Horton Foote 1916-2009: Wrote screenplay for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’

[5 March 2009]

By Chris Jones

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

Horton Foote, a generous, genteel American dramatist whose profound human insights were expressed with uncommon empathy for the fears of decent, small-town Americans, died Wednesday at age 92. According to several reports, Foote was in his temporary apartment in Hartford, Conn., working on a future production of one of his plays.

Foote, whose exquisite marriage of existential angst and daily detail made him America’s Chekhov, died while suddenly fashionable again. He was a compulsive, and thus working, writer until his final breath, just a few days shy of his 93rd birthday.

“I had just been talking to him about a play for New York next season,” said the director Harris Yulin, noting that it seemed like Foote would go on writing for ever. “Every time we talked, he wanted to get back to work.”

Although his work never fully left the era, state and minuscule town of his youth - Wharton, Texas, which he fictionalized as Harrison, Texas - Foote had a long relationship with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, which presented a major, multiproduction retrospective of his work in early 2008.

The playwright was clearly delighted with the Horton Foote Festival, rolling those words happily around his tongue and spending much time in Chicago last winter watching Yulin’s production of “The Trip to Bountiful” (starring Lois Smith and Foote’s daughter, Hallie, and son-in-law, Devon Abner), “Talking Pictures,” “Blind Date” and “The Actor,” often sitting in the front row.

Foote also penned such other plays as “Dividing the Estate,” “The Widow Claire,” “Lily Dale” and “The Young Man from Atlanta,” which premiered at the Signature Theatre in New York and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. A later, Chicago production directed at the Goodman Theatre by Robert Falls moved to Broadway.

Foote wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay to “To Kill a Mockingbird” (He was one of the few writers that Harper Lee trusted.).

Among many collaborations with actor Robert Duvall was the movie “Tender Mercies,” which won Foote a second Academy Award for its screenplay and restarted his career.

Foote first saw himself as an actor, but began as a TV writer in the 1950s, moving from Playhouse 90 into theater and film.

Despite the awards and the prolific output, Foote’s gentle, poetic, simply realistic work went out of favor in the experimental theater of the 1960s and 1970s. His Hollywood career was marked by similar peaks and valleys, including a dark, post-“Mockingbird” period when Foote deliberately took himself out of the action and moved to New Hampshire.

Taking his career as a whole, Foote never achieved the overall fame and notoriety of such iconic peers as Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller.

“Those boys were spoiled,” Foote told the Chicago Tribune last year. “They all had their shows up on Broadway straight away. They won Tony Awards and Pulitzer Prizes immediately. I was different. I’ve won almost all of those same prizes over the years, but I’ve also seen them come and go.”

In recent years, Foote and his work have very much come rather than gone.

From Broadway to regional theaters, artists have been rediscovering his plays and better understanding and appreciating their awareness of the agony of personal loss; their comprehension of the myriad cosmic dimensions of ordinary life in a small Texan town in the early to mid-20th century.

Foote’s “Dividing the Estate” was well-received on Broadway last season. His nine-play cycle, “The Orphans’ Home Cycle,” is to be produced at Hartford and is expected in New York next year.

“He just kept following his star through all the hard times,” said Yulin. “What he knew was in one sense very quotidian, but it added up to something extraordinary and unusual.”

“Nearly all his plays are set in the same space,” said director Henry Wishcamper, “yet his vision of American life is all encompassing. He caught what life has been like in this country over the last century.”

In “The Trip to Bountiful,” a 1953 play that was turned into a 1985 movie starring Geraldine Page, Foote wrote of the straightforward desire of an old lady to visit the place of her birth one last time before she dies.

It is a consummate Foote drama, rich with empathy and generosity, and yet mindful of the perils of aging and its forced dependencies.

The play’s humble but dignified central character must balance her sincere sense of obligation to others - and to just holding things together daily - with the resilient yearnings of her own restless soul. No American playwright has better understood that conundrum, or expressed it with more kindness or self-evident belief in the power of ordinary people. His commitment to such everyday characters was lifelong.

In a frank and extensive interview last year, Foote told the Chicago Tribune that he became a writer after being prompted by the legendary choreographer Agnes De Mille, from whom he had taken a class.

“She asked me if I’d ever thought about writing a play and told me that she thought I should,” Foote said. “‘Write what you know,’ she said, and that’s what I did. Maybe I took her too literally.”

Private funeral services will be held in Texas in the spring, the Associated Press reported; a memorial service is also planned.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/71278-horton-foote-1916-2009-wrote-screenplay-for-to-kill-a-mockingbird/