Horton Foote is one of the most prolific and honored American playwrights of the twentieth century. A fifth-generation Texan, Albert Horton Foote, Jr., was born in a rented room in the small Gulf Coast town of Wharton. A river-bottom community located in the state’s oil and cotton country, Wharton served as the model for the fictional Harrison, Texas, the setting of many of Foote’s plays. His father, Albert Horton Foote, Sr., ran a small men’s clothing store. His mother, Harriet “Hallie” Gautier Brooks, was a talented pianist. She defied her parents, who were opposed to her marriage to Foote, and eloped with him on Valentine’s Day, 1915. About sixty-five years later, the oldest of their three sons would turn this elopement story into a play, On Valentine’s Day.
The first child of his generation of Footes, the future playwright grew up listening to the stories endlessly repeated by grandparents, aunts, and great-aunts. An obsessive reader as well as an avid listener, Foote was most influenced during these Texas years by the writings of American authors Mark Twain and Willa Cather. Permitted to join both the Book-of-the-Month Club and the Literary Guild during his sophomore year of high school, he discovered the poetry of Walt Whitman, Edward Arlington Robinson, Dorothy Parker, and Edna St. Vincent Millay. It was during this time that he also first encountered plays by George Bernard Shaw and Noël Coward. It was Twain and Cather, however, who made the strongest and most lasting impression.
Foote was sixteen when he completed his senior year at Wharton High School. He was drawn to the theater but as an actor, not a playwright. He launched his acting career at California’s Pasadena Playhouse in 1933, later moving to New York City, where, starting in 1937, he studied for two years with Tamara Daykarhanova, a disciple of Russia’s father of “method” acting, Konstantin Stanislavski. Foote worked at several odd jobs during and between acting assignments, which included a stint at the Railroads on Parade pageant at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
In 1940, as a founding member of the American Actors Theatre, Foote took the advice of legendary choreographer Agnes De Mille and tried his hand at writing. Drawing on his Texas childhood, he authored a one-act play titled Wharton Dance. When it was premiered by the company in the fall of 1940, New York Daily Mirror critic Robert Coleman praised both Foote’s writing and his acting. Foote was pleased because he saw writing as an ideal way to create good roles for himself. When his three-act Texas Town debuted the following spring, however, The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson was so impressed by the drama, he suggested Foote give up acting to concentrate on writing. Still considering himself an actor, Foote was furious with the otherwise rave review. However, after a summer of eight roles in about eight weeks, he discovered that acting was out of his system. In his mid-twenties, he decided Atkinson was right: He was a writer.
Two more of Foote’s plays, Out of My House and Only the Heart, were staged by the American Actors Theatre in 1942. Several one-act plays followed, and, in late 1944, Foote and director Vincent J. Donehue, another Tamara Daykarhanova student, founded a theater workshop in Washington, D.C. This led to their repertory company, Productions, Inc. During these four years in Washington, the partners staged five of Foote’s plays as well as works by Tennessee Williams, John Millington Synge, William Saroyan, and Jean Giraudoux.
In 1948 Donehue’s college roommate, NBC producer Fred Coe, suggested that the director and the writer go to work for his network. Before becoming one of the most important writers during television’s golden age of live drama, Foote finished work on a three-act play about an escaped murderer returning to his small hometown. The Chase opened on Broadway in 1952 with Kim Stanley, an actress discovered by the playwright’s wife, Lillian Vallish Foote. Coe was known...
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