Early in his life, legendary playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote was given this advice: “Write what you know.” He did as he was told and ended up earning himself two Oscars, an Emmy, a Pulitzer, and a National Medal of the Arts in the process. So, what did he know? Wharton, Texas.
The sun has set in Wharton, a small town located in what used to be cotton country in southeast Texas, not far from Houston. But the curtain is just about to rise — and it does so with unaffected aplomb when award-winning playwright and screenwriter Horton Foote and his daughter Hallie walk into the room. My friend Leslie, Foote’s cousin, has invited us for dinner, and we are gathered in the den of her childhood home, cocktails in hand, rife with anticipation. It’s not every day that we sup with one of modern drama’s brightest stars.
We’ve driven three hours (from Austin) for this honor, talking about Foote and his plays most of the way and almost missing our turn to this still-sleepy Texas hamlet, which feels like it’s in the middle of nowhere. Wharton (also the birthplace of Dan Rather) is where Foote derives the spiritual inspiration for his work, and it thrills us to get a glimpse of his fodder, a town with such an evocative sense of place that even the Wal-Mart on its outskirts fails to daunt us. We’re a motley cast of characters on a field trip that began a week earlier, when Leslie doled out an invitation — with a gleam in her eye — for a weekend in the country. “Horton will be in town,” she said. “Wouldn’t you like to meet him?”
SO HERE WE ARE: three high school actors and their mothers, Leslie and her brood, a couple of longtime family friends (Whartonites so drenched in the personality of their world that they could be characters in a Foote play), and our children’s winsome drama teachers (a dynamic married duo who ooze so much of the idiosyncratic Texana Foote writes about that they must seem like kindred spirits to him). When Foote walks in, my daughter leans over and whispers to me: “Mr. Dragoo [said drama teacher] remarked that meeting Horton Foote is just like meeting William Shakespeare.”
Normally, an introduction of this caliber would be impossible to live up to, but Foote eases into the room with a quiet elegance. The moment he appears, the house suddenly fills with a golden light and a warm buzz of energy. Charismatic, this 91-year-old draws a crowd. We gather around him like children at story time — we want to sit cross-legged in a circle and hear whatever he has to tell us.
But first things first. He waves away the fawning adults to get to the heart of the party. He sits on the sofa and then says, “I want to talk to these young actors.” They beam, their backs a little straighter as they wait for his attention.
“What are you in? Whom are you playing?” asks Foote, leaning forward, ingenuously, frankly, peering at my daughter. She answers in short spurts, as if she really doesn’t expect him to care about her words. But he draws her out and makes her tell him all about the character she is currently portraying in her high school production. He asks her about problems she has with the script, wants to know how much she practices, what else she’s been in lately. For a moment in time, it’s just her and Pulitzer Prize– and Academy Award–winning demigod Horton Foote in the room. She transforms before my eyes; it’s as if this intimate, one-on-one conversation has filled her with a certain knowledge she couldn’t have gained in any other way.
After he talks with her, he speaks to the other high school actors (whom he has met on other occasions, one being his second cousin, the son of my friend Leslie) and then turns to the rest of us with a satisfied nod.
“What would you like to hear about?” he asks. But before we can answer, he’s begun telling us about the time in high school when he played a drug addict and won the drama award for his effort. “Now, I knew a lady in town who was addicted to paregoric, but that was the extent of my knowledge of drug use. So I collected my ideas and threw my whole self into the role. When the performance was over, the judge said: ‘Is that Foote boy afflicted, or is that acting?’ My teacher assured him it was acting, and I won the prize.”
HORTON FOOTE IS one of America’s most beloved and well-respected dramatists: Among other accolades, he’s won a Pulitzer (The Young Man from Atlanta), an Emmy, and two Oscars. He’s been nominated for a Tony. And, he’s the only person to date to be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters and to receive the Gold Medal for Drama from them in the same year. The award Foote is most proud of, though, came seven years ago, when President Bill Clinton presented him with the 2000 National Medal of Arts. Robert Duvall, Steve McQueen, Geraldine Page, and Matthew Broderick have appeared in his works — on Broadway as well as Off Broadway, in Hollywood, and beyond. For all this success, though, Foote’s early dreams of the stage didn’t involve writing. Rather, at the young age of 11, he knew he wanted to be an actor. Thus, when he was 16, Foote left Wharton and made his way to California, where he trained for a time at the Pasadena Playhouse. Unfortunately, the good roles eluded him. But Foote didn’t give up — he knew there was something inside of him that just wasn’t being given the opportunity to blossom. Eventually, it would be Agnes de Mille who would change the direction of his life. After seeing some of his improvisations, she suggested to him that he should write. “What would I write about?” he asked her. “Write the truth,” she said. “Write what you know.”
What Foote knew was Wharton. By now, he was in New York, but everything he had learned about life had come from Wharton — all the eccentric characters he’d grown up around, the stories his loquacious aunts had told in order to pass the time, the family legends. His memories were and are strings of oral histories born from the triumphs and failings of the Texans he knew. His family lived in the interrogative mode, musing about the past, speculating about family members and neighbors, and ruminating about their hopes, dreams, and motivations. Horton’s father, who also harbored a penchant for storytelling, collected the tales that were shared in his haberdashery business, located on the town’s main square, and passed them along to those at home. Works like The Trip to Bountiful and Tender Mercies were born from Wharton’s rich Southern cultural fabric, yet the themes of Foote’s work are universal, punctuated by his signature compassion and belief in the ultimate goodness of man.
Foote’s work on Broadway eventually led to screenwriting opportunities, and he’s perhaps best known for his screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, which, in 1962, garnered him his first Academy Award (his second was for Tender Mercies). Foote’s tales of small-town drama also translated well to television, and in the 1950s, at the height of television’s golden age, Foote became a regular writer for several TV shows, including Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse and Playhouse 90.
AFTER DINNER, I ask Foote if he has any advice for aspiring writers and actors. I hope to get a story, and I do. Smiling sweetly and shaking his head, he tells me that when he wrote one of his first one-act plays, Wharton Dance, he wanted to create a play that he himself could act in and to create a role that was perfect for him. He conjured up a tale based on real life — to the extent that he even used real names and recounted a real incident from his past. “Well, guess what happened,” he says. “Everybody got angry with me. I got in all kinds of trouble — and I never did that again. So, the first thing I’d tell you is: Don’t use people’s real names.” We laugh, and then he gets serious and addresses my daughter. “Here’s the most important thing: Don’t get discouraged. Believe in yourself, and make your own luck.”
My daughter nods, looking straight into his benevolent but knowing eyes, and they seem to share a secret. I feel like a baton is being passed right in front of me. She speaks his language, and I’m just a bystander. Still, I hear their unspoken whispers, and I know that he, like a wise man, conveys the artist’s dream and welcomes her into his fold.