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Horton Foote dies at 92; playwright, screenwriter chronicled small-town Southern life

March 05, 2009|Mary Rourke

Horton Foote, whose bittersweet stories of heartbreak and regret set in small Southern towns earned him wide popular acclaim as well as two Academy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, died Wednesday. He was 92.

Foote died in his sleep at his apartment in Hartford, Conn., said Paul Marte, a spokesman for the Hartford Stage theater company. Foote was in Hartford with his family, including his actress daughter Hallie and son-in-law Devon Abner, who are appearing in a stage adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird."

Foote emerged on the national scene when he won an Academy Award for his screen adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird," the 1962 movie based on Harper Lee's novel about a black man in a Southern town unjustly accused of rape.

He won a second Oscar for his original screenplay for 1983's "Tender Mercies." A low-budget film about a popular country singer trying to beat alcoholism and start a new life, it starred Robert Duvall, who won a best actor Oscar for his performance.

Foote was a contender for a third Academy Award with "The Trip to Bountiful," a 1985 movie about an elderly woman who takes one last journey back to the place where she was raised. The screenplay did not win an Oscar, but Geraldine Page won a best actress award for her performance as the homesick Carrie Watts.

After 50 years as a successful playwright, Foote received the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1995 with "The Young Man From Atlanta." The play concerned a middle-age couple from Houston trying to deal with their son's suicide and revelations that he was gay.

In his gentle way, Foote reaffirms common wisdom in the play, about our blind spots and the unforeseen consequences.

"He has years of high-quality work to his credit," said Morris Dickstein, a literary critic and professor of English and theater at the City University of New York. "His Pulitzer when he received it was like a lifetime achievement award."


'I can't quit'

Foote wrote at least 60 plays, a dozen movie scripts and more than a dozen teleplays before the age of 90. He had been living with his daughter Hallie at her home in Pacific Palisades in recent years, and he continued to write, always longhand. "I can't quit," he said a few years ago. "I woke up last night at 1:30 and had to get up and write. It's compulsive."

At the time of his death, he was finalizing work on "The Orphans' Home Cycle," his nine-play theater event that will be co-produced by the Hartford Stage and New York's Signature Theatre next fall.

Last fall, his play "Dividing the Estate" opened to rave reviews on Broadway. New York Times critic Ben Brantley called it "one of the masterworks" of Foote's career.

Clear-sighted and compassionate, the writer based many of his plays on stories his parents told him when he was growing up in Wharton, Texas. He drew stories from as far back as the Civil War and set many of his works in Harrison, a fictional town based on Wharton. His characters were generally average folks trying to cope with change.

"His whole body of work is one long memoir," Dickstein said. "He is not the same as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams and so many Southern writers who give us extreme characters and explosive situations. He better compares with some of the writers he has influenced, particularly Larry McMurtry. Foote is nostalgic, without being sentimental."

"Early on," Foote told the Houston Chronicle in 1995, "I said to myself that I would like to write a kind of moral and spiritual history of a place. It sounds a little pretentious, I know. But that's really what I set for myself."

He didn't choose his subject, but it chose him, he believed. "What an unlikely thing," Foote said about writing plays centered on Wharton. "I was advised over and over again to give it up, that people wouldn't be interested. But I just couldn't help it. If I'd never had a play staged or published or a film made, I still would have written about Wharton."

The experience taught him something about his profession. "A writer has an inescapable voice," Foote said in a 2001 interview. "I think it's inherent in the nature and I think that we don't control it, anymore than we control what we want to write about."

The result was subtle, honest -- at times disturbing. "For more than 60 years, Foote has used his gentle, penetrating intelligence to bear witness to the vagaries of life," wrote John Lahr, reviewing Foote's play "The Carpetbagger's Children" for the New Yorker in 2001.

In that play, three sisters inherit their father's ill-gotten estate and continue to evade the truth about his violent, abusive ways, even after he has died.

Each sister in turn speaks directly to the audience, bending the truth to protect herself from the pain that is a large part of her inheritance. "It's hard to convey the bittersweet music, the rhapsody of ambivalence, that Foote expresses through these narratives of joy and hurt," Lahr wrote.

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