Horton Foote

By Gerald C. Wood

Horton Foote is most widely known as a screenwriter, primarily for To Kill a Mockingbird, for which he won an Academy Award for the best adaptation of 1962. He also won the best original screenplay award for Tender Mercies in 1983. His other noteworthy scripts include Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1964, from his play The Traveling Lady) and the remarkable independent film Tomorrow (1972). His adaptation of The Trip to Bountiful (1985), for which Geraldine Page won her only Academy Award, was also nominated by the Academy. Later Horton adapted John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for Gary Sinise’s film (1992) as well as five plays from his nine-play Orphans’ Home cycle.

Less well known are his major contributions to the history of television. He, Paddy Chayefsky, Gore Vidal, and others were featured in writer-centered productions on such shows as Philco Television Playhouse, Omnibus, DuPont Show of the Week, Goodyear Theatre, Playhouse 90, and Studio One. For producer Fred Coe and directors Vincent Donehue, Delbert Mann, Robert Mulligan, Daniel Petrie, and Arthur Penn, Foote wrote many teleplays—including The Travelers, Expectant Relations, Flight, A Young Lady of Property, The Midnight Caller, and Tears of My Sister— that were major achievements of the Golden Age of Television. They starred actors like Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Joanne Woodward, Helen Hayes, Kim Stanley, Hume Cronyn, Julie Harris, E. G. Marshall, Steven Hill, and Eva Marie Saint. 

After the commercialization of television, Horton and his family (four children) moved to rural New Hampshire and he didn’t write teleplays for a couple of decades. But the rise of PBS and independent work under the cable system led him to a renaissance in the 1980s and 1990s. For the American Short Story series, he wrote Displaced Person (starring Irene Worth and John Houseman) in 1977 and Barn Burning (starring Tommy Lee Jones) in 1980. Three of his plays from the Orphans’ Home cycle were filmed and shown on PBS as The Story of a Marriage (1987), and his teleplays Old Man (CBS’ Hallmark Hall of Fame) and Alone (Showtime) both were telecast in 1997. 

But he was first and last a man of the theatre. Before he became a writer, Horton Foote was an actor. As a teenager he traveled from his hometown of Wharton, Texas, to join California’s Pasadena Playhouse, where he studied from 1933 to 1935. More significant was his move to New York the next year, where he trained at the Tamara Daykarhanova School and then the American Actors Company. It was at the AAC that he first wrote, inspired by Agnes DeMille and Mary Hunter. Between 1939 and 2009 Horton completed more than sixty plays. Most are in the realist tradition, though in the late 1940s (after his 1945 marriage to Lillian Vallish) in Washington, D.C., and New York he experimented with abstract theatre, influenced by music and dance. These plays were choreographed by such luminaries as Valerie Bettis, Martha Graham, and Jerome Robbins.

Nearly all Foote’s work is based on family stories and local history taken from Wharton, about 50 miles southwest of Houston. As a child, he loved to listen to the stories told by his parents, aunts, and grandparents.  Initially he was fascinated by stories of the deceased, who became as real to him as the living. Then Horton became intrigued by the differences, the themes and variations, in the telling. The Trip to Bountiful is based on those stories, first told in the southern oral tradition.

His most productive period in theatre came rather late in his career. The death of his parents in the early 70s inspired his nine plays, The Orphans’ Home, based on his father’s early life and marriage. Horton was nearly seventy-years-old when he completed the cycle. While he was struggling to get those plays staged and dealing with the death of Lillian in 1992, Foote wrote another twenty plays, including the Pulitzer Prize play A Young Man from Atlanta (1995). In the last two decades of the twentieth century, these plays gained him nearly every major recognition in theatre, including the Ensemble Studio Founders (1985), Compostela (1988), William Inge Lifetime Achievement (1989), Evelyn Burkey (1989), Laurel (1993), Lucille Lortel (1995), Outer Critics Circle—Special Achievement (1995) awards, as well as induction into the Theatre Hall of Fame (1996) and the National Medal of Arts (2000). In his final years, his most experimental play, The Carpetbagger’s Children, was produced in Houston and New
York (2001, 2002), The Trip to Bountiful was revived in Houston, Chicago, and New York (2003-2005) and Dividing the Estate was a major success on Broadway (2008). When Horton Foote died in New Haven, CT, on March 4, 2009, he was rewriting the cycle for presentation on a single day, later realized by Hartford Stage and Signature Theatre in New Haven and New York.

The Trip to Bountiful was first aired on television, for the Goodyear Theatre (NBC), March 1, 1953. It was produced by Fred Coe, directed by Vincent Donehue, and starred Lillian Gish and Eva Marie Saint. Before the year was out, it also was staged, by the Theatre Guild and Fred Coe, at Henry Miller’s Theatre in New York on November 3, 1953. Horton’s loyalty to an aging Lillian Gish kept the story from being filmed for more than thirty years. But in the mid-1980s, Foote’s cousin, Peter Masterson, called Horton and asked for permission to film Bountiful. The writer replied that there is only one actress who could play Carrie Watts. Masterson said he had Geraldine Page in mind. Horton replied, “That’s the right answer.” The film co-starred John Heard, Carlin Glynn, Richard Bradford, and Rebecca DeMornay.

In all its versions, The Trip to Bountiful is a compelling but easily misunderstood saga. Its popularity is often based on a false belief in Carrie’s innocence and victorious return. But, as all Horton’s work, the surface hides a rich and ambiguous subtext. As Carrie confesses near the end of the play, her entrapment in a small apartment in Houston has made her a sometimes irritable, bitter woman. She has secretly enjoyed pushing Jessie Mae’s buttons. Carrie Watts is no simple heroine.

Hers is no triumphant return either. She struggles with despair, bitterly remembers her family kept her from the man she loved, and admits her marriage was loveless. Her girlhood friend has died, and the town and her family home are abandoned. With such loss, Carrie’s gains are more psychological and spiritual than physical. Because she has realized her dream, as compromised and broken as it is, she is finally willing to seek peace with Jessie Mae. As Carrie recovers her connection to nature, she reimagines life as a kind of dance through time. It is one of the most lyrical moments in all of Foote’s work and the favorite of Horton’s wife Lillian.

Carrie’s story is not nostalgic. Neither Horton nor Carrie Watts is sentimental about a past full of disappointment and disorder. Her courage comes from her acceptance of that past, as troubling as it is, in pursuit of a more hopeful, resilient future. For Horton Foote, that is the only reason to come home again. 

Gerald C. Wood
Emeritus Distinguished Professor of English, Carson-Newman University Former Director, Horton Foote Center for Theater and Film Author of four books on Horton Foote: Selected One-Act Plays of Horton Foote (SMU, 1989), Horton Foote: A Casebook (Garland, 1998), Horton Foote and the Theater of Intimacy (LSU, 1999) and Voice of an American Playwright: Interviews with Horton Foote (Mercer, 2012)