The son of a small-town Texas haberdasher and a piano teacher, Horton Foote headed to Dallas by train at age 16 to become an actor — but even as he became a leading writer for the stage and screen he never really left home. Tiny little Wharton, Tex., and the stories his father picked up from his customers would fuel a remarkable body of work that included a Pulitzer-winning play (1995’s The Young Man From Atlanta) and two Oscar-winning scripts (the 1962 classic To Kill a Mockingbird, adapted from Harper Lee’s best-seller, and 1983’s Tender Mercies, starring his long-time acting muse, Robert Duvall, as a down-and-out country singer).
Foote, who died March 4 in Hartford, Conn., at age 92, was a remarkable storyteller whose work, like William Faulkner’s, was rooted in the ordinary struggles of ordinary people in the American South. After abandoning acting, he got his start as a writer during the golden age of television and adapted many of his stories for different media. The Trip to Bountiful — about an old woman yearning to visit her hometown of Bountiful, Tex., one last time before her death — began as an NBC teleplay in 1953 starring Lillian Gish, then became a stage play in 1962, and was later adapted into a 1985 movie that earned Geraldine Page an Academy Award for Best Actress (and another nomination for Foote himself).
There was something charmingly old-fashioned about Foote’s prodigious body of work. He wasn’t overtly political or experimental in form. He wasn’t a flashy stylist. His works typically have a beginning, middle, and an end — though often many diversions along the way to that end. And he took a Chekhovian approach to his characters, hardscrabble souls with deep family histories and endless depths of backstory.
Partly for all those reasons, his scripts have an enduring timelessness. Dividing the Estate, a 1989 play that appeared on Broadway just last fall in a remarkable production that included the playwright’s daughter Hallie Foote in a key role, could not seem more timely: A fractious, money-grubbing Texas clan gathers at the old family manor hoping to persuade its octogenarian matriarch to engage in some sensible estate planning — despite the threat of plunging real estate values, unforeseen taxes, difficult economic times, and internecine squabbles. The show is sharply satirical and funny while at the same time grounded in the recognizable conflicts we experience in dealing with our own families. You can’t ask much more from art than that.
What do you think about the passing of this celebrated playwright? What Foote works most touched you?