Authors: Horton Foote

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright, screenwriter, and novelist

Author Works

Drama:

Wharton Dance, pr. 1940

Texas Town, pr. 1941

Out of My House, pr. 1942

Only the Heart, pr. 1942

Homecoming, pr. 1944

The Chase, pr., pb. 1952

The Trip to Bountiful, pr. 1953

The Traveling Lady, pr. 1954

Horton Foote: Three Plays, pb. 1962

Gone with the Wind, pr. 1972 (adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel)

The Orphans’ Home, pr. 1977-1997 (a cycle of 9 plays)

Night Seasons, pr. 1978

Harrison, Texas, pr. 1985 (3 one-act plays: The One-Armed Man, The Prisoner’s Song, and Blind Date)

The Habitation of Dragons, pr. 1988

Dividing the Estate, pr. 1989

Selected One-Act Plays of Horton Foote, pb. 1989

Four New Plays, pb. 1993

The Young Man from Atlanta, pr., pb. 1995

Laura Dennis, pr. 1995

Collected Plays, pb. 1996

“Getting Frankie Married–And Afterwards,” and Other Plays, pb. 1998

The Last of the Thorntons, pr., pb. 2000

The Carpetbagger’s Children, pr. 2001

Long Fiction:

The Chase, 1956 (adaptation of his play)

Screenplays:

Storm Fear, 1956 (adaptation of Clinton Seeley’s novel)

To Kill a Mockingbird, 1962 (adaptation of Harper Lee’s novel)

Baby the Rain Must Fall, 1965 (adaptation of his play The Traveling Lady)

Tomorrow, 1972 (adaptation of William Faulkner’s short story)

Tender Mercies, 1983

The Trip to Bountiful, 1985 (adaptation of his play)

Of Mice and Men, 1992 (adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel)

Teleplays:

Only the Heart, 1947

The Trip to Bountiful, 1953

The Midnight Caller, 1953

The Oil Well, 1953

The Death of the Old Man, 1953

A Young Lady of Property, 1953

The Shadow of Willie Greer, 1954

Old Man, 1958, revised 1997 (adaptation of William Faulkner’s short story)

Tomorrow, 1960 (adaptation of Faulkner’s short story)

The Gambling Heart, 1964

The Displaced Person, 1977 (adaptation of Flannery O’Connor’s short story)

Barn Burning, 1980 (adaptation of Faulkner’s short story)

Alone, 1997

Radio Play:

Vernon Early, 1997

Nonfiction:

Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood, 1999

Beginnings: A Memoir, 2001

Biography

Horton Foote is one of the most prolific and honored American playwrights of the twentieth century. A fifth-generation Texan, Albert Horton Foote, Jr., was born in a rented room in the small Gulf Coast town of Wharton. A river-bottom community located in the state’s oil and cotton country, Wharton served as the model for the fictional Harrison, Texas, the setting of many of Foote’s plays. His father, Albert Horton Foote, Sr., ran a small men’s clothing store. His mother, Harriet “Hallie” Gautier Brooks, was a talented pianist. She defied her parents, who were opposed to her marriage to Foote, and eloped with him on Valentine’s Day, 1915. About sixty-five years later, the oldest of their three sons would turn this elopement story into a play, On Valentine’s Day.{$I[A]Foote, Horton}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Foote, Horton}{$I[tim]1916;Foote, Horton}

The first child of his generation of Footes, the future playwright grew up listening to the stories endlessly repeated by grandparents, aunts, and great-aunts. An obsessive reader as well as an avid listener, Foote was most influenced during these Texas years by the writings of American authors Mark Twain and Willa Cather. Permitted to join both the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild during his sophomore year of high school, he discovered the poetry of Walt Whitman, Edward Arlington Robinson, Dorothy Parker, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. It was during this time that he also first encountered plays by George Bernard Shaw and Noël Coward. It was Twain and Cather, however, who made the strongest and most lasting impression.

Foote was sixteen when he completed his senior year at Wharton High School. He was drawn to the theater but as an actor, not a playwright. He launched his acting career at California’s Pasadena Playhouse in 1933, later moving to New York City, where, starting in 1937, he studied for two years with Tamara Daykarhanova, a disciple of Russia’s father of “method” acting, Konstantin Stanislavski. Foote worked at several odd jobs during and between acting assignments, which included a stint at the Railroads on Parade pageant at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

In 1940, as a founding member of the American Actors Theatre, Foote took the advice of legendary choreographer Agnes De Mille and tried his hand at writing. Drawing on his Texas childhood, he authored a one-act play titled Wharton Dance. When it was premiered by the company in the fall of 1940, New York Daily Mirror critic Robert Coleman praised both Foote’s writing and his acting. Foote was pleased because he saw writing as an ideal way to create good roles for himself. When his three-act Texas Town debuted the following spring, however, The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson was so impressed by the drama, he suggested Foote give up acting to concentrate on writing. Still considering himself an actor, Foote was furious with the otherwise rave review. However, after a summer of eight roles in about eight weeks, he discovered that acting was out of his system. In his mid-twenties, he decided Atkinson was right: He was a writer.

Two more of Foote’s plays, Out of My House and Only the Heart, were staged by the American Actors Theatre in 1942. Several one-act plays followed, and, in late 1944, Foote and director Vincent J. Donehue, another Tamara Daykarhanova student, founded a theater workshop in Washington, D.C. This led to their repertory company, Productions, Inc. During these four years in Washington, the partners staged five of Foote’s plays as well as works by Tennessee Williams, John Millington Synge, William Saroyan, and Jean Giraudoux.

In 1948 Donehue’s college roommate, NBC producer Fred Coe, suggested that the director and the writer go to work for his network. Before becoming one of the most important writers during television’s golden age of live drama, Foote finished work on a three-act play about an escaped murderer returning to his small hometown. The Chase opened on Broadway in 1952 with Kim Stanley, an actress discovered by the playwright’s wife, Lillian Vallish Foote. Coe was known for recruiting talented young writers to the infant medium of television. Bringing badly needed prestige to the live-drama anthology programs of the time were such Coe-sponsored writers as Reginald Rose, J. P. Miller, Gore Vidal, Paddy Chayefsky, Tad Mosel, and Horton Foote.

Starting in 1953, Foote wrote ten original dramas in less than two years for Coe. His first teleplay for the legendary television producer was The Trip to Bountiful, broadcast in March, 1953. It starred Lillian Gish as Carrie Watts, an elderly Texas widow yearning to visit the small town where she was born. Gish reprised the role for a Broadway production. The 1985 film version won Geraldine Page an Academy Award for best actress. The ten plays Foote wrote for Coe in 1953 and 1954 also included A Young Lady of Property, The Midnight Caller, and The Oil Well. His 1954 Broadway play, The Traveling Lady, vaulted Kim Stanley to stardom and was turned into a 1965 film, Baby the Rain Must Fall, starring Lee Remick and Steve McQueen.

Foote’s work for the landmark anthology series Playhouse 90 included Old Man and Tomorrow, adaptations of a novella and a short story, respectively, by William Faulkner. Tomorrow was remade as a 1972 film starring Robert Duvall, and a 1997 Hallmark Hall of Fame version of Old Man won Foote the Emmy Award for best television miniseries or television film script. Adaptations of other writers’ works have been a Foote specialty since those Playhouse 90 broadcasts of the Faulkner stories. His 1962 screenplay version of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) earned Foote the Academy Award for best screenplay based on material from another medium. Fifteen years later, Foote adapted Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person” (1955) for PBS. After that, he adapted Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” (1940) for PBS, and, in the early 1990’s, he wrote the screenplay for director-star Gary Sinise’s film version of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937).

His first screenplay, Storm Fear in 1956, was an adaptation of a novel by Clinton Seeley. After the success of To Kill a Mockingbird, Foote could have moved to Hollywood and pursued a lucrative screenwriting career. Disenchanted with the studios and trends in the theater, he instead moved to a farm in New Hampshire and started writing the plays that would complete his monumental Orphans’ Homecycle. Inspired by his family and Wharton, these nine plays are Roots in a Parched Ground, Convicts, Lily Dale, The Widow Claire, Courtship, On Valentine’s Day, 1918, Cousins, and The Death of Papa. By the time the cycle was finished, it was not uncommon for critics to describe Foote as a combination of Anton Chekhov and Faulkner. Like Chekhov, he was a careful and subtle chronicler of day-to-day details in everyday lives. Like Faulkner, he was a perceptive observer of several generations of Southerners populating a fictional rural area.

Foote certainly had Chekhov’s wry sense of humor and Faulkner’s complete sense of place, yet the playwright was quick to point out the influence of several American poets and Katherine Anne Porter’s fiction on his emotionally complex works. With his resounding belief in the human spirit, his plays display great empathy and compassion for a wide range of characters. Survival, persistence, the meaning of home, deferred dreams, and the need to belong are recurrent themes.

To Kill a Mockingbird began a rich association with Robert Duvall, the actor Foote chose to play Boo Radley. After they re-teamed for a stage and film version of Tomorrow, Duvall asked Foote to write him an original screenplay. Foote responded with Tender Mercies, the story of a down-and-out country music singer trying to put his life back together. The film won Duvall the Academy Award (Oscar) for best actor. Foote won his second Oscar, this one for best screenplay written directly for the screen. Geraldine Page became the third star voted an Oscar for a lead role in a movie written by Foote, following Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird and Duvall as Mac Sledge in Tender Mercies.

Several of the Orphans’ Home plays–Convicts, Courtship, On Valentine’s Day, 1918, and Lily Dale–have been produced as films. In 1987 three of these movies–Courtship, On Valentine’s Day, and 1918–were presented as a PBS miniseries on the American Playhouse program. On cable television, Foote has been represented by such works as The Habitation of Dragons, aired by Turner Network Television in 1992, and Alone, aired by Showtime in 1997. The Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcast of Old Man was the highest-rated TV movie of the 1996-1997 television season.

Foote married theatrical producer Lillian Vallish on June 4, 1945. She produced film versions of his works in the 1980’s, and they were together more than forty-seven years before she died on August 5, 1992. Their contributions to the theater were not restricted to plays. Their oldest daughter, Hallie Foote, is an actress who has frequently appeared in works by her father. Their other daughter, Daisy Foote, is a playwright, and one of their two sons, Albert Horton Foote, Jr., is an actor (he also owns a restaurant). The other son, Walter Vallish Foote, is a lawyer.

Foote continued writing significant plays after his seventy-fifth birthday. Produced by the Signature Theatre Company in New York City, Foote’s The Young Man from Atlanta won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for drama. He tackled another form of writing, autobiography, with Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood and Beginnings: A Memoir.

In 1988 he was selected to the Fellowship of Southern Writers. Inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame in 1996, Foote has received several honorary doctorates. In addition to the Emmy, the two Oscars, and the Pulitzer Prize, he has been honored with a Christopher Award (“for affirming the highest values of the human spirit”) in 1997 and the Writers Guild’s Ian McLellan Hunter Award for lifetime achievement in 1998. Also in 1998, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters as a member in the department of literature, and he received the National Medal of Arts Award, presented by President William Clinton, in December, 2000. Foote died in Hartford, Connecticut on March 4, 2009. He was 92.

BibliographyBianculli, David. Dictionary of Teleliteracy. New York: Continuum, 1996. Entries on Television Playhouse, Playhouse 90, and other golden-age anthologies.Briley, Rebecca. You Can Go Home Again: The Focus on Family in the Works of Horton Foote. New York: Peter Lang, 1993. Based on Briley’s 1990 doctoral dissertation from the University of Kentucky, this study provides useful information about the importance of family in Foote’s plays. However, Briley was not able to obtain access to some important resources that are now available, and her work, though helpful, suffers somewhat from excessive reiteration of her thesis.Hampton, Wilborn. Horton Foote: America’s Storyteller. New York: Free Press, 2009. As a friend of Foote and a New York Times theater critic, Hampton is able to shed light onto Foote’s life, from his beginnings in a small Texas town, to his success as a Broadway playwright. This book chroniclers his career through its highs and lows, and discusses prevalent themes in his works, such as race, wealth, and oppression.Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. 3d ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1998. Contains an entry on Foote’s movie career, with a complete listing of films.Monaco, James, et al. The Movie Guide: A Comprehensive Alphabetical Listing of the Most Important Films Ever Made. New York: Perigee Books, 1992. Contains entries on To Kill a Mockingbird, Tender Mercies, and The Trip to Bountiful.Montz, Charles, ed. 1986 Current Biography Yearbook. New York: H. H. Wilson, 1987. Extensive entry on Foote’s life and career.Moore, Barbara, and David G. Yellin, eds. Horton Foote’s Three Trips to Bountiful. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1993. This work compares the alterations and revisions made in the successive versions of The Trip to Bountiful between the first 1953 version and the film version of 1985. Changes in the texts are set forth in a chart, and there is a useful bibliography.O’Donnell, Monica M., ed. Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television: A Continuation of Who’s Who in the Theater. Vol. 4. Detroit: Gale, 1987. Summary of Foote’s career.Porter, Laurin R. “An Interview with Horton Foote.” Studies in American Drama, 1945-Present 6, no. 2 (1991): 177-194. A 1988 interview with Foote, covering his tastes in literature, his development and training as actor and playwright, and the background of The Orphans’ Home cycle. This interview gives the reader a good sense of Foote’s conversational style, his humor, and his modesty.Wiley, Mason, and Damien Bona. Inside Oscar: The Unofficial History of the Academy Awards. 10th ed. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996. Chapters discuss Foote’s Oscar wins.Wood, Gerald C. Horton Foote and the Theater of Intimacy. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999. Wood argues that Foote’s dramas reflect his characters’ struggles against fear, struggles that are often made victorious by the achievement of a personal intimacy made possible by a spiritual feminine presence. Well written and persuasive, this work also includes a splendid bibliographical appendix of materials for those working on Foote’s plays, screenplays, and teleplays.Wood, Gerald C., ed. Horton Foote: A Casebook. New York: Garland, 1998. Contains twelve articles by various critics, divided into three main categories: “Biographical/Contextual Essays,” “Perspectives on Style/Themes,” and “The Signature Theater Series.” Includes a chronology of Foote’s life, a bibliography of his works, an annotated critical biography, and an index.
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