The ageless appeal and crucial force of writing

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff Writer
First published: Sunday, April 30, 2006

When the writing is going well and Horton Foote is lost in the landscape of imagination, he follows his characters the way a branch dropped into a stream is pulled by the current and summons the energy of a man half his age.

"Once I get started and an idea gets hold of me, I don't think of my age and can keep writing hour after hour," said Foote, who is 90 years old and at work on a screenplay and a stage play.

Foote will visit Albany on Monday and Tuesday to discuss his work during a two-day New York State Writers Institute event. It will feature a seminar, a reading, question-and-answer periods and a performance of Foote's one-act play, "Blind Date," which is set in Texas in the late-1920s and involves matchmaking gone awry. The play had its premiere at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City in 1986.

"I've seen two or three different performances of it, and I'm interested to see what they do with it up in Albany," said Foote. He spoke by phone from his apartment overlooking the Hudson River in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.

Foote has a velvety voice that sluices over the syllables like bourbon poured gently over ice. In conversation, he speaks softly and is polite, even genteel.

Foote recalled his last visit to the Writers Institute in 2000. "I fell in love with the city," he said. "I wasn't prepared for its certain kind of charm and the lovely architecture of its houses."

Foote did not soon forget a meal at Jack's Oyster House. "I had the best oyster stew there I've ever put in my mouth," he said.

Ageless appeal

Across four decades of writing for film and the theater, Foote's work -- for which he has won the Pulitzer Prize and Academy Awards -- possesses an ageless appeal with themes as universal as love, loss and redemption.

Having achieved success as an actor on Broadway and a budding reputation in the '40s and '50s as a playwright who created poignant, finely nuanced portraits of small-town Texas life -- familiar turf for the native of Wharton, Texas -- Foote nearly turned down an assignment that became the big break of his career.

It was 1962 and Foote was living along the Hudson River in Nyack, Westchester County. He commuted into Manhattan and was immersed in writing for the theater. Out of the blue, he got a call asking if he wanted to write the screenplay for a newly released novel by another Southern writer, Harper Lee.

"I'd never met her, but I knew the director, Robert Mulligan. He called and said Harper didn't want to do the adaptation and would I be interested?" Foote recalled "I was working on something of my own and was a little reluctant to dramatize somebody else's book. I was going to say no."

But Foote's late wife, Lillian, had read "To Kill a Mockingbird" and told her husband he had better take a look at the book before turning down the job.

"She'd always given me good advice, so I read it and of course called the director right back and said I'd do it," said Foote, who wrote the screenplay at his home, 30 miles from midtown Manhattan, that adapted a classic story of race and justice in the Depression-era South.

Duvall connection

Foote received his first Academy Award in 1962 for his screenplay of "To Kill a Mockingbird." He bracketed that statuette with his second Oscar in 1983 for "Tender Mercies," Foote's original screenplay about a drunken, broken-down country-western singer who rebuilds the wreckage of his life. The film starred Foote's old pal, Robert Duvall (the two met for the first time on "To Kill a Mockingbird").
In addition to making a lifelong friend in Duvall doing his first screenplay, Foote also got to meet Lee at his house in Nyack. "It was love at first sight and I've been a great friend with Harper ever since," Foote said.

The courtly, measured demeanor suddenly shifts when you try to ask him about his wife, a force in the theater and film in her own right, who died in 1992. "It's not easy for me to talk about her," he said, making it clear the subject was off-limits.

Foote has four children and two grandchildren. His daughter, Hallie Foote, an actor, has been staying with him for a stretch in New York. He said she spoils him with her fine cooking, as well as acting as gatekeeper to ensure him the solitude he needs for his work.

"I did some work on a screenplay when I was staying with Hallie at her place in California last year, but I work best when I'm at home in Wharton," he said. "I love New York, but there are too many distractions. I take a walk, end up procrastinating and getting together with friends instead of writing."

Foote, author of the made-for-TV play "The Trip to Bountiful," won't talk about the screenplay he's got under way.

"I'm superstitious about that," he said. But he would talk about the screen adaptation of his play, "The Widow Claire," that he's working on. Robert Altman is scheduled to direct and produce. "There's a small part I've asked Robert Duvall to do, and he's agreed, but he's so busy these days," Foote said.

Foote got a call from his buddy recently while Duvall was in New York for a quick film shoot, but the actor hightailed it out of the city as quickly as possible, and the old friends never got together. "I find it very strange, but he doesn't like New York," Foote said of Duvall. "He's the only person I know who prefers California."

Method to madness

Foote, who calls his long and distinguished career "very blessed," has never altered his method of writing (in longhand, with a pen on a legal pad) or where he most easily finds his muse.

Foote, the son of a cotton farmer and merchant, was born in Wharton, Texas, on March 14, 1916.

Located 60 miles southwest of Houston, near a placid and pinched stretch of the Colorado River, Wharton was a town of 2,000 when he was growing up. The population is now 9,000.

Foote still lives part of each year there and writes in the simple cottage his parents built when he was a 1-year-old baby.

"It's a very simple house, but it's pleasing to me. I grew up there with lots of aunts and great-uncles and cousins. Unfortunately, I've managed to outlive them all," he said.
Even in his 91st year, Foote is still drawn back home to Wharton. There, he taps a rich vein of memories and remembers the colorful characters who have breathed such vitality into his dramas.
"I'm still writing because I've got more to say," he said. "What else am I supposed to do?"

Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at [email protected].

All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2003, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.

Horton Foote