Delicate Prose Marked Work Of Screenwriter Foote

Playwright, novelist and screenwriter Horton Foote died this week. Foote was best known for his spare, intensely personal stories of small-town Southern life. His screenplays for the films, Tender Mercies and A Trip to Bountiful took that vision to an international audience. He won two Academy Awards and a Pulitzer Prize for drama.

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And finally today, we'll remember the playwright, novelist and screenwriter Horton Foote, who died this week. Foote was known for his spare, intensely personal stories of small-town Southern life.

He won the first of two Best Screenplay Oscars for his 1962 adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and followed that nearly a quarter-century later with "Tender Mercies."

His first love was the stage, where "A Trip to Bountiful" was born, and where he won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1995 for his play "The Young Man from Atlanta." NPR's Tom Cole has this appreciation.

TOM COLE: Horton Foote was born in Texas, but the Gulf Coast town of Wharton was more Southern than Texan, built more on cotton and tales of lost glory than cowboy boot bravado.

Mr. HORTON FOOTE (Playwright, Novelist, Screenwriter): As I was growing up, I was told of all the things that the family had had and were lost, never to be gotten back.

COLE: Stories passed down from aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents, as he told WHYY's FRESH AIR in 1988, stories that eventually found their way into his plays.

(Soundbite of play, "Dividing the Estate")

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) I love this old house. Don't you think it's beautiful?

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) It's okay.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) Okay? Well, don't you think it's attractive, Evelyn(ph)?

Unidentified Woman #3 (Actor): (As Evelyn) It's all right.

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) Thank you very much. I happen to think it's beautiful.

Unidentified Woman #4 (Actor): (As character) Do you ever want to come here again to live?

Unidentified Woman #1: (As character) Oh my God, no. What would I do here in heaven's name?

COLE: Humor is part of Horton Foote's writing, as in this excerpt from "Dividing the Estate," and so is pathos. The search for a past that's gone forever is the subject of the "The Trip to Bountiful."

Foote had been in New York about a decade, acting and writing plays, when he created "Bountiful" for the NBC Television Playhouse in 1953. The live TV drama helped resurrect the career of Lillian Gish, and it won Geraldine Page an Oscar when she reprised the role onscreen.

(Soundbite of play, "The Trip to Bountiful")

Ms. GERALDINE PAGE (Actor): (As Mrs. Carrie Watts) You know, my father was a good man in many ways. A peculiar man, but a good one. And one thing he never could stand was to see a bird shot on his land. If he saw a man coming here hunting, he'd just go take his gun and chase him away, and I think the birds knew.

COLE: It was a bird that helped Horton Foote win his first Academy Award. He adapted Harper Lee's novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird," for the screen, and Foote's wife suggested a young actor for the role of Boo Radley.

Robert Duvall has called Foote the American Chekov, and describes his friend's writing this way.

Mr. ROBERT DUVALL (Actor): It's very, very - like sandpiper prints in the sand, I always say. Like on the beach when you see a sandpiper. Very delicate. You can't force it. You can't push it because it is sparse and delicate and quite accurate, you know.

COLE: Duvall and Foote teamed up numerous times on stage and on screen. The film "Tender Mercies" won them both Oscars.

(Soundbite of film, "Tender Mercies")

Mr. DUVALL: (As Mac Sledge) I don't know why I wandered out to this part of Texas drunk, and you took me in and petted me and helped me to straighten out, marry me. Why? Why did that happen? Is there a reason that happened? And suddenly, Daddy died in the war, my daughter killed in an automobile accident. Why? See, I don't trust happiness. I never did; I never will.

COLE: Robert Duvall says Horton Foote could write his delicate prose anywhere - anywhere, it seems, but back home in Wharton, Texas.

Mr. FOOTE: I don't write too much about my town, my people. When I'm there, I'm too busy looking and watching and listening.

COLE: And that's what made him a good writer. Horton Foote died on Wednesday, 10 days shy of his 93rd birthday. Tom Cole, NPR News.

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