WACO, Texas — It was in an early scene of Horton Foote's life more than 70 years ago that the plot took an unusual twist.
The teenager who left home dreaming of becoming an actor began writing plays to ensure he landed good roles and discovered he was an unusually gifted storyteller.
Today, the white-haired Foote reigns as Texas' best-known playwright. He appears lean and fit, and he continues to write new works as he approaches his 88th birthday next month.
"When I left Wharton, if you told me I was going to be a playwright, I would have told you you were crazy," Foote says. "You just have to hold on because things can work out beyond your total imagination."
Foote will be honored March 3-6 at Baylor University with the inaugural Horton Foote American Playwrights Festival. The event includes a question-and-answer session with Foote and the 50th anniversary production of his play, "The Traveling Lady," about a rockabilly singer unable to change his violent ways. Actors Robert Duvall, Estelle Parsons and Ellen Burstyn have been invited to do panel discussions.
Foote's writing won him the Academy Award for his 1962 screen adaptation of "To Kill a Mockingbird" and for his 1983 screenplay, "Tender Mercies." He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for his play, "The Young Man From Atlanta," and an Emmy in 1997 for William Faulkner's "The Old Man."
He just finished his first novel, "Days of Violence," set in 1925.
Foote's plays revolve around the lives of ordinary people — their triumphs and tragedies and all points in between. Many of them are set in a small Texas town called Harrison, a fictional re-creation of the Wharton, the Southeast farming community Foote left behind at age 16.
Some Foote fans will get to see the playwright's home when they attend the festival. For $75, they will take a four-hour bus ride to Wharton and join Foote for a private tour and a meal at a local restaurant. They can watch "Tender Mercies" during the ride.
"I'm really praying hard that this will be one of the great moments in his life," said Baylor theater professor Marion Castleberry, who years earlier made Foote the subject of his doctoral dissertation.
Castleberry, the driving force behind the festival, has made Foote his life's work. He collaborated with Foote on the book "Horton Foote: Genesis of a Playwright" and is penning a biography of him. Foote's writing is "very close to my own soul," he said.
Foote was named Visiting Distinguished Dramatist in the fall of 2002 at Baylor, where he conducts weeklong lectures each semester.
"He has such an amazing background and experience. He speaks about people we've only read about," said Kelly Russell, a 35-year-old graduate student in directing.
The playwright's influence extends to his own family: Three of his four children embarked on theatrical careers. His wife of 47 years, Lillian Vallish, who became his producer, died in 1992.
Foote splits his time between the high energy of New York City and the quiet of the Wharton home in which he was raised. Most of his writing is done in Texas.
"I don't get up every day, say at 9, and start writing. A lot of writing is thinking," he says. "In Wharton, people leave me alone, the phone doesn't ring. In New York, there are a lot of plays to see, and I try to see as many as I can."
Actress Jean Stapleton said Foote is frequently found in the audience during performances of his own plays, which she said is unusual.
"His involvement is total, and that makes for a wonderful experience," the actress said by telephone from New York.
Stapleton, Edith Bunker on TV's "All in the Family," has appeared in seven Foote plays, most recently "The Carpetbagger's Children" at Lincoln Center. She said his work has contributed to her growth as an actress.
"His standards are very, very high. His demands are very, very high," Stapleton, 81, said. "I just think he's great."
Foote is most widely known for "To Kill a Mockingbird," written at a time he knew little about screenwriting. Help came from an assigned studio secretary who asked $