Posted in: Interviews

“I try to get the essence of things” – An Interview with Horton Foote

[Editor’s note – This interview appeared in a very different form in the November/December 1996 issue of Modern Maturity. The introduction was written specifically for this publication.]

Horton Foote died March 5th, 2009, at his daughter Hallie’s home in Connecticut where he was at work cutting his ‘Orphan’s Home Cycle’ from 9 plays into a 3-act version for Broadway in the Fall of 2009.  Broadway theatres dimmed their lights in his honor for one minute that night.

Horton Foote at his New York apartment with some of his collection of Americana, reproduced with the kind permission of the photographer, Jeanne Strongin
Horton Foote at his New York apartment with some of his collection of Americana, reproduced with the kind permission of the photographer, Jeanne Strongin

I spent a week with Horton Foote in 1993, in Wharton, Texas, the town he had been writing about all his life, in one form or another. The calm, high-ceilinged house he lived in reflected a lifetime of collecting, at flea markets and country auctions, with a great eye and a gambler’s luck. Horton and his wife Lillian had gathered superb pieces of Americana, naïve folk paintings and family silhouettes and mixed them with wit and sureness and a touch of the unexpected.

Coming down the steps in his trademark black suit, both arms outstretched, he was a mixture of warmth and Southern concern and for the week that followed, he had the knack of seeming to sublimate his densely packed schedule to mine. With his cherub’s face and his thatch of silver hair, he was at the same time buoyant and optimistic, and deeply and intrinsically tenacious (that thread common to his finest characters.)

Directly next door, where he put up guests, sits the white bungalow-style house in which Foote was born. Unlike most of the rest of the country, there’s a sense of continuity in Wharton. It comes out in strolls around his slowly emptying town, where Foote is still a local celebrity and can tell the history of every family in every house, many of whom are kin, in varying degrees of closeness.

As deeply rooted as Foote is in Wharton, he has been equally entwined with his family: Lillian Vallish Foote, his inseparable partner of 48 years, and their 4 children: Hallie and Horton Jr. who are actors, Walter, a lawyer and Daisy, a playwright.

In August, 1992, Lillian Foote died, after a brief illness. In September, The Roads to Home opened in New York, the play on which her husband and daughter were working at the time of her illness. The following May, Hallie won an Obie for that performance, which her father wrote and directed.

Sheila Benson: You’ve written in so many forms, how do you think of yourself?

Horton Foote: I’m essentially a story teller, although the people that are hardest on me always say that I don’t have enough story. I guess what will get me going is the human condition. But what I do, through thinking and thinking and thinking and thinking, I try to get the essence of things.

Every play, every film of yours does grapple with that, in deceptively spare language.

Well, in my family, an eternal question would always come up: what do you think went wrong with the boys? — my three uncles. I think that constant questioning is what gave me a sense of wonder and sense of humbleness in front of certain human frailties or tragedies. I don’t really know the answer and I don’t think anybody else does, and I think that’s part of the mystery. You can see one man come out of terrible circumstances and another guy just go to pieces. And that’s what makes the texture of life so fascinating.

Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in "To Kill a Mockingbird"
Gregory Peck and Mary Badham in "To Kill a Mockingbird"

You know, in spite of all your other writing, you’ll forever be tagged as “two-time Academy Award winner.” How did your screenplay of To Kill A Mockingbird come about?

Well, it’s very simple. I had done only one film, a very dark, small film, Storm Fear. And I had worked with [director Robert] Mulligan in television and [producer] Alan Pakula and I had become friends over my play, The Chase. Well, they called about Mockingbird. I had work of my own and I didn’t want to adapt, but Lillian said, ‘I think you better read this.’ I’ve always trusted her, so I did and I thought it’s something I felt I could do. So they said you and Harper [Lee] will have to meet. .and Alan brought her over and I just fell in love with her.

After we met, she said, “I don’t want to see you again, I just want you to go ahead and write, forget me.” And she was terribly supportive.

I wondered about the intricacies and pitfalls of adaptation. What was your way into Mockingbird?

There was a review titled “Scout in the Wilderness” by R.P. Blackmur, a wonderful New York critic, and he compared it to Huck Finn and Scout to Huck quite remarkably and my imagination just began to work because of that. And it strengthened my feelings that we should discover the hypocrisy in this small Southern town through the eyes of the children.

