On March 14th playwright Horton Foote celebrated his 90th birthday, and he did spend part of the day sitting around. “I was working on my latest play titled ‘The Tax Assessor,’” he said recently in a phone interview from his home in New York City. “I’m also working on adapting a screenplay from one of my plays for Robert Altman.” Altman, the director of such well-known films as MASH and Nashville, received a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award this year, and he is only 79 years old.
Horton Foote, one of the grand masters of the American theatre, received the Pulitzer Prize for his 1995 stage play “The Young Man From Atlanta,” and he has twice won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay for the film adaptation of “To Kill A Mockingbird” (1962) and for the original screenplay “Tender Mercies” (1983).
“Sometimes I can’t believe I’m 90,” said Foote. “I don’t feel that old, and I’ve never thought of retiring. Maybe that’s why I’m still writing. I still find this to be an exciting thing to do.”
He has seen countless people retire, stop working, and then soon get sick and die.
“I still enjoy going to the theatre, working with actors, and writing,” he said. “I’m at my happiest when one of my plays is in rehearsal.”
Foote will spend two days in Albany on Monday and Tuesday as part of a celebration of theater, writing and performance sponsored by the New York State Writers Institute.
On Monday he will attend a staged reading at 8 p.m. of one of his one-act plays at at the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center at the uptown SUNY at Albany campus. On Tuesday he will conduct a reading at 8 p.m. at Page Hall located at 135 Western Avenue at the downtown campus. Earlier that day he will conduct a seminar at 4:15 p.m. at Assembly Hall of the Campus Center located on the uptown campus.
Foote, who moved to New York City from his small Texas town of Wharton, may have never become a writer if he had found more success as an actor.
“In the early 1940’s I moved to New York to become an actor,” he said. “Like many young actors I struggled to find work.”
To supplement his income he took a variety of jobs such as running an elevator and working at a bookstore. “And when I had an acting job it usually paid little and didn’t last long,” said Foote.
The legendary Broadway choreographer Agnes De Mille encouraged him to do some improvisational writing. “I tried a one-act play and writing seemed effortless to me.”
The job as a nighttime elevator operator gave him some quiet time to work on a full-length play. “I worked from six at night till six in the morning,” said Foote, “and much of that time I was alone, and it was quiet, and I could write.”
That play ‘Only the Heart’ was produced on Broadway in 1945, and it began a series of plays that he would write which were produced in the 1940’s and 1950’s. Many of them received good reviews but made little money.
In the 1950’s he began writing for such prestigious television programs as ‘Playhouse 90’ and the ‘Philco-Goodyear Playhouse.’
“Those were exciting years to be involved in television,” said Foote. “There was little money to be made. When I wrote the teleplay for ‘The Trip to Bountiful’ I made less than $5,000, but actors, writers and producers had a lot of freedom.”
In those early days of television shows were produced much like the theatre. “Many shows were live,” he said, “and they were produced in a small studio. We could take chances and experiment. Lillian Gish told me early television was like the early days of film,” said Foote, when the technology to edit film came along and television moved to the coast.
Although he admits to being a creature of the theatre, he does acknowledge that writing screenplays has brought him much success.
“I prefer to adapt my own plays to film,” he said, “but I have adapted the work of others. I’ll do that if the story connects with me. When you adapt another work you have to get into someone else’s skin and that’s not always very easy.”
The book ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee was something he desperately wanted to adapt. “From the moment I read the book I felt that Harper Lee’s town was just like my town,” he said. “I knew these characters.”
He also knew at the time the movie was going to be something special. “We had a very creative team from the director Robert Mulligan to the producer Alan Pakula and especially Gregory Peck,” said Foote. “Everyone who worked on that film felt it was important. It wasn’t just a movie.”
Since that movie came out Harper Lee has given only a handful of interviews, but she has always praised Horton Foote’s adaptation. “She and I hit it off right away in our first meeting,” said Foote, “and we’ve become close friends through the years.”
Harper Lee had complete faith in him to write the screenplay. “After the first meeting she said, ‘Go home and write the screenplay.’”
According to Foote, Harper Lee was an observer but not involved in the making of the film, and when it was made she spoke very favorably of it. “And there’s absolutely no truth that Truman Capote helped her write that book,” laughed Horton Foote. “Harper Lee is the soul of integrity.”
Although he has lived most of his life in New York City he still finds the setting for his stories to be the fictional town of Harrison, Texas, which closely resembles his hometown of Wharton.
“I don’t sentimentalize where I grew up,” said Foote, “but it’s a landscape I know filled with people I know.”
Horton Foote learned many years ago how to live modestly as a writer. “Success is never about how much money you make,” he said. “I’ve never gotten involved with an expensive or Hollywood lifestyle.”
He also considers himself to be very lucky to have had a blessed marriage of over 60 years to a woman who encouraged him to take risks with his writing even when he could have taken on a project that would have paid much more money.
“Writing doesn’t always make you rich in money earned,” said Foote, “but you can become rich in many other ways.”