Homespun heroics was his forte


Horton Foote, the prolific playwright and screenwriter who gave enduring voice to the values of small-town America in such movies as "To Kill a Mockingbird," "Tender Mercies" and "The Trip to Bountiful" and plays like the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Young Man From Atlanta," died Wednesday in Hartford, Conn. He was 92.

Foote died in his sleep in his apartment. He was working on "The Orphans' Home Cycle," a collection of nine plays that will be presented in the fall at the Hartford Stage, where his daughter, actress Hallie Foote, is appearing in a production of "Mockingbird."

The Texas-born writer's career spanned more than 50 years in film, TV and theater. He earned two Academy Awards — best adapted screenplay for 1962's "Mockingbird" and best original screenplay for 1983's "Mercies" — and was nominated for a third for 1985's "Bountiful."

Robert Duvall won the best actor Oscar for "Mercies," and Geraldine Page took the best actress trophy for "Bountiful."

In TV, Foote was awarded an Emmy for 1997's "Old Man," his adaptation of a William Faulkner novella. An earlier version of the same material brought him his first Emmy nomination in 1959 when he wrote it for "Playhouse 90."

"Mockingbird" — his adaptation of Harper Lee's novel about an Alabama lawyer who takes a stand against racial prejudice by defending a young black man accused of rape — spoke to the country's rising awareness of the civil rights struggle as it collected eight Oscar noms and three wins. It thrust Foote, who had spent much of the 1950s working in theater and TV drama, into the film world, where he penned such screenplays as "Baby, the Rain Must Fall" (1965); "The Chase" (1966), which was based on his 1952 play; and "Hurry Sundown" (1967).

On stage, he returned frequently to his Texas roots, creating the fictional town of Harrison, where most of his deceptively homespun plays are set.

"I picked a difficult subject, a little lost town no one's heard of or cares about," Foote told the New York Times in 1995. "But I'm at the mercy of what I write."

After his mother's death in 1974, Foote began his "Orphans' Home Cycle," based loosely on his parents' early lives. Independent films were made of four of the plays: "1918," "On Valentine's Day," "Courtship" and "Convicts."

Most recently, "Dividing the Estate," the comic tale of a Texas family squabbling over an inheritance, was presented on Broadway this season by Lincoln Center Theatre. He won the Pulitzer in 1995 for "Atlanta."

Foote was born March 14, 1916, in Wharton, Texas, the son of Hallie and L.H. Foote, owners of a store and cotton farm. He left home at 16 to study acting in Dallas and soon found his way to the Pasadena Playhouse. He studied with Tamara Daykarhonova in New York, appearing in such Broadway productions as Max Reinhardt's "The Eternal Road" and Ernest Hemingway's "The Fifth Column."

At the time, Foote and a number of his acting peers were disillusioned with commercial theater and its lack of companies presenting works by American playwrights. They formed their own studio and repertory company on 69th Street, which they dubbed the American Actors Company. Its members included Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Joseph Anthony and Mildred Dunnock.

Through the company, Foote became involved in writing when a fellow actor suggested that Foote might pen something for the group. His first full-length play, "Texas Town," was based on his childhood experiences and received positive reviews, including a rave from the New York Times' Brooks Atkinson. It led Foote to set aside acting in favor of a writing career.

Despite his film success in the '60s, Foote grew disenchanted with Hollywood because of lack of control over his screenplays. His stage work also fell out of favor as Foote retreated to a home in New Hampshire.

But in the '80s, he was lured back to the screen as smaller, indie films hewed more faithfully to his words. Duvall — for whom Foote wrote "Mercies" after the actor appeared in a film version of "Tomorrow," Foote's adaptation of a Faulkner short story — called the writer "a rural Chekhov." At the same time, the theater world also found a new appreciation for Foote's work as he embarked on a cycle of new work and restagings of older plays.

Foote, whose wife Lillian died in 1992, is survived by his four children: daughters Hallie and Daisy and sons Horton Jr. and Walter.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.