You’ve adapted Faulkner too, more than once. Quite a different matter.

Well, that actually was really scary.

I’d done [Faulkner’s] The Old Man, on NBC for Playhouse 90, which was a success and I dramatized a lot of scenes in that. So then they asked me to do Tomorrow which is just a short story. And I just didn’t know how to do that story. So I was walking around the Hudson River, I’ll never forget it, and in the story there’s about a paragraph, maybe, about this black-complected woman — he doesn’t name her — who has this child… he talks about the woman in a very oblique way.

Well, for some reason I just fell in love with this woman. I gave her a name, I called her Sara Eubanks and I began to think about her, and that’s what got me into the story. And I was in terror — because about half of it is mine and not Faulkner’s. I thought, oh my God, what’s he going to say? But I thought, it’s the only way I know how to do this. And, I never met Faulkner, but evidently he was very pleased.

How did you hear that?

Well, because for both of these works, The Old Man and Tomorrow, Faulkner allowed me to shared the dramatic copyright with him. And I’ve never heard of that before. [Producer] Fred Coe said one night “Faulkner’s going to be at Sardi’s and I’d love to take you in to meet him.” (Laughs) I said if I walked into Sardi’s and saw Faulkner I’d run right out the back door.

Then you wrote Tender Mercies. As the country singer Mac Sledge, Robert Duvall says “I never did trust happiness. I never have and I never will.” Where did that come from?

Well, it comes out of something I still struggle with, a deep superstition, almost a mythic feeling that if something good happens, something bad’s going to happen right after it. I’ve known people that have felt that way; you just temper your exaltation.

I don’t know how you arrive at those lines. I think chance plays a lot in creation. When I finished Tender Mercies I had a strong feeling that it would be a wonderful part for Duvall. He came over and [because] it was in my handwriting, I read it to the poor man. Fortunately he liked it a lot, then I said, “Hallie tells me you can sing, Bob, right?” And he sang “Wings of the Dove” and I just fell in love with it. I thought, that’s a given. I found something here that I can use. And I think one of the most moving moments in the film is his daring to sing it with his back to the camera.

I first saw The Trip to Bountiful on television with Lillian Gish in 1953, I knew you expanded it into a play which she also did. Then 31 years later it became a film which won Geraldine Page her Oscar at last. What was the germ of that story?

I had a great aunt who lived in a town dying like Bountiful who was in love with her first cousin, and their families wouldn’t let them marry. She married an older man and her cousin married and the legend in our family was that after her husband died, she’d sit on the gallery and everyday around noon he’d walk by and bow to her and she’d bow to him. Well, I heard that as a child and it was fascinating to me.

Lillian Gish in the original stage production of "The Trip to Bountiful"
Lillian Gish in the original stage production of "The Trip to Bountiful"

And for the film version, both you and Miss Page got Academy Award nominations.

I prayed the screenplay for Bountiful wouldn’t win.


Well, I felt terrible that Lillian [Gish] didn’t play the part, and I didn’t know what to say. I loved Geraldine and I loved her in the film, but how could I give Lillian the credit that I thought she needed, because in my opinion she kept it alive all these years, and still give full credit to Geraldine. And then I didn’t win, so I didn’t have to.

I think of Lillian Gish often. She felt an actor should never marry, and certainly should never have children. “Suppose I had a child with a fever and I had to go play a performance,” she said, “I would be so torn.” I listened but I think it’s better to be more involved in life than that.

You have a family, you’ve had a 48-year marriage, you couldn’t be more involved in life.

I always felt very nurtured by my family, they gave me a lot. I worked at home and I was insatiably curious about the affairs going on. The minute the children came home from school they always came up and talked to me. And if they didn’t, I’d come down and find out what was happening. It was a wonderful thing for me to watch the children grow up. I didn’t always know how to handle certain situations or what to tell them or what to do, but I never got bored with it.

You were absolutely the hot writer after Mockingbird, yet you didn’t stay on in Hollywood. Why?

I didn’t find the Hollywood world congenial, and I just felt I had to keep on working. And Lillian was terribly supportive, she didn’t want to live in California. She was afraid to raise the children out there, she just felt that our friends out there were living so high and that was a very dangerous world.

I think she was absolutely right.

I don’t deserve a lot of credit. Expensive cars don’t mean anything to me. Once in a while I’ll go buy a picture, buy books. What little money I have I share with my children. I think that’s where they get you: if you have to have a certain kind of rich life style and you need the money.

Do you think of yourself as a Southerner? With a special feeling for the South as a place?

Yes, absolutely, I feel that place is very important in my work. I’ll even be more specific then that: Texas has been very kind to me, it likes to say I’m a Texas writer. The South says I’m a Southern writer but actually I’m a Wharton writer. I write about this town. And I try to be as specific about this town as I can be without being parochial.

Is there any way in which that’s a limitation?

Well, it’s perceived as a limitation often. I don’t think it’s a limitation because I don’t know what else one would do. You see, for certain kind of writers — this is a theory that Katherine Anne Porter often put forth — your material is pretty much programmed in by the time you’re ten years old, your themes, in some mysterious way, are there and you do a variation of those themes. It isn’t that you’re limited to that theme, but your spiritual calling, so to speak, as far as a writer is concerned, is kind of fixed.

What programmed your material? What was the texture of your early years in Wharton?

My father had a men’s store and it was the deep Depression. We didn’t ever lack anything, but many a time I’ve seen him, when cotton was selling for five cents a pound, at the end of a day if he’d taken in seven dollars, and on Saturdays sometimes seventy-five dollars, it would have been a good day for him. So something made me realize that we weren’t affluent.

My father was an eccentric man, he was a wonderful man, but very eccentric and he never would have a clerk, so I was his clerk. He did tailor-made suits and he ordered suits for people. Saturdays were the day when the blacks would come in to town from the country, They would line up, sometimes there’d be twenty-five men waiting for him to wait on them,

And he just came alive when they were in the store.

Did working there influence you as a writer?

Oh, absolutely. I never got tired of being in my father’s story because of the variety of people that would come in and I could listen to. I listened constantly, and I learned so early on that the same story told by different people is very different. Because there are the variations of, first of all, the human voice and the memory and the details that attract them in the story. And the repetition, it was almost like a Gertrude Stein.

Did you read a lot as a boy?

I had an enormous appetite to read, at 13 or 14 I joined the Literary Guild and The Book Of The Month. Eudora Welty’s The Golden Apples meant an enormous amount to me. And Willa Cather. Then of course Mark Twain was a given. And somehow, when I began to write, the style of a Cather or the style of a Twain, that’s the kind of thing I went towards.

Robert Duvall in "Tomorrow"
Olga Bellin and Robert Duvall in "Tomorrow"

Tell me about Lillian. How did you meet?

I’d taken a job in a bookstore in Pennsylvania Station in 1945, to keep myself going when one of my plays was running and I had to not take any royalties. They made me manager and one hot July night she came to ask for a job. She was at Radcliffe in her senior year. I asked her for a date that night. She didn’t go that night, but we were engaged at six weeks.

So you never had any doubts from the moment you saw her in the book store.

No, I never did and I don’t think she did really, although she had great pressure from her family not to marry me.

That’s the feeling that completely suffuses the character of young Horace in Valentine’s Day isn’t it?

Yes, yes, that speech that Horace makes to Elizabeth was really for my wife. ‘I intend to have everything I didn’t have before… a house, some land… fruitful things.’ He ends up saying, ‘I believe I might have these things because you married me. I never thought you would marry me, I thought you’d listen to your father, but you did marry me and I’ve begun to know happiness for the first time in my life. I adore you. I worship you… and I thank you for marrying me.’

I was fascinated to learn you’d begun as an actor, not a writer. Where did that come from? When?

(laughs) I swear to you, when I was nine years old, it was just like I got a call, I just decided that I wanted to be an actor. And I never, never veered. I didn’t go to college… I don’t know why in God’s name my parents let me. I would have tied my child to the bed if they said I’m going to go off and be an actor. But my father heard about the Pasadena Playhouse, which he thought was nice and safe. Of course it was just like going to Sodom and Gomorrah by the time I arrived.

I think I wanted to be a movie star, not an actor, but when I was at the Playhouse my grandmother came out and took me to see Eva Le Gallienne in three Ibsen plays and it just changed my whole life. I thought, this is what I want to do. I went to New York, I got work at the Provincetown Playhouse and then studied at the School for the Stage which was run by the Russians. They told me I’d been badly trained, that I had to re-learn everything. So I was re-trained by the Russians.

What tools did they give you?

Well, improvisation. That was very radical at the time. And real respect for the writer.

Were they the ones who encouraged you to write?

No. I was invited to join a group of actors who formed something called American Actors Company, really off-Off Broadway, up over a garage. We did plays by established writers the commercial theater didn’t want very much. And Agnes de Mille, who was already much established, came to do a compilation of dances and sketches and one-acts. We did improvisations about our different sections of the country, and I did mine about Texas. Agnes took me aside and said, “I think there’s something going on here. You should think about writing.”

So I came home, right to this room, and wrote a 3-act play, Texas Town, and I had the lead. In New York it was a really a big opening night. Brooks Atkinson, the dean of critics at the New York Times was there. And his review was a rave, he loved all the acting — except one and that was me. I was just crushed, and I said ‘Well, I’ll never write again, I’m just going to act and he’s going to eat those words.’

The American Actors Company went away that summer, and [even though] I got wonderful parts, just suddenly, the acting desire just left me and I became intensely fascinated on writing.

I’d think having been an actor is a huge advantage.

Well, to me it’s like writing for a symphony, if you don’t know the instruments. In the meantime, I’d gotten involved with dancers, because of Agnes [de Mille]: Valerie Bettis, Pearl Primus, Martha Graham. It was one of the great experiences of my life.

I know you moved on to television in its Golden Age, the late 40s, early 50s. Certainly the age of the writer. Your voice was so distinctive. What gave you the strength to know yourself so clearly?

I don’t know, I don’t know. I had strong instincts that I trusted. I knew what the mainstream was and I just couldn’t enter into it with a whole heart, and I never did. I never have really.

What influences, what heroes did you have?

Katherine Anne Porter: Noon Wine, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and Old Mortality. And I just love her essays. She defends without being parochial or provincial — because there’s not a provincial bone in her body — the use of your own material and the respecting of your place that you come from. And then Charles Ives.

The composer? How did you find him?

I was in New Hampshire and I wanted a hero. I was feeling very dislocated because the Sixties were hard on me. I was interested in the Sixties, but just suddenly I felt that I didn’t belong and there was nothing I could do about it except observe it. I did observe it very carefully and tried to learn and tried to be as balanced about it as I could be. Then I saw a remarkable documentary about Ives on PBS. I think I got interested in him because he was so cantankerous. He was truly an original, hated sentimentality in any form. I just fell in love with him. I began to listen to all the music and he got me through a very dark period. He was kind of a role model for me.

Robert Duvall and Allan Hubbard in "Tender Mercies"
Robert Duvall and Allan Hubbard in "Tender Mercies"

Tell me the difference between sentiment and sentimentality.

Well, you know, I’m often accused of sentimentality, and I’m not sentimental at all. I think sentiment can be a genuine emotion, an evaluation of something quite genuine and a depth of feeling. And I think sentimentality is an evasion of reality, it’s just not looking at the truth of the thing.

Do you see a huge tendency in the culture today toward sentimentality?

I certainly do. And I think the focus of sentimentality is on very strange things. Like evil, you know what I mean? Anti-social behavior. Sentimentality toward violence. Not a real appraisal of violence but… glorification is a form of sentimentality, isn’t it?

Sure. Like the kids who think there’s something romantic about Nazism.

Absolutely. Or the drug culture. It’s made glamorous or interesting when it isn’t interesting really, it’s destructive. Now this may shock you, but I find The Crying Game a very sentimental film because I think they just evade what terrorism is, what kind of man would really be involved with it.

But if you try to deal with less glamorized figures in our society, and you try to evaluate them in an unsentimental way, then you’re often accused of being sentimental. I think Hollywood is the most sentimental place I know. And the theater is a close second. And television. I don’t know what you call that.

How do you see contemporary mainstream films?

This is just a personal theory, but I feel the whole MTV thing has influenced present film-making a great deal. The aggressiveness of the music, of the cutting, the restlessness, in the sense that you can’t dwell for a second on an image, it has to go boom, boom, boom, boom.

Where do you see yourself in filmmaking today?

I just feel I really have a lot to say now in films.

I’m working on an original screenplay now, the most simplistic way to tell you about it is that it’s about an older man in a changing world. It’s a wonderful part for Gregory [Peck], and he says he loves it.

What’s it called?

Alone. And I’m sure it’s probably coming out of some things I’m feeling, too, a man who’s lost his wife.

You wrote, “Lillian and I were together for forty-eight years and if I had my way it would have lasted at least another forty-eight years. We were very close and I still find it almost impossible to believe that I won’t walk into the next room and find her there.” What has the time since last August brought?

I never realized how much my children loved me until Lillian died. I had no concept of how really they cherished me.

They’ve been just darling to me, I have been so impressed with their thoughtfulness and their concern without burdening me, and their tenderness and their maturity. Each of them have displayed qualities… I was just amazed at how much they had. I thought to myself, where have they learned it? How did they know how to do this?

What advice would you give a young writer?

Just observe life as compassionately as you can and try to be as honest as you can about what you see and feel. Observe, but not be judgmental.

I think you have to say to yourself, what would I do if no one wanted to do these things or no one liked them? I think I’d go on writing anyway. [Try to] find a level of belief for yourself that you can trust without being vain or bull headed or foolish. You just have to somehow not get on the roller coaster.

Take someone like Elizabeth Bishop, in her Collected Poems. She’s extraordinary. She found a relationship to her work: she didn’t shut out the world, but she had her own standards. I guess that’s the thing you have to finally try to find, a standard for yourself.

Horton Foote (portrait copyright by the Writers Guild of America)
Horton Foote (portrait courtesy of Writers Guild of America)

If you had to chart them, what would you call the major points of your life so far?

I think the first was the Russians, they trained me in a certain way. Then the American Actors Company, in which I began to see people of a kindred spirit and began to read American plays. Then my association with the dancers, Agnes, Martha Graham, all of them. I saw the great women of modern dance sewing their own costumes, sweeping the stage, selling the tickets, and not crying about it. Their values just didn’t include how much money does it make.

Then, of course, my marriage and the children. I was twenty eight when I married. And to have someone, who firmly, firmly believed — because Lillian wasn’t a sentimental person, but I steadfastly knew that she just believed. She said once, ‘No I never doubted, even when we were our hungriest, I never doubted.’

How much a constant matter of growth and adjustment is marriage?

Oh Lord, I think it’s forever, don’t you? I’m still adjusting to my marriage, I’m still thinking of what would Lillian say about this and how would she expect me to do this and would she be pleased? I’ll maybe talk to her and say now I’m learning this and aren’t you pleased with me? I think it’s a constant thing.

I’m noticing I look at things differently now than I did in my 50s. There’s more of a sense of the value of time. Is that a feeling you recognize?

Absolutely. But you have to also be careful that you don’t say to yourself, oh, I have so little time I’ve got to get going here, otherwise I think you get such a rigid agenda that you don’t allow spontaneous things to happen.

So what’s the balance?

I don’t know the secret to that because I meet this all the time. I mean I was just thinking last night, oh gosh, I have so much to get done and I have so little time to do it really. Then I thought, well, you just better stop that. because otherwise you don’t talk to your children, you’ll say I’m too busy to talk to you now, honey, I have a deadline. I’m really trying awfully hard not to do it because it’s the enemy. Because our life is really a blip, if you think about it, it’s a blip.

When they tell me how old I am, and I say oh no, I’m twenty two, I’m twenty, I haven’t changed, and then I look in the mirror. My father had a little problem with his memory and he was living with us in New Hampshire and one day (the kids never got over this), he looked in the mirror and he said ‘Who is that old man?’ I just don’t want to turn into a machine, a time machine, something running scared because of time.

The other thing that I think you have to be very careful of, I see so many people of a certain age stop whatever they’re doing and kind of live vicariously through their children and their grandchildren, and that I think is awful. If you can keep an interest going and have a real passion without making it just tie you in knots, it’s probably the best thing that can happen to a person.

And I shouldn’t prophesy, but I know I’ll never marry again. I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, absolutely, oh no, Lord, heavens. I had a friend in New Hampshire whose husband passed on and she said ‘I’m like the swans, I only mate once.’ I thought that was kind of sweet.

I know that people divorce and get married again because the marriages weren’t very happy, and that’s fine but if you find your real mate and if you’ve had a happy marriage, I think you better say, thanks a lot and that’s it.

And now you have your first grandchild.

Now I have my first grandchild, Tyler Clinton. I hope they call him Clinton. I do love my president.

© 1994 Sheila Benson

Photograph of Horton Foote (in top of piece) © 1994 Jeanne Strongin