Theatre Community Remembers Playwright Horton Foote

Special Features   Theatre Community Remembers Playwright Horton Foote
Horton Foote Jr. sang eloquently, often amusingly, for his father May 11 when the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Tony Award-nominated playwright from Wharton, TX — who died March 4, ten days shy of his 93rd birthday — received a heartfelt farewell at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.
Horton Foote
Horton Foote

"My father was one of those very lucky people who found what he wanted to do in life and was able to pursue it," he said. "There was an aura of certainty — almost a calm — about him that often reassured people when he entered the room. There was no mistaking it: He. Was. A. Writer. People often describe his work as a testament to the human spirit, the ability of people to endure the most overwhelming calamities. I think he simply wrote about the family, its goods, its evils, its presence, its absence. And, Lord knows, as a family, we've had our moments of good and not-so-good.

"Harper Lee once said of my father, 'He's like God — but clean-shaven.' After reading that article, my father called her on the phone and said, 'Hello, Harper? This is God.'

"He was a big tease, as was his father. There was a little town about ten miles from my father's home called Hungerford. I recall as a child visiting our grandparents, and, when we became a little rambunctious, my 'pap-pap' would call me over and say, 'Now, son, I'm going to have to ask you to keep it down. There's a sick man in Hungerford.'"

Lightly, the son allowed there were paternal imperfections. "He himself was not perfect, y'know. He had a temper. He could be stubborn. He was obsessed about his writing. An awful swimmer. I can still hear him call my mother, 'Hon, will you come here a second?' as he needed her to fix something around the house. Nonetheless, as a father and a husband, on a scale of one to ten, I 'd have to objectively give him 9.9."

The immediate family was in attendance as well as Foote's expansively extended family of theatre. In addition to Foote Jr., a restaurateur and the proprietor of Tavern on Jane, his lawyer-brother, Walter Foote, and their playwright-sister, Daisy Foote, took turns at the podium. The other sister, actress Hallie Foote (who, like her father, is a current Tony contender for Dividing the Estate), executed a monologue from an early Foote play never seen in New York, A Coffin in Egypt. Between remembrances and reflections were excerpts from his plays performed by the original cast members: Roberta Maxwell and Estelle Parsons doing their respective final speeches from The Carpetbagger's Children and The Day Emily Married; Elizabeth Ashley playing a second-act cutting from Dividing the Estate; Matthew Broderick (who played a variety of Foote characters on stage and screen early in his career) performing a scene from Valentine's Day and Lois Smith and Foote's son-in-law, Devon Abner, revisiting the end of The Trip to Bountiful.

The stage wasn't Foote's only playground. He also wrote numerous teleplays, some of them dry-runs for full-length feature films. He won two different type of writing Oscars — one in 1962 for adapting Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," the other in 1983 for his own original screenplay, "Tender Mercies." The lead actor in both films — Gregory Peck in the former, Robert Duvall in the latter — struck Oscar gold as well.

In fact, a few weeks before Peck died, his Atticus Finch in that movie came in first in a list the American Film Institute compiled on All-Time Favorite Film Heroes. The character resurfaced this spring at the Hartford Stage in a play version of Foote's screenplay, performed by Matthew Modine, who attended the service and said he had hopes that producer Jeffrey Richards will bring it to Broadway next season.

Duvall told the gathering he owed his career to Foote's late wife, Lillian, who attended a performance of The Midnight Caller he gave at the Neighborhood Playhouse in 1957. She was with her husband — along with future "Mockingbird" film narrator and director, Kim Stanley and Robert Mulligan. A few years later, when that movie was being planned and the question came up about who would play Boo Radley, the town's mute man of mystery (and ultimate Samaritan), Mrs. Foote suggested out of the blue "that boy who played that forlorn drunk" in The Midnight Caller, and a star was born.

Foote had three different theatre homes in New York, and the artistic heads of all three spoke at the memorial: Lincoln Center Theater's Andre Bishop, Primary Stages' Casey Childs and Signature Theatre Company's James Houghton.

The first time Foote worked for Childs was as a director — directing daughter Hallie in daughter Daisy's debut play, When They Speak of Rita. "That was followed at Primary Stages by The Day Emily Married, which Horton wrote many years ago but would not allow to be produced until everyone it was based on had passed away.

"Through the years of working with him, I had many, many 'tender mercy' moments with Horton. Probably my favorite was: one day during Rita rehearsals, we were sitting together at the back of the theatre, and he was telling of his very early love of the theatre, and I was telling him about my involvement with the theatre growing up. He suddenly stopped and said, 'You know, Casey, you and I are very, very lucky people.' My reaction was confusion. I'd never seen myself as lucky. He said, 'No, you and I are very lucky people because we both knew very early in our lives what we wanted to do with our lives. Don't you see? That's what makes us lucky. Most people spend their lifetimes trying to figure that out. We didn't have to. We knew.' Now, I had never seen luck in so obvious a hiding place. That moment clearly illustrated to me what made Horton such an extraordinary writer — that ability to find the miracle in the everyday, the gift of extracting the riches from the commonplace and the joy of finding the nobility in what many of us might otherwise pass off as the average."

[flipbook] There were people — Hollywood people, by and large — who hammered away at Foote to get him to change his style, according to his son, Walter. "Through the years, many tried to get my dad to jazz things up, develop the plot, bring in some action. He would claim that he did not know how to write like that. I think, more accurately, if he did not feel it, he did not believe it, and, if he did not believe it, he did not write it. As Tom Petty put it in a song, 'I ain't gonna do it if it ain't real.'

"This stubbornness landed our family in the boondocks of New Hampshire in the late '60s and '70s. He was out of fashion. His plays were ignored. His screenplays were written for studios and never saw the light of day. This professional loss was our gain. My dad spent much of his time at home, living his life, enjoying his family, which included his beautiful wife, four lively children, five dogs and nine cats."

Walter saw a link between that family-togetherness time and Foote's The Trip to Bountiful: "I was struck by the similarity between the play of Carrie Watts and her quest to return to her hometown of Bountiful and that of my own grandfather when he lived with us in the early 1970s. 'Pap-pap' was suffering from dementia at the time. At my parents' urging, my grandparents traveled 2,000 miles from Wharton to New Hampshire to live with us. It might as well have been Siberia for my grandfather. His sole mission during his stay there was somehow to find a way back home. 'Son, when's the next train to Wharton? I've got to get on that train.' He would offer us money, cigars, whatever currency was available to him, if he could just get on that train to his hometown of Wharton. I don't know what inspired my father to write The Trip to Bountiful. It was certainly not the experience of his father in New Hampshire. Dad wrote Bountiful in 1954, nearly 20 years before our grandparents moved in with us.

"I think the real point here is that the story resonated with me largely because I could draw on a similar experience and say to myself, 'This is true. This is real.' One of the qualities that grounded my father's writing was his willingness to listen. Dad loved to listen to people tell their stories. He had a gift for getting people to talk about themselves. Most of the stories that enfold in his nine plays known as The Orphans' Home Cycle take place before my father was even born. The accuracy of these accounts, the truth in them, is a testament to his willingness to listen to his relatives — the storytellers — talk about themselves, their neighbors, their lives."

Among the directors who reminisced were Harris Yulin, who helmed the much-honored Off-Broadway and Chicago revival of The Trip of Bountiful, and Michael Wilson, who is installing his Broadway production of Dividing the Estate next month at his Hartford Stage, and following that with Foote's final project, his nine-play Orphans' Home Cycle, which will be reprised later in the season here at the Signature Theatre Company. (Wilson also directed the memorial itself.)

Playwright Romulus Linney addressed Horton Foote, The Mischievous Critic. "Behind the sleepy looks and nods, he missed nothing," he said. "By simply closing his eyes, always gracious, without a word, he was a funny and effective critic, and we laughed a lot. At one time we were listening to a gentleman read from his work, and we could tell this gentleman was not for us. When it was over, I said, 'Well, Horton, we've got to go say something. I always say, 'Enjoyed it,' and try to get out of there.' Horton said, 'Well, you could say, 'You've done it again.'"

Edward Albee felt Foote would be delighted that "an extraordinary miracle has happened on Broadway this year" — namely, well-attended revivals of Eugene Ionesco's Exit the King and Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot — and "if it makes Horton happy, it makes me happy." Albee also cited an Off-Broadway miracle: "I hope this production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which is a true, tough, unsentimental, serious production of this great play will make it a little bit easier for audiences to understand the wonderful, wonderful plays of Horton Foote."

James Houghton, who devoted an entire Signature season to Foote, was last to speak. "I just have to say Horton's smiling somewhere because he'd have loved this afternoon," he said. "This is what Horton lived for. He had a love affair with the theatre for over 80 years, and those of us who were blessed enough to spend a few blips in that 80 years with him will live forever in those memories."

He recalled during the run of Foote's play, The Last of the Thorntons, that the elderly Anne Pitoniak slipped and broke her hip right before curtain. "We don't have understudies because we're Off-Broadway so I said to Horton, 'What are we going to do? Do you want to do it?' In a flash, he said, 'Absolutely!' I think that's the last appearance he made as an actor on the stage in New York. The audience loved it.

"When Horton and I were trying to put together that production, I went down to visit him in Wharton, and he walked me through a cemetery just jam-packed with family, distant relatives, second cousins, third cousins, and he was introducing me to every character in his plays. I remember that moment so vividly resonating with how that cemetery was full of life, full of the things that make a rich life.

"Several weeks ago, many of us gathered in Wharton to lay Horton to rest in that very cemetery. And, as you might imagine, the gods cooperated. There were torrential rains and black umbrellas and, practically, floods on the streets of Wharton. The funeral itself had to be delayed. But I walked that cemetery again before I left, and I thought of Horton in the good company of his characters." Fittingly, Houghton let the man of these two hours have the last say, via a video that Signature made to mark Foote's 90th birthday. "At 90 years, it's rather comfortable," the playwright conceded. "I don't have the panic I used to get and think, 'Well, when is it going to happen?' At that time, I was very curious because I'd felt, in some ways, I was an off-horse, that I had this obsessive interest in the South — my South — but I thought, 'What would I have done if I had never had this? What would I have done?' And a lot of people would have said, 'Well, you've been a bloody fool, y'know. You don't give yourself to something as chancy as theatre,' but I never — I never . . ."

The sentence stays unfinished, and there's a quick cut to him singing "Blessed Assurance," which Betty Buckley had rendered earlier. Foote's rendition was less assured. "Some of the words I didn't get right, but…"

The words are left hanging in the air, as if he has more to say, and the audience at the Beaumont rose as one to give Horton Foote one last, sustained, standing ovation.

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