Playwright Wrote Gentle Dramas, 'Mockingbird' Screenplay

By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 5, 2009

Horton Foote, 92, a celebrated dramatist of the gentle rhythms, familial perplexities and generational burdens of small-town life and an Academy Award winner for his screenplay adaptation of the Harper Lee novel "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962), died March 4 in Hartford, Conn. He was in Hartford preparing for a fall production of "The Orphans' Home Cycle," his award-winning collection of nine plays. No cause of death was reported.

Mr. Foote forged a writing career that spanned seven decades and encompassed film, theater and most especially television during the 1950s heyday of the "human condition" drama. One of his best-known works of the period, "The Trip to Bountiful," starred Lillian Gish as an elderly woman who runs away from her family to revisit the small Texas town where she grew up, only to find it abandoned. A later film version won an Oscar for Geraldine Page.

Mr. Foote was never widely embraced in the manner of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams. He was occasionally out of fashion in the theater world, though he experienced moments when his reputation skyrocketed after a particularly terrific production. Such was the case last year with "Dividing the Estate," which starred his daughter Hallie as a scheming heiress in a Texas family squabbling over an inheritance. Mr. Foote also won a 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his play "The Young Man From Atlanta," about a Houston couple in the 1950s trying to comprehend the mysterious death of their son.

Besides writing the movie version of "To Kill a Mockingbird," which is often held up as one of the finest and most literate visual translations of a book, Mr. Foote won an Oscar for his original screenplay "Tender Mercies" (1983), starring Robert Duvall as down-on-his-luck country singer Mac Sledge. Duvall, who also won an Oscar for "Tender Mercies," appeared in Mr. Foote's "Tomorrow," a critically acclaimed 1972 movie adaptation of a William Faulkner short story.

Duvall once told the New York Times: "You can't make too many false moves with his writing. You can't push it. You can't propel it along. You have to just let it lay there. It's like rural Chekhov, simple but deep."

Mr. Foote's work, for both stage and screen, drew its inspiration and sustenance primarily from the generational burdens of small-town Texas life. He wrote about ordinary people coping with what he called "life's vicissitudes," whose outward calm and stoicism belie an inner turbulence. Not much happens in his plays, at least on the outside, but they are packed with what he once described as "dislocation, sibling rivalries, elopements, family estrangements, family reconciliations, and all the minutiae that make family life at once so interesting and yet at times so burdening."

Albert Horton Foote Jr. was born March 14, 1916, in Wharton, a small Southeast Texas town near the mouth of the Colorado River. Cotton was the cash crop, and the culture was more Southern than Southwestern.

Like Faulkner, Mr. Foote grew up listening to stories, and he continued listening throughout his life.

He later bought his parents' Wharton home and lived there until his death. In the 1986 New York Times article, he explained what drew him back to Wharton. "It's the minutiae that fascinate me," he said. "I have this obsessive interest in the details of people. I can sit and listen to 900 different people down here. I don't get bored."

His father ran a small clothing store, and his mother, who came from a Southern aristocratic family, was a gifted pianist. Nonathletic, Mr. Foote preferred staying inside and listening to older family members reminiscing, telling tales from generations past as if they had happened yesterday.

Mr. Foote left home at 17 and began his theatrical career as an actor in Dallas and Pasadena, Calif., before settling in New York as part of a group of talented young performers known as the American Actors Co., which included choreographer Agnes de Mille. She encouraged his writing, especially urging him to draw on his background.

The company staged his one-act play "Wharton Dance" in the fall of 1940 and his three-act play "Texas Town" the next year. New York Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson wrote that the play "gives a real and languid impression of a town changing in its relation to the world -- the old stock drifting down the economic and social scale, the young people at loose ends in an organization that does not employ them."

Not long afterward, he spent a brief time in Washington and co-founded a theater workshop at the old King-Smith School of the Creative Arts. Returning to New York in the late 1940s, he began writing for television -- most notably live, hour-long dramas for NBC's weekly "Philco Television Playhouse." He was a key part of a circle of young dramatists that included Paddy Chayefsky ("Marty") and Reginald Rose ("12 Angry Men") as well as director Arthur Penn and actors Julie Harris, Kim Stanley and Geraldine Page.

He recalled this era of television as a renaissance moment for gifted authors, and it led to his work in Hollywood, where he wrote "To Kill a Mockingbird" as well as the screenplay for "Baby, the Rain Must Fall" (1965) with Steve McQueen, based on his earlier teleplay "The Traveling Lady." He later adapted a number of his stage plays to the screen, including "1918" (1985) starring Belinda Jackson and "On Valentine's Day" (1986) starring Matthew Broderick. In 1997, he won an Emmy Award for his adaptation of a Faulkner story, "Old Man."

There was a long period, starting in the mid-1960s, when Mr. Foote's subtle approach to storytelling was considered unfashionable. He withdrew into semiretirement and lived with his family on a farm in New Hampshire. He considered putting down his pen, maybe selling antiques, but his wife urged him to continue writing, and in the late 1970s he began "The Orphans' Home." Two of the nine plays were adapted for film.

Widely acclaimed, "Orphans' Home Cycle" begins in 1902 with the death of his actual paternal grandfather and the remarriage of his grandmother. The cycle ends with "The Death of Papa," in which a 9-year-old Horton Foote -- called Horace Robedaux Jr. in the play -- experiences the loss of another grandfather. He began to write the cycle of plays in 1974, the year of his mother's death. His father had died the previous year "in the very room and on the bed my brothers had been born in," he told the Christian Century in a 1997 interview.

The family saga "will take its place near the center of our largest American dramatic achievements," novelist Reynolds Price once said.

Mr. Foote married Lillian Vallis, who became his producer, in 1945. She died in 1992.

Besides his daughter Hallie, survivors include three other children, Horton Foote Jr., who is also an actor; playwright and screenwriter Daisy Foote; and Walter Foote, a lawyer.

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