Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Horton Foote: America's Storyteller by Wilborn Hampton

When Horton Foote left Wharton, Texas for Pasadena, California in 1933, he thought he was gone for good. According to Wilborn Hampton in Horton Foote: America's Storyteller, rather than work in his father's clothing store, Foote planned to be a stage actor, a dream that he nurtured annually when seeing the traveling Dude Arthur Comedians in his home town. Despite his thick Texas drawl, the seventeen-year-old succeeded in getting into acting school at the Pasadena Playhouse and then win small roles in plays in New York, the epicenter of American theater. In 1938 or 1939, after seeing Foote improvise scenes in acting exercises, choreographer Agnes de Mille suggested the struggling actor try writing. Of what should he write? Of what he knew. What he knew best was life in and about Wharton, Texas. His family history and childhood would be sources for his stories for nearly seventy years.

Though he won a Pulitzer Prize for a play and two Oscars for screenplays, Foote never became a household name like his contemporaries Tennessee Williams or Arthur Miller. Though many proposals were made, few of his plays ever made Broadway. He turned to film and television initially just to support his family and later to find venues for his stories. He is considered one of the pioneers of television drama. For each success in Hollywood, however, there were several failures. Foote excelled at finding producers who praised his works and then demanded he change plots and characters drastically. Happily for viewers, he prevailed with his screenplays for To Kill a Mockingbird (based on the novel by Harper Lee), Tender Mercies (original), and The Trip to Bountiful (based on his own play).

Readers will learn Foote's role in the growth of regional theater, public broadcasting, and independent film making. They may also enjoy learning of his work with Lillian Gish, Harper Lee, Gregory Peck, Robert Duvall, Geraldine Page, Matthew Broderick, and many other writers and actors.

Hampton's book about Foote recounts the life of a writer devoted to honest storytelling, an author often labeled as non-commercial by the producers in New York and Hollywood. Readers will admire his persistence, decency, loyalty to lifelong friends, and devotion to family. This biography is a rare uplifting book to offer to readers tired of sordid tales.

Hampton, Wilborn. Horton Foote: America's Storyteller. Free Press, 2009. 292p. ISBN 9781416566403.

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