'Mockingbird' screenwriter also won Pulitzer

Horton Foote, the Oscar-, Emmy- and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright known for his richly detailed characters and tart observations of human foibles, died Wednesday in Hartford, Conn. He was 92.

The Texas-born and -bred Foote, who began as a stage actor and became a writer specializing in rural American dramas, remained active until he died.

A retooled version of his 1989 play “Dividing the Estate” appeared on Broadway earlier this season, making him eligible for a Tony nomination (the scribe never won one). Legit director John Doyle recently signed on to helm the Foote-penned pic “Main Street,” and next season, Connecticut’s Hartford Stage and Off Broadway’s Signature Theater are skedded to co-produce his nine-play series “The Orphans’ Home Cycle” in a three-part version. The Goodman Theater in Chicago staged a festival of Foote’s work last year.

“Dividing the Estate,” starring Foote’s daughter Hallie, is set to begin a run at Hartford Stage in May. At the time of his death, he was staying at his apartment in Connecticut to begin work on the new version of “Orphans’ Home,” to be helmed by “Estate” director Michael Wilson.

Foote’s works often focused on the dreams and aspirations of everyday people, reflecting his earthy upbringing.

Foote drew his first Oscar for the 1962 adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which won Gregory Peck an actor Oscar, and the other for original screen drama “Tender Mercies,” which scored Robert Duvall the actor trophy in 1983. The feature adaptation of his play “The Trip to Bountiful” landed Foote an Oscar nom and Geraldine Page an actress award in 1985.

He picked up his Pulitzer in 1993 for his play “The Young Man From Atlanta” and scored the Emmy in 1997 for his TV adaptation of William Faulkner’s “Old Man.”

Foote wrote extensively for early television, turning out a wide array of live dramas. After a brief period in Hollywood and mixed success — Oscar winners like “Mockingbird” were offset by poorly received projects such as “Hurry Sundown” — he retreated to write the “Orphans’ Home” series.

The nine dramas detail the life of his father’s family, the Robedaux. Foote even started his own production company to film some of the plays, including “1918” (filmed in 1985) and “Valentine’s Day” (1986). Both of these movies starred Matthew Broderick, who appeared in several of the “Orphans’ Home” dramas.

Born Albert Horton Foote Jr. in Wharton, Texas, in 1916, Foote may have traveled far from his hometown, but psychologically he never left.

“It seems to me a more unlikely subject could not be found … than this attempt of mine to re-create a small Southern town and its people,” he said. “But I did not choose this task, this place or these people to write about so much as they chose me, and I try to write about them with honesty.”

He began his career as an actor, studying at the Pasadena Playhouse in the mid-1930s. Then, with another actor (and future director), Joseph Anthony, he took off for New York, where he studied “the Method” under Tamara Daykarhanova.

In the late ’30s he performed in three one-acts, “The Coggerers,” “The Red Velvet Goat” and “Mr. Banks of Birmingham.” At the 1939 New York World’s Fair, he was part of the ensemble of “Railroads on Parade,” and he subsequently toured in the musical “Yankee Doodle Comes to Town.”

His rural plays found their genesis at the American Actors Theater (then the American Actors Company), members of which were encouraged to draw on their regional roots in creating drama. It was here that Foote’s first one-act play, “Wharton Dance,” was performed in 1940.

In 1941, Foote’s three-act play “Texas Town” won admiration from New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson for its simple writing and “real and languid impression of a town changing in its relation to the world.”

The review was enough to launch him as a playwright to watch. He followed “Texas Town” with “Out of My House (which he also co-directed) in 1942. His next drama, 1943’s “Only the Heart,” made it to Broadway, but its life was short.

At the end of WWII, Foote moved to Washington, D.C., to help set up, with his partner Vincent Donehue, a repertory company that staged works by Jean Giraudoux and William Saroyan as well as Foote’s own “Themes and Variations.”

By 1948 Foote’s work was back on the New York stage with the help of Anthony, who directed “Celebration” and two other short plays. It was then that TV director Fred Coe called on Foote and Donehue to write and direct weekly half-hour children’s series “The Gabby Hayes Show.”

Coe, who was producer of “Television Playhouse” on NBC, asked Foote to write a one-hour drama for TV that became “The Trip to Bountiful,” starring Lillian Gish. After it aired in 1953, a three-act stage version of the story later debuted on Broadway, also with Gish, but did not achieve the resounding success of the television version. Still later it appeared Off Broadway (including a lauded 2005 revival at Off Broadway’s Signature that starred Lois Smith) and in London.

In the span of a year, 1953-54, Foote turned out 10 teleplays, some of which were later done onstage.

In 1955, he turned to film with “Storm Fear,” which was followed by his Oscar-winning adaptation of “Mockingbird.”

After the disappointments of “The Chase” (1966) and his adaptation of “Hurry Sundown” (1967), Foote scaled back his commercial writing and began his “Orphans’ Home” cycle. Besides “Roots,” “Valentine’s Day” and “1918,” the other plays in the cycle are “Convicts,” “Lily Dale,” “The Widow Claire,” “Courtship,” “Cousins” and “The Death of Papa.”

Foote’s more recent works include a 1992 film adaptation of “Of Mice and Men” and plays “The Last of the Thorntons” (2000) and “The Carpetbagger’s Children” (2001).

Foote was married to Lillian Vallish from 1945 until her death in 1992. He is survived by four children — including daughters Hallie and Daisy, a playwright — and a grandson.

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