Voices -- Horton Foote, 1916 - 2009
March 4, 2009 | 5:00 pm
Horton Foote at New York's Booth Theatre, where his "Dividing the Estate" was being performed, Oct. 11, 2008.
Horton Foote: "I Stick With It"
* Theater * The playwright, 86, keeps very busy and has won a new fan at SCR, where his 'Getting Frankie Married' world-premieres.March 29, 2002
By MIKE BOEHM, TIMES STAFF WRITER
Horton Foote achieved his first great success in the theater by laying on the histrionics.
That was some 70 years ago, when he was a schoolboy from Wharton, Texas, competing in a statewide drama contest. The play, he recalls, was about three college roommates. He was the one with the bad drug habit.
"He needed a fix, and I remember [performing] this catastrophic breakdown onstage," Foote recalled. "When it was all over, the judges called my teacher over and said, 'Is that boy afflicted, or is that acting?.' She said it was acting, so they gave me first prize."
Somewhere along the line, Foote changed his tack. By his mid-20s he had concluded that writing, not acting, was his true calling. And since 1940, when his first play was produced, he has secured a niche as an admired, Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist who eschews stage histrionics and invites audiences to absorb the subtle, detailed ebb and flow of life in Harrison, Texas, the fictional small town modeled on Wharton where his stories unfold.
On March 14, Foote spent a chunk of his 86th birthday at New York City's Lincoln Center, where his play "The Carpetbagger's Children" was in rehearsals for its New York premiere this week. After the opening, he was planning to take a day off, then fly to Costa Mesa in time for tonight's first preview performance of another new play, "Getting Frankie Married-and Afterwards," at South Coast Repertory.
"I love the theater, and I'm always there" when a major production is gearing up, Foote said over the phone recently from a New York hotel room. "I'm sure I'm a bother, but there I am. I stick with it."
Foote is five months younger than his more famous, and similarly still productive peer, Arthur Miller. But Foote has a four-year head start on Miller when it comes to getting plays produced: Miller's debut didn't come until 1944, with "The Man Who Had All the Luck." (Miller's next play, "Resurrection Blues," opens Aug. 9 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapollis.)
Foote has written more than 60 plays. He won the Pulitzer for his 1994 drama, "The Young Man From Atlanta." He won Oscars for his adaptation of Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and his original screenplay for "Tender Mercies." He won an Emmy for his TV adaptation of William Faulkner's story "Old Man." In 2000, President Clinton awarded him a National Medal of Arts.
And now, finally, he has stuck with it long enough to see one of his plays produced on a major Southern California stage.
Overlooked in Southland Until a New Fan Emerges
His work has been done occasionally here in small theaters. But until South Coast Repertory secured the world premiere of "Getting Frankie Married," the area's leading resident companies-including the Mark Taper Forum, Ahmanson Theatre and Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, the Globe Theatres and La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego County and the Laguna Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse and South Coast itself-had been pitching a career shutout against Foote.
Martin Benson, the South Coast artistic director and director of "Getting Frankie Married," acknowledges having overlooked Foote until the playwright's agent sent the "Frankie" script about 18 months ago. Benson went for it immediately. Now he is reading his way through the Foote oeuvre, with an eye toward producing more of his scripts--"The Trip to Bountiful," which was made into a movie with Geraldine Page in 1985, is a leading candidate.
"I'm a great admirer of his now," said Benson, who spent time in Wharton with Foote, meeting some of the townsfolk and soaking up the atmosphere in hopes of capturing some essence of small-town Texas onstage in Orange County "Maybe one reason he's not produced as much as he should be is that sometimes his plays seem simplistic on the page. You can think, 'Oh, rural America' and that it's oversimplified and a cliche. But when you get up to act them, they're incredibly rich, with enormous depths. That's been my discovery with this play."
Foote wrote "Getting Frankie Married" around 1990, the year in which the play is set. One reason it may not have been produced until now is that it requires a cast of 12--a huge number for a contemporary play. Its central figures are Fred Willis, a wealthy, 43-year-old landowner, and Frankie Lewis, the girlfriend he has been stringing along for more than 20 years. Frankie is a wife in all but name and an object of small-town gossip. Fred makes a series of choices-motivated, he thinks, by love and honor-that turn out horribly for him.
Foote rates Fred as perhaps the saddest character he has ever drawn. "That last moment is certainly very moving. to me. There's nobody there to comfort him, and he has to struggle through it for himself."
Although Southern California has been a tough nut for Foote to crack in terms of productions, it was, long ago, the seedbed for his theater career. After winning schoolboy laurels for his acting in Texas, he managed to get his reluctant parents" approval of his plan to skip college and get more theatrical training. They wouldn't countenance his going to New York--"They thought it was a wicked place"--so he headed West and enrolled in the Pasadena Playhouse's acting conservatory. Foote said s the event that shaped him most in Pasadena--apart from having his Texas accent whitewashed in elocution lessons--was the touring production of "Hedda Gabler" he attended in Los Angeles on his 18th birthday with his visiting grandmother. Eva Le Gallienne's performance enraptured him, and he came back to see "A Doll's House" and "The Master Builder," the other plays the noted actress was performing in repertory.
"It really rocked me," Foote recalled. "I'd had this sense of 'Maybe I'll end up in the movies.' This made me go to New York to be a [stage] actor." In New York, Foote began writing plays as well as acting in them. "Texas Town," staged in 1941, won a rave from New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson who loved Foote's writing but panned his acting. Writing became his focus. Foote said he is searching these days for his next idea, making notes and hoping inspiration will take hold. "There's something I've been thinking about for 20 years, searching for a way to do it," he said. He declines to elaborate because "I think it's death to talk about something when you're working on it."