Horton Foote: Oscar-winning screenwriter of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'

Horton Foote was a potent chronicler of life in Texan small towns, and was often compared to William Faulkner in his portrait of a resilient spirit that allows his characters to deal with the secrets, regrets and emotions that simmer beneath a tranquil surface. Though a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his drama The Young Man from Atlanta (1995), one of over 30 plays he wrote, he is best known for his screenplays, for which he won two Oscars - for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Tender Mercies (1983).

His scripts, in which characters often prove indomitable despite the adversities they have to face, were celebrated for their homespun simplicity and bittersweet mood that eschewed sophisticated dramatics but gave actors the chance to develop rounded characters – Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall and Geraldine Page all won Academy Awards for starring in films that had dialogue by Foote.

Born Albert Horton Foote in 1916 in the small farming community of Wharton, in Texas, where his father ran a clothes shop, he left home at an early age to pursue his ambition to be an actor. For some years he lived a nomadic life gaining experience on the stage, including a period with the Pasadena Playhouse in Los Angeles. Throughout these years his mother wrote to him every day with news of Wharton which, given the fictional name Harrison by the writer, was to become the setting for most of his plays, often featuring characters based on his parents.

A turning point in his life was his introduction to a former student of Stanislavski, the Russian emigrée Tamara Daykarhanova, who had started an acting school in New York, at which Foote studied for two years. In 1938 he co-founded the American Actors Company, which had premises over a garage ("I guess you'd call it an off-off-Broadway company now"), and in 1940 the company staged his first play, the one-act Wharton Dance, followed by the three-act Texas Town.

"The Stanislavski method applied to me wonderfully as a writer, because in my work as an actor, I would break the play down so that, without really knowing it, I was studying its structure in the sense of what it was the characters wanted," he told the historian Patrick McGilligan. "What do they want, what causes the conflict between them, what is the structure of the scene, what is the overall through-line of the play, what is the spine, what does everything sort of hold on to?'

In 1944 he had his first play on Broadway, Only the Heart, and in 1947 he was signed by NBC to write plays for such prestigious anthologies as Playhouse 90 and Studio One. He made his first trip to Hollywood when asked by director-star Cornel Wilde to adapt Clinton Seeley's novel Storm Fear (1956), which became a moody film noir set mainly in a New England farmhouse, and Foote provided some quirky personality traits for such players as Dan Duryea, Lee Grant and Dennis Weaver.

Though he liked Wilde, he did not care for Hollywood. "I decided to save my money and get out of there as quickly as I could," he recalled. "I just didn't feel that it was a place for writers to be, and I still don't think so."

His first major screen credit was his adaptation of Harper Lee's Pulitzer Prize-winning, semi-autobiographical novel, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), directed by Robert Mulligan. Though Foote did not like adaptations, his wife persuaded him to read the book, after which he met Lee and "kind of fell in love... Harper told me the character of Dill [the precocious visiting youngster played by John Megna] was based on her childhood friend Truman Capote, and that was very helpful to me. Producer Alan Pakula said, 'Stop worrying about the time frame of the novel, and try to bring it into focus in one year of seasons: fall, winter, spring, summer.' Architecturally, that was a big help, and the script was a very happy experience."

It won Foote an Oscar for Best adapted screenplay, and Lee stated, "I am a happy author. They have made my story into a beautiful and moving motion picture." Peck won an Oscar for his portrayal of the liberal lawyer and parent, Atticus Finch, and the film marked the screen debut, as the feeble-minded Boo Radley, of Robert Duvall, who had earlier starred in a workshop production of Foote's play, The Midnight Caller, and whom Foote would later describe as his "talisman".

Duvall was also in Arthur Penn's steamy melodrama The Chase (1965), based on a 1952 play by Foote which the author turned into a novel in 1956. Lillian Hellman wrote the screenplay, and the cast included Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and Jane Fonda, but it was not a success, and both Penn and Foote disowned it. Said Foote, "The film is so far away from my original work that I never thought it had much to do with me. I'm not fond of it at all."

He was happier working with Pakula and Mulligan again on Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965), adapted from his own play, The Travelling Lady. Steve McQueen and Lee Remick starred as an alcoholic, volatile rockabilly singer and his wife. Foote is credited with co-scripting Otto Preminger's disastrous Hurry Sundown (1966), although he states, "Not a word of it is mine. I got along very well with Otto, but we just didn't agree on how it should be done. He had a whole new script written that I'd never read or seen but Otto called me afterwards and asked if, as a favour to him, I would lie and put my name on the script. Since he had paid me so much money, I said yes."

In 1960 Foote had written a play titled Tomorrow for television's Playhouse 90, and in 1968 he rewrote it as an off-Broadway play starring Robert Duvall and Olga Bellin. The same players starred in Joseph Anthony's screen version in 1971, with Duvall playing a farmer in early 1900s Mississippi who takes in an abandoned pregnant girl. It was a wistful, sad tale with fine performances and a delicately honed script by Foote, who worked closely with the director. "I don't like working on the impersonal, big budget stuff. For Tomorrow I was on the set and in the editing room, and that's how I felt it should be with a writer.'

Tender Mercies (1983) was an original screenplay inspired by his nephew, who was in a rock group. "The life of the musicians reminded me much of what I had gone through as an actor – most of the group had jobs on the side. I began to think of a country-western band, paralleling it to my experience as an actor – that kind of rejection. Very soon after I finished it, I realised it was right for Bob Duvall." The film won Oscars for Foote (best original screenplay) and Duvall (best actor.)

The Trip to Bountiful (1985), the story of a woman's journey back to see her old home before she dies, was another Foote project that started life as a TV play, in 1953. Starring Lillian Gish, it had proved a great success, and Foote turned it into a stage play in which Gish had a personal triumph.

"I had many movie offers, but I kept turning them down because I wanted Lillian, and in those days Hollywood felt she wasn't bankable. People tried to talk me into other actresses, like Katharine Hepburn, but I said, 'No, this role belongs to Lillian Gish.' When she hit 90, I realised it was a losing cause." Foote had a similar problem with Geraldine Page ("People suggested Anne Bancroft or Jessica Tandy") but Page vindicated his choice, winning a best actress Oscar for a heart-breaking performance.

Robert Duvall starred as a plantation boss in 1902 Texas confronting change in Peter Masterson's Convicts (1991), based on Foote's nine-play cycle, "The Orphan's Home", after which he adapted Of Mice and Men (1992) for actor-director Gary Sinise.

"I resisted it, since it had been done so much. Then I ran the 1940 film which I decided was terrible. I thought it was full of clichés and everything I didn't want to do. Gary agreed with me. He had a great passion about the male-bonding idea, and he sent me a film, Scarecrow, a tale of two guys on the road, and I found myself interested in doing Of Mice and Men."

Starring Sinise and John Malkovich, the film is now regarded as definitive. In 1997 Foote won an Emmy for a television adaptation of William Faulkner's novella, Old Man, and he continued to write for the theatre – Dividing the Estate had a Broadway run last year. Though he thought of himself primarily as a playwright, he acknowledged that he was best known for his work on films. "Nothing I can do about it," he said, "but those things right themselves and my plays are being done a lot outside of New York."



Horton Foote, writer: born Wharton, Texas 14 March 1916; married 1945 Lillian Vallish (died 1992, two sons, two daughters); died Hartford, Connecticut 5 March 2009.

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