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Arts & Entertainment
10/15/00, G-01


Horton Foote loves New York City. Just don't ask him to write about it.

The 84-year-old playwright, screenwriter and memoirist moved there to pursue an acting career as a young man. He has lived and written there, staged his plays there and has a long-running relationship with its Signature Theatre, where he will return this fall to see his latest work performed.

But when it comes to writing, the only place that matters to Foote is his hometown of Wharton, Texas, where he was born on March 14, 1916.

"I've tried writing about, for instance, the East, but it just doesn't work," Foote said in a recent telephone interview from Wharton. "I can't analyze it, what the difference is. It's just something that happens. My imagination is here."

Speaking as writer

Foote, a dramatist best known for his film work through such screenplays as "To Kill a Mockingbird" (1962). "Tender Mercies" (1983), and "The Trip to Bountiful" (1985) will speak in two sessions Thursday at the University at Albany, as part of the Visiting Writers Series at the New York State Writer's Institute.

Foote will present a seminar in the Recital Hall of UAlbany's Performing Arts Center on the uptown campus at 4 p.m.

Then he will read from and discuss his new memoir, "Beginnings," at 8 p.m. at the university's Page Hall, 135 Western Ave.

The institute is preparing for Foote's visit by showing three of the films written by Foote. At 8 p.m. Tuesday in the University's Recital Hall "Tomorrow" (1972), starring Robert Duvall, will be shown, followed by "The Displaced Person" (1976), starring Henry Fonda. At 8 p.m. Wednesday, "Tender Mercies" (1983) starring Robert Duvall will be shown.

Foote is frequently credited with getting Duvall his first film role as an actor in "To Kill a Mockingbird," a decision that the writer said had more to do with his wife's initial interest in Duvall than his own.

Over the years, however, he has repeatedly sought out Duvall, an actor he respects for his conscientious approach to craft. "He does his homework and I think he takes it very seriously," Foote said. "He's very careful about the things he does, and he just doesn't do it to make a buck."

Foote and Duvall both won Academy Awards for their work on "Tender Mercies," a quiet, subtly acted film about a country singer piecing his life back together with the help of a young widow and her son.

The themes of "Tender Mercies" echo throughout Foote's work. His one overarching theme, critics have told him, is a person's search for a place to belong.

"They tell me it's all about trying to find a home," he said.

Telling stories

Storytelling, he said, began at home in Wharton where, as a child, he would soak up tales told by his parents and other family members. In his fictional universe, Wharton is transformed into "Harrison," a town that allows him to search out the universal in the particular, placing Foote in a longstanding Southern tradition that includes William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Cormac McCarthy.

"I don't like it or dislike it," he said of Wharton. "It interests me almost impersonally because I was born here and my family have lived here since 1830. So I have almost a clinical approach to it, to see what has happened and why it's happened."

"I don't sentimentalize it. I don't think the past is any better than the present."

Writing for him is ultimately an intuitive process. "I don't know that you consciously choose what you want to write about, as much as it chooses you," he said.

Currently, Foote is working on a film script and will shortly return to New York City to see his most recent play, "The Last of the Thorntons," performed.

Foote does all of his writing in Wharton. When he is not doing that, he said, he enjoys coming to the city. "It gets too quiet down here," he said.

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