under $2 million each and starred Hallie Foote.
The second act of Mr. Foote’s career was given an extended run by the Signature Theater, an Off Off Broadway company that devoted its 1994-95 season to his work. One of the Foote plays that season had been written some years earlier, but had never been performed. It was “The Young Man From Atlanta” and was about a couple nearing retirement in Houston in the 1950s and trying to come to terms with their grown son’s suicide and suspected homosexuality. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995.
As the 21st-century dawned, Mr. Foote wrote “The Carpetbagger’s Children,” a play in which three grown daughters of a carpetbagger look back over their lives and the 20th century in alternating monologues. It was staged at Lincoln Center and drew sold-out audiences in an extended run. Another revival of “The Trip to Bountiful,” with Lois Smith, was a hit for Signature Theater, and Mr. Foote scored a Broadway success with the revival of “Dividing the Estate,” under Michael Wilson’s direction.
Mr. Wilson, director of the Hartford Stage, and James Houghton of the Signature, put together the production of “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” that will be staged in the fall and was Mr. Foote’s lifelong dream.
Mr. Foote had all but completed work on adapting those plays at his death. Only a week ago, he had seen a preview performance of the stage version of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at the Hartford Stage Company and had been anticipating the staging of “Dividing the Estate” there in April.
“I don’t think I’ll ever stop writing,” he said in a 1999 interview. “I write almost every day. I’d write plays even if they were never done again. You’re at the mercy of whatever talent you have.”