Drawing on His Clan's Past, Writer Horton Foote Unearths An Oscar-Winning Bounty

updated 06/09/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/09/1986 01:00AM

Horton Foote has come back to his hometown of Wharton, Texas (population: 9,000), about 55 miles southwest of Houston. It's a place he visits about five times a year, and much more often in his mind. In one of the most consistent accomplishments of American drama, Wharton—under the fictional name of Harrison—has been the primary setting and inspiration for Foote's original plays and films, including the recently released On Valentine's Day, over a 45-year career.

As Foote passes the courthouse with its outside gazebo, a girl pauses to acknowledge one of the town's most famous sons (Dan Rather also hails from Wharton, and his picture is enshrined in the local museum). "Hi, Mr. Foote," says the girl. "I saw one of your plays last night and just loved it. You're hot stuff."

Hot stuff? That's hardly how the 70-year-old Foote sees himself, even as he is basking in the glow of Geraldine Page's Oscar win for her starring role in A Trip to Bountiful. Foote wrote the screenplay, and Page, in her acceptance speech, gave him all the credit—and blame. Long a critic of the Oscar parade, Page joked, "It's all your fault, Horton." It was Page's first Oscar win after eight nominations but not the first time Foote and the Oscar have come together. He won screenwriting honors in 1983 for his Tender Mercies and in 1962 for his adaptation of Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Foote's vision—which is often praised for its simplicity, honesty and humanity—is firmly rooted in Wharton, where several generations of his family are buried "I had endless uncles and great-uncles and at least 30 cousins," says Foote son of a haberdasher and a housewife "I was born in a family of talkers and I adored them I'm a born listener and I was totally absorbed by my family's stories."

Although he was happy with his parents, two brothers and a huge umbrella of a family, Foote decided early that he wanted to stand alone. "When I was 12 I told my parents I wanted to be an actor," he says, laughing. "I'm sure they almost fainted, but after a while they saw I wasn't going to give it up, so they agreed. I must have had a terrible will."

He left Wharton at age 16, first studying in Dallas, then at the Pasadena Playhouse in California and finally in New York. One of his roles was as a living tableau in the 1939 World's Fair. He also worked as a night manager at Doubleday's bookstore, where he met Lillian Vallish. A native of Mount Carmel, Pa., Lillian, now 61, wed Foote in 1945.

Foote began writing plays "to make sure there was a lead part for myself," but in time his writing got better notices than his acting. By the 1950s, such scripts as The Chase, The Traveling Lady and A Young Lady of Property, based on life in a small Texas town, were being seen onstage and on live TV.

The social mores and style of the mid-'60s, however, thrust Foote into hard times. His homespun Texas tales were out of fashion, and the golden era of television was over. "The 1960s kind of crept up on me," he says. "I was minding my own business, and all of a sudden I realized all the changes were taking place. Words that I had been taught not to say in public were used onstage." In 1966, Foote moved Lillian and his growing family (Hallie, now 32, Horton Jr., 30, Walter, 28, and Daisy, 26) to New Hampshire. "My father is one of the hardest workers I've ever seen," says Daisy. "He'll get up at 2 in the morning and write. I'd come home from school and he'd emerge from the attic in his pajamas. I used to be so embarrassed in front of my friends, thinking they would think he was an alcoholic or something. But he was great."

Encouraged by his wife, Foote survived the lean years, writing a nine-play cycle, The Orphan's Home, based on the life of his father. "My mother is totally fearless," says Hallie, an actress. "If there ever was a money crunch, she had the confidence to deal with it. She was always the one who sustained him if he got discouraged or if there was any despair."

With the production of some of the plays in the cycle, and the Tender Mercies script he wrote for his friend Robert Duvall, Foote came back into critical favor. Because of his increased theatrical activity, he now divides his time between New Hampshire and New York.

Foote's appeal to actors lies in his writing. "I never even read the script for A Trip to Bountiful," says Geraldine Page. "When I knew Horton had done it, I accepted immediately. He writes real characters using real dialogue."

Increasingly, Foote is using his own family in his movies. Produced by Lillian, On Valentine's Day stars Hallie as a thinly disguised version of Foote's mother, who was also named Hallie. Horton Jr. has a featured role in the film, and Daisy appears in several scenes. Only son Walter, a lawyer, has not succumbed to the family tradition.

Foote's next film, Courtship, starring Hallie Foote and Amanda Plummer, started shooting on May 22. Ironically, Wharton has changed so much that the last movie Foote filmed in the town was Baby, the Rain Must Fall in 1965. His recent films have been made in the town of Waxahachie, outside Dallas, which looks more authentic, and Courtship is being filmed in Brookhaven, Miss. "The town I grew up in is mostly a memory now," Foote says wistfully. But some of the folks are still around like his cousin Nan, 81, who writes a column for the local Wharton paper called "Nan About Town." Says Nan "I taught Horton good manners good morals and how to do the Charleston and the Black Bottom That's why he's such a charmin' man today." Foote just nods and listens providing that you not only can go home again, but you can make a beautiful career out of it.

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