Horton Foote , the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist and Oscar-winning screenwriter, was born on March 14, 1916, in Wharton, Texas. He says at the age of ten, he had a “calling” to become an actor, and when he was 16 he convinced his parents to allow him to go to acting school. With their blessing he went to Pasadena, California, where he studied acting for two years at the Pasadena Playhouse.
Subsequently, Foote moved to New York City and studied at Tamara Daykarhanova’s Theatre School where he was inculcated with Michael Chekhov’s version of the Second Studio technique developed at the Moscow Art Theatre. In time, Foote the dramatist would be hailed as the “American Chekhov,” and his education does link him to the Russian master.
Horton Foote was one of the founders of the American Actors Company. He racked up some minor roles on stage, and decided that becoming a dramatist was his best insurance policy for ensuring he received decent roles. In 1944 he made his Broadway debut with Only the Heart. His fate was sealed when he received better reviews for his writing than for his acting.
Rise of a Dramatist
Throughout the 1940s, Horton Foote continued to write for the theater, including experimental works. He started to write for television to support himself, soon becoming one of the mainstays of the Golden Age of television drama. He wrote teleplays for Playhouse 90, The Philco Television Playhouse and The United States Steel Hour.
Foote won an Academy Award for Best Adapted screenplay for Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), which was the movie debut of Robert Duvall. Foote also continued to prosper on Broadway, with his plays The Chase, The Trip to Bountiful and The Traveling Lady.
After To Kill a Mockingbird, Foote adapted “The Traveling Lady” as the movie Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), but he began to grow disillusioned with Hollywood due to its treatment of his work. The Chase was a case in point. Despite being produced by multiple Oscar-winner Sam Spiegel, adapted by Lillian Hellman, and directed by Arthur Penn — and featuring one of Marlon Brando’s finest performances during the ’60s — the 1965 film version of The Chase was a debacle. It was excoriated by the critics and a flop at the box office.
Exile & Return
Now out of favor both in Hollywood and on Broadway, Horton Foote went into an exile of sorts in New Hampshire. Ten years after To Kill a Mockingbird, Robert Duvall gave a brilliant performance in Tomorrow (1972), a movie made from Foote’s adaptation of William Faulkner’s eponymous story. The film is a small masterpiece, and was well-reviewed by critics.
Foote, whom Duvall calls “the rural Chekhov,” wrote an original screenplay for the actor ten years after their collaboration on Tomorrow that would bring them both Oscars. Tender Mercies (1983), a story of redemption, won Duvall a Best Actor Osar and Foote an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. A couple of years later, Geraldine Page would win the Best Actress Oscar for Foote’s The Trip to Bountiful (1985), which brought him his third Academy Award nomination for screenwriting.
In the 1970s, Horton Foote presented his nine-play cycle Orphans’ Home, based on his family. He remained active as as dramatist and screenwriter throughout the 1980s and ’90s, and in 1995, his play The Young Man From Atlanta, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
First nominated for an Emmy Award in 1959 for adapting William Faulkner’s short story The Old Man for Playhouse 90, he would win the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Miniseries or a Special 42 years later for his second adaptation of the same story. He remains active in the 21st century, well into his 90s. His latest play,
Dividing the Estate, a play set in Texas in 1987, debuted on Broadway in November 2008. It brought Foote a nomination for a Drama Desk Award fpr Outstanding Play.
Among Horton Foote‘s prose works are Farewell: A Memoir of a Texas Childhood (1999), an account of life in Wharton, Texas. Hoote created the fictional town of Harrison, Texas, which he used as the locale for many of his plays. The first two installments of his autobiography, Farewell and Beginnings, were published in 1999 and 2001, respectively.
In addition to his Pulitzer Prize and two Oscars, Foote was honored with the William Inge Award for Lifetime Achievement in the American Theatre in 1989, a Gold Medal for Drama from the Academy of Arts and Letters in 1998, the Writer’s Guild of America’s Lifetime Achievement award in 1999, and the PEN American Center’s Master American Dramatist Award in 2000.
In 2006, Foote was the winner of the Drama Desk Award Career Achievement Award. The citation cited”for his bountiful body of work that sensitively explores the human condition.”
Horton Foote‘s success can be attributed to his honest examination of the human condition, and why some people survive tragedies while others are destroyed. His central themes of the sense of belonging and longing for home have resonate with audiences for 60 years.