Famed screenwriter Horton Foote shares his story
To listen to Horton Foote speak is to take a journey through the history of American film, theater and television.
The renowned Texas dramatist spoke to a packed house in October as part of Conversations, a program designed to enhance the OneBook shared reading experience. His speech, "Six Trips to Bountiful and Notes on a Journey Taken Along the Way," was peppered with anecdotes that spanned his colorful, multifaceted career.
Foote has written more than 60 plays and films, including the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird and the original screenplays Tender Mercies and The Trip to Bountiful. He has won a Pulitzer Prize, two Academy Awards and several lifetime achievement awards, and has been inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame.
"I admired the novel very much," he said of Mockingbird, for which his screenplay won an Oscar in 1962. "The success of the film made me, as they say in the trade, a hot commodity."
This was Foote's first speaking engagement at UT Arlington since 1988, when he keynoted a lecture series hosted by the English Department. "Six Trips" also culminated two days of events on campus, including a student roundtable in which he participated.
The 90-year-old Foote spoke with warmth and humor. The event was billed as a lecture, but his easygoing demeanor made it feel more like story time.
"I began writing plays, you might say, by chance," he said. He left Wharton, Texas, and moved to New York in his early 20s to work—for free—with the American Theatre Company. His work became popular when American film and television was in its infancy. He recalled early sets in which there was only one stationary camera and the actors had to do the moving.
Foote gave an intimate view into what inspired some of his most beloved plots and characters. He spoke of close friends, for example Mockingbird author Harper Lee.
"She is one of the finest women I've ever known," he said. "We've remained friends all these years."
Foote has achieved the kind of fame that burgeoning screenwriters long for. He has been called a national treasure and "the father of indie film." Still, his humility was evident throughout his speech.
His legacy not only lives on through his work, but also through his children. He ended by singing the signature hymn from Bountiful, "Softly and Tenderly (Jesus is Calling)," with his daughter, Hallie. An actress and producer herself, Hallie cut her teeth by performing in some of her father's films.
"He’s a great American playwright," she said. "I think a lot of people feel that way now, and they will continue to feel that way."
Judging by the lengthy standing ovation her father received at the end of his speech, she's right.
— Camille Rogers