The subtle prose-poet of small-town Texas is gone: Playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote died Wednesday in Hartford, Conn., where he was working a production of one of his scripts. He was 92.
Equally at home writing for the stage, film or television, Foote quietly excelled in a career that lasted nearly 70 years. His first big TV script, “The Trip to Bountiful,” had an ongoing life as a play and a movie. Two of his most notable screenplays were “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Tender Mercies.” He won Academy Awards for both.
He later won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for drama for “The Young Man from Atlanta,” and he continued to work right up to the end. His rewritten “Dividing the Estate” was a critical hit on Broadway last fall and is sure to figure into the Tony Awards this spring. He also wrote a John Doyle movie, “Main Street,” to be released this year.
Foote didn’t just win awards for himself. He provided dream roles for actors like Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall and Geraldine Page, who all won Oscars in movies he wrote for them.
“He was a great gentleman, with a lot of insight that was very generous to other human beings,” Jac Alder, who produced two of Foote’s plays at Dallas’ Theatre Three, said on Wednesday. “I am always so amazed at how on the surface these plays seem almost nondramatic, not threateningly deep. But when they’re performed they connect on such a deep level. Of course he especially speaks to us here in Texas.”
Most of Foote’s plays were set in a fictional town based on Wharton, Texas, where he was born Albert Horton Foote, Jr. on March 14, 1915. Foote’s memoir, “Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood,” tells the story of his early years. After studying acting briefly in Dallas at age 16, he went on to California’s Pasadena Playhouse, where his teachers and fellow students couldn’t understand his thick Texas accent.
“I took my lunch money and studied with this woman who taught me the basics of phonetics,” Foote told The Dallas Morning News in 1999. “And so I went back home that summer, and I learned later that my brother was charging his friends 10 cents to hear me talk.”
Choreographer Agnes DeMille encouraged the budding actor to try his hand at writing, and his first play went onstage in 1940. Soon he proved the master of the realistic play. Generally his scripts dealt with ordinary people in recognizable, if stressful, family situations. The dialogue was always spare and elegant, but frequently the plot went in a slightly quirky direction that kept audiences guessing. His nine-play cycle “Orphans’ Home” epitomized his style - and detailed the lives of several generations in a Texas family.
Baylor University now hosts an annual theater festival named for the playwright, and Contemporary Theatre of Dallas plans to produce “The Trip to Bountiful” next season.
Foote was married to Lillian Vallish Foote from 1945 to her death in 1992. They had four children, most of whom were active in the theater. Daughter Hallie Foote starred in “Dividing the Estate” on Broadway and elsewhere.