Horton Foote, Jr., distinguished Texas dramatist, was born Albert Horton Foote, Jr., on March 14, 1916, in Wharton, Texas. Horton Foote was the son of Albert Horton Foote and Harriet Gautier Brooks Foote and a descendent of the first lieutenant governor of Texas, Albert Horton. He grew up in Wharton with his two brothers Tom Brooks and John Speed. Foote finished high school at age sixteen, then lived a year in Dallas with his grandmother while working as an usher at the Majestic Theater and taking elocution lessons. Foote had dreams of being an actor, so he moved to California and enrolled in acting school at Pasadena Playhouse in 1933.
After completing acting school, Foote lived in New York City as a struggling thespian while taking acting classes from Tamara Daykarhanova, Andrius Jilinsky, Maria Ouspenskaya, and Vera Soloviova. Jilinsky, Soloviova, and Daykarhanova had studied with Constantin Stanislavsky and taught his “system” called “method acting.” Foote’s classmate Mary Hunter Wolf formed the American Actors Company to promote American talent in the theater and he joined in 1939. He began writing plays, the first of which was a one-act entitled Wharton Dance. His first three-act play was Texas Town. Only the Heart was Foote’s first play on Broadway at the Bijou Theatre in 1944. While working at Doubleday Book Store in Penn Station, he fell in love with Lillian Vallish and they married in 1945. After the American Actors Company disbanded in 1945, Foote became disappointed by the commercialism in post-World War II New York theater, so he and Lillian moved to Washington, D.C., and together they managed the acting school and theater productions at King-Smith School for the next four years. Foote returned to New York City in 1949 and was hired as a television writer for the children’s program The Quaker Oats Show, which debuted October 15, 1950. After fifty-four episodes, Foote focused on writing television plays. The Trip to Bountiful aired in 1953 on Goodyear Television Playhouse and was so well-received that it moved to Broadway and has been the most produced play of Horton Foote’s work. Twenty-four television plays written by Horton Foote aired between 1951 and 1964.
In 1955 Foote moved to Nyack, New York, and began raising a family with Lillian. Although he was brought up in the Methodist Church, he and Lillian converted to Christian Science shortly after his mother and sister converted in Texas. That same year Foote’s first screenwriting credit was the Cornel Wilde film, Storm Fear. The Chase, Foote’s only novel, was published in 1956 and was based on an earlier play. In 1961 Alan Pakula asked Foote to write the screenplay for Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The film was released a year later, and Foote won an Oscar for the screenplay. Baby the Rain Must Fall, starring Steve McQueen and Lee Remick, premiered in 1965 and was filmed entirely in Columbia and Wharton, Texas. In the mid-1960s, Foote moved to New Boston, New Hampshire. He continued to write for Hollywood. His screenplay Tomorrow, based on a short story by William Faulkner, premiered to critical acclaim in 1972 and starred Robert Duvall. Next, Foote wrote the book for the musical adaptation of Gone With the Wind, which was produced in Los Angeles, London, and Dallas from 1973 to 1976.
After Foote’s parents passed away in the mid-1970s, he gathered all the family papers from Wharton and poured over them in his New Hampshire home. The various stories and conflicts of his family inspired him to write The Orphans’ Home Cycle, a collection of nine plays about three families in fictional Harrison, Texas. The plays in chronological order are Roots in a Parched Ground (1902); Convicts (1904); Lily Dale (1910); The Widow Claire (1912); Courtship (1915); Valentine’s Day (1917); 1918 (1918); Cousins (1925); and The Death of Papa (1928). HB Playhouse began producing the The Orphans’ Home Cycle plays in the late 1970s, and Foote moved back to New York City. HB Playhouse did not pay for plays, so Foote supported himself by writing for television again. Titles included Flannery O’Connor’s The Displaced Person; William Faulkner’s Barn Burning; and Keeping On. Foote continued to write and direct for the theater, but he also continued to make films. During the 1980s, Foote lived in his childhood Wharton home and filmed three of the The Orphans’ Home Cycle works (1918, Courtship, and Valentine’s Day), as well as The Trip to Bountiful, Tender Mercies, and The Habitation of Dragons in Texas. Convicts, the second work in The Orphans’ Home Cycle, was released as a film in 1990 and Foote’s screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was released in 1992. After his wife Lillian passed away in 1992, Foote lived with his daughter Hallie, and her husband in Pacific Palisades, California.
Foote continued to write for theater, television, and film for almost two decades while receiving critical acclaim for his body of work. Most notable are the Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Young Man From Atlanta (1995) and the Emmy-winning Old Man, based on a story by William Faulkner. In early 2009, Horton stayed in Hartford, Connecticut, with his daughter Hallie and her husband, Devon Abner, while he worked on completing the scripts for The Orphans’ Home Cycle for the Hartford Stage Company. Horton Foote passed away in his sleep on March 4, 2009 at the age of ninety-two. Unfortunately, he did not get to see his last two works completed. The Orphans’ Home Cycle was staged in its entirety at Hartford Stage Company in the 2009–10 season and moved to Signature Theater in New York in 2010. Foote’s screenplay for Main Street, a film starring Colin Firth and Orlando Bloom, was completed in 2010 and released in the fall of 2011.
Frank Rich, the New York Times chief theater critic in the 1980s, described Foote as “a major American dramatist whose epic body of work recalls Chekhov in its quotidian comedy and heartbreak and Faulkner in its ability to make his own corner of America stand for the whole.” Foote’s theatrical honors include a Pulitzer Prize for The Young Man From Atlanta (1995); Lucille Lortel Awards for The Orphans Home Cycle (2010) and The Trip to Bountiful (2006); and an OBIE award for Dividing the Estate (2008). His screenwriting honors include Oscars for To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Tender Mercies (1983); an Emmy for Old Man (1997); an Independent Spirit Award for The Trip to Bountiful (1986); and the Writers Guild of America awards for To Kill a Mockingbird (1963) and Tender Mercies (1984). Foote was also a member of the Theatre Hall of Fame, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and a recipient of the National Medal of Arts in 2000 by President Bill Clinton.
Horton and Lillian Foote had four children: Barbara Hallie, Albert Horton Foote III, Walter, and Daisy. In 1992, DeGolyer Library at Southern Methodist University acquired Horton Foote’s extensive personal papers. The library held an exhibition on Foote’s career during the 2011 Horton Foote Festival in Dallas, Texas, which presented seventeen works by Horton Foote.