His actress daughter Hallie Foote told the New York Times that her father died after a brief illness.
Mr. Foote's Broadway plays include Only the Heart, Six O'Clock Theatre, The Chase, Two's Company, The Trip to Bountiful, The Traveling Lady, The Young Man From Atlanta and Dividing the Estate, seen earlier this season after an Off-Broadway run. He wrote many teleplays in the Golden Age of TV (indeed, his famous The Trip to Bountiful began as a TV play in 1952), and won two Academy Awards.
Hartford Stage and the Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company will co-produce the world premiere of Mr. Foote's ambitious The Orphans' Home Cycle, a collection of nine Texas-set plays, in 2009-10; Hartford Stage artistic director Michael Wilson will direct. Part I of the cycle consists of the plays Roots in a Parched Ground, Convicts and Lily Dale; Part II includes The Widow Claire, Courtship and Valentine's Day; and Part III concludes with 1918, Cousins and The Death of Papa.
Mr. Foote's The Carpetbagger's Children and The Death of Papa made their world premieres at Hartford stage. Dividing the Estate, under the direction of Michael Wilson, will arrive at Hartford later this spring.
Off-Broadway's Signature devoted its entire 1994-1995 season to Mr. Foote, resulting in the world premieres of Foote's Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Young Man from Atlanta and Laura Dennis, as well as the New York premieres of Night Seasons and Talking Pictures. The Off-Broadway company also presented the world premiere of The Last of the Thorntons and the critically praised production of The Trip to Bountiful starring Lois Smith.
|photo by Aubrey Reuben|
John Steinbeck had his Salinas Valley, Tennessee Williams had the steamy South, and Texas native Foote was famous for his Lone Star State milieu — in and around the fictional Harrison, TX, a stand-in for Wharton, TX, the place he was born in 1916. In his Texas plays, covering about a hundred years of time, he charted the simple lives of mostly middle-class folk (who often had direct links to an agrarian life) in The Trip to Bountiful, Courtship or Valentine's Day.
His last Broadway play, Dividing the Estate, written in the 1980s but revised recently, was also set in Harrison, on the property of a once prosperous farm. The Tony Awards Administration Committee deemed recently that the play will be eligible as a new work rather than as a revival in the 2008-09 Tony Awards.
"I've written plays not set in Texas," he once said, "but I've never had them done. I didn't like them. I didn't feel they were my metier so to speak."
His most famous work, The Trip to Bountiful, is known for its central idea of looking back at the home of your youth, and finding that it no longer exists.
Of his own hometown, Mr. Foote told Playbill, "I left when I was 16. There's nothing there now. Wharton was a big cotton center — still is — and Saturdays were very important. You couldn't walk down the street for the people who worked the cotton fields coming to town. And, now, it's deader than a Sunday. What happened was they discovered the cotton-picking machine and put all those people out of work. I once was being very nostalgic about picking cotton, and they said, 'How much cotton did you pick?' And I said, 'Not a whole lot.' They said, 'Well, if you picked cotton, you'd be happy for the cotton-picking machine.'"
In presenting Mr. Foote with the National Medal of Arts in 2000, President Bill Clinton stated, "Believe it or not, the great writer Horton Foote got his education at Wharton — but not at the Wharton Business School. He grew up in the small town of Wharton, Texas. His work is rooted in the tales, the troubles, the heartbreak, and the hopes of all he heard and saw there. As a young man, he left Wharton to become an actor and soon discovered the easiest way to get good roles was to write the plays yourself. And he hasn't stopped since."
He was recognized for many "tales of family, community, and the triumph of the human spirit."
Mr. Foote studied as an actor at the Pasadena Playhouse in California (his classmates were Victor Jory and Onslow Stevens) and struggled eight years in that capacity on both coasts without distinction. When The Theatre Guild did The Fifth Column, a Spanish Civil War drama by Ernest Hemingway, Lee Strasberg hired him for a small part supporting Franchot Tone and Lee J. Cobb, but the role was cut on the road. "I never had a great reach as an actor," he said, adding that it was mostly a scramble for jobs.
As an actor, Mr. Foote co-founded the American Actors Company with Mildred Dunnock and others in 1938 and performed plays that pulled the daily critics down to West 16th Street. "Because we were from different parts of the country, we would do improvisations to help each other understand our sections — sort of an exercise," he once told Playbill's Harry Haun, "and I was always doing Texas. I never thought of being a writer until our choreographer, Agnes DeMille, said to me one day that I should consider it. I said, 'Well, how do you do that?' She said, 'Write about what you know.' So I did."
He took her literally. "In my first play, Wharton Dance, I used real names," he said. "Robert Coleman of The Mirror came down to see it, liked it a lot and gave me a good review for my acting, so I sent it home. My parents were pleased and showed it to their friends, who discovered things in the play about their children. I learned a very valuable lesson there."
As an actor, he was influenced by the simplicity of Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, and his spare and simple dialogue — and yearning characters — in dozens of plays, teleplays and screenplays reflects this.
Mr. Foote's first full-length play in New York City was Texas Town, Off-Broadway. "It [got] a wonderful review, but he did say he thought the company was wonderful, except for the guy who played the lead, and that was me," Mr. Foote said of the critic. "He loved the play and didn't like me."
Mr. Foote's many subsequent awards over the years include the Obie and Outer Critics Circle Award for Dividing the Estate, the Lortel and Outer Critics Special Achievement Award for the Signature season of his work, the Drama Desk Lifetime Achievement Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal of Drama for his body of work, and many more. His memoirs are "Farewell" and "Beginnings."
Mr. Foote was married to Lillian Vallish, who predeceased him. His children are Horton Foote, Jr., Walter Foote, actress Hallie Foote and playwright Daisy Foote. Mr. Foote would have been 93 on March 14.
Funeral services will be held in Texas and will be private. In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that memorial donations be made to one of Mr. Foot's artistic homes: Goodman Theatre, Hartford Stage, Lincoln Center Theater, Primary Stages and Signature Theatre.
(Harry Haun contributed to this story.)