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Horton Foote

By Romulus Linney

After a Texas childhood, Horton Foote made his way through the ups and downs of a hardscrabble early life in New York, first as an actor, then a playwright. He learned his theatrical lessons beyond Broadway’s fashions and passions. He never blinked. He never changed. His legions of plays, television dramas, films, and two recent memoirs, won Academy Awards, the Pulitzer Prize, election to this Academy which gave him its Gold Medal, and to the American Theatre Hall of Fame. He was given the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton, and he received a host of other honors and awards. He loved the same woman all their married lives. He raised a fine family that is devoted to him and will always honor him. In later life, he not only wrote good plays, but some of his best.

I shared with Horton our Southern childhood, our veneration of William Faulkner and Katherine Anne Porter, our delight in a tall tale well told, our admiration for the art of good acting. He was a real friend. He liked my work and he liked me. I thought of him as I think of Chekhov and of course, Faulkner, who thought so highly of Horton’s television adaptation of his novel Old Man, he offered to share with him half his royalties.

Knowing Horton is one of the greatest treasures of my life. But it was also fun.

Nobody, but nobody, loved the theater like Horton. When he was in production, which was most of the time, he went to every rehearsal. When that play opened, even more amazing, he went to every performance. This is unheard of. Let me suggest why he did it.

Once we were talking to a group of playwrights, directors and actors at a theatre we belonged to. Somehow, the after life came up, Horton said he didn’t think about it. It was a waste of time. But if there was a heaven and he was going to it, he hoped it would be like going to rehearsal.

Another question that day was what did he do when he couldn’t think of what to write next.  Horton said that never happened. He had a huge extended family from both sides of his mother and father, plus many cousins and a whole Texas town from which to draw his characters and their conflicts. He spent his childhood eagerly listening to his loquacious Southern kin relate story after story about their relatives, in what for him became a sort of sublime gossip. It taught him to respect and revere the hardships of ordinary people, like his extended family, endure in life, and how many are tragically defeated. He recreated his Texas memories again and again, always with grace and humor, but also with the dark honesty truth, and a good play, require. Of course he loved the theatre for the art he made of it. He relished its professional challenges and met them.  But beneath the skill, it was his bottomless devotion to that family and the world it came from that was the guide to which he was always faithful. His families became yours and mine, no matter who we are or where we live. Writing his plays, he lived again, for them, and watching them, so did they, for him.

He was revising a whole cycle of his plays for current productions in Hartford and New York, when, a few days short of his ninety-third birthday, he died in his sleep, I like to think, ready and waiting to go to rehearsal.

Read at the Academy Dinner Meeting on November 12, 2009.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters