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CRITIC AT LARGE

Foote: 'I Flourish In Ferment'

March 13, 1986|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Silent movies tiptoed away into time but marked and enriched everything that came after. Live television succumbed to tape and film, but in its brief, glorious time (scarcely a decade) it defined the possibilities of the medium and generated a population of writers, directors, producers and performers who continue to give purpose and vigor to movies and television.

Horton Foote, one of the singular talents who emerged in early television, remembers Lillian Gish saying, years ago, "But they'll take it all away from you, the way they took the movies away from Mr. Griffith."

"I never knew quite who they were," Foote said during a conversation in Los Angeles a few days ago. "But that's the way it happened. But she believed in the power of the medium and she wanted it to live up to that power."

Gish was in her mid-50s when she played Carrie Watts in "The Trip to Bountiful" on the "Goodyear Television Playhouse" in March, 1953. Producer Fred Coe, one of the defining spirits of early television, had urged the play out of Foote and paid him $1,000 for it. (The next time, Foote asked for $1,500 and Coe cried, "You'll ruin us; all the writers will want $1,500.")

"The Trip to Bountiful" has had a remarkable history, of course. Gish and Eva Marie Saint, who did it on television, then did it in the theater (Saint accepted "On the Waterfront" only on condition she could continue in the play at night). Now it has become a very successful film, with Geraldine Page as Carrie, and nominations for Page as best actress and Foote for best script adapted from another medium.

Foote was, and still is, a prodigiously hard-working writer who says he requires neither solitude nor calm. "I'm lucky; I can write almost anywhere, having lived in a house with four noisy children. I love to write; I'd do it even if I didn't get paid for it, even though there are moments of terrible despair."

He can write on planes and trains and in hotel rooms in the small spaces between appointments, creating in longhand on yellow legal pads. "I still can't type."

He did several dramas in live television days, and was hired by Warners to adapt an Erskine Caldwell novel. Yet Foote was never really, in his word, engaged, until Alan Pakula and Robert Mulligan asked him to adapt Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird."

He won the first of his two Oscars for that; the second was for "Tender Mercies" in 1983. What seems remarkable about Foote's career is that across all the media and amid all the conflicts of art versus commerce, in which art is always the long-odds underdog, he has produced a coherent body of work.

Like "The Trip to Bountiful," it is most often an intimate, loving, perceptive exploration of ordinary people and their often extraordinary resilience, courage, persistence and wisdom in the face of trials, disappointments and dreams that have had to be deferred or abandoned.

It is also often flavored by the family feelings and regional memories of Foote's boyhood in Wharton, Tex., some 60 miles from Houston--pop. 3,000 in his youth, perhaps three times that now. He has recently acquired the house in Wharton that he lived in from the time he was a year old.

What he calls the next discovery of his life--after finding the satisfactions of film work with "Mockingbird"--was having a hand in small, independent films, commencing with "Tomorrow," the William Faulkner story he adapted and which stars Robert Duvall. He was involved every day and sat in on the editing from start to finish.

He was associate producer on "Tender Mercies" and is now engaged on a massive project, filming a cycle of nine autobiographically flavored plays he wrote in New Hampshire a few years ago and whose overall title is "The Orphan's Home."

The first of the cycle of films, "1918," which is also the latest in time, was released several months ago. The first prequel, "On Valentine's Day," opens on April 11. The next, "Courtship," is scheduled to shoot in May. Subsequent films by present plan will star Robert Duvall and Mary Steenburgen and eventually the year will be 1902 ("which is before my time," Foote adds quickly; he'll be 69 on Friday).

He is also working on an adaptation of the pseudonymous William Wharton novel "Dad" for Steven Spielberg and, in what he calls his spare time, on a ballet for Twyla Tharp. He had worked with Martha Graham on a ballet called "The Lonely" in 1946.

"I flourish in ferment," Foote says. "Broadway's hidebound like the studios these days. But there are young people around who care about their work, and you can tell that they're interested in it, and not just in fame and fortune. There are good signs."

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