Thursday, March 5, 2009

Horton Foote


Foote wrote over 60 plays and screenplays over his long career, the majority placed in the fictional town of Harrison, a stand-in for his tiny home town of Wharton, TX. He began his career as an actor, studying at the Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles and the American Actors Company in New York. While at the latter, he fulfilled a class assignment by writing a short one-act play about the Friday night dances in his hometown. Wharton Dance, with Foote in the lead, was presented by the company and led to his writing a full, three act play called Texas Town. The show was presented by the American Actors Company and attracted the attention of the New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, who disliked the leading man (Foote) but praised the play, calling it an "engrossing portrait of small-town life.” Foote's writing career was launched.

After World War II, Foote became a television writer as well as a playwright. While his stage plays were not yet greeted warmly (he provided Kim Stanley with her Broadway debut in The Chase in 1952), he created a series of well-regarded one-hour teleplays. He summed up a particular story for his producer this way: "It's about an old lady who wants to go home." Silent film star Lillian Gish played the widowed Carrie Watts in this first incarnation of The Trip to Bountiful, which went on to have Broadway and London productions, as well as a celebrated off-Broadway revival starring Lois Smith (above) a few seasons ago. But the show's greatest fame came with 1985's film version, which provided Geraldine Page, one of Oscar's perennial losers, her career-topping Academy Award.

During the period he was writing for television, the industry moved to Hollywood, where Foote drew the attention of the film community. He was hired to adapt Harper Lee's autobiographical novel To Kill A Mockingbird, and won an Oscar for the screenplay. The film provided Gregory Peck with an Oscar as well, and was Robert Duvall's screen debut, in the role of the outcast Boo Radley. Duvall became a frequent interpreter of Foote's work, winning an Academy Award for bringing his story Tender Mercies to life. Foote won his second Oscar for the original screenplay.

Foote had further film success adapting his play The Traveling Lady into Baby, The Rain Must Fall, starring Steve McQueen. Two other screenplays, however, were deemed unacceptable to the studios and, though he retained writing credit, his words were ditched. Foote left Hollywood in frustration and began a short period of inactivity, after which he began his nine-play cycle of family plays, The Orphans' Home. As these plays began to be presented in New York, he attracted the attention of the NY Times critic Frank Rich, who became his champion and created renewed interest in Foote's stage work. Signature Theatre, a prestigious off-off-Broadway group, devoted their 1994-95 season to his work and debuted an older play which had never had a production, The Young Man from Atlanta. Foote won the Pulitzer.

A revival of Foote's Dividing the Estate was a smash at Playwrights Horizon and was presented on Broadway this season. Elizabeth Ashley, Penny Fuller, Gerald McRaney, and Hallie Foote (the playwright's daughter and a frequent interpreter of his work) starred as a warring family enduring economic hardship. Foote's lifelong dream was to see his Orphans' Home Cycle onstage in a single series of productions, and had recently completed the necessary adaptation to do so, before his death yesterday at the age of 92.

The Orphans' Home Cycle is scheduled to be presented at Hartford Stage and Signature Theatre next season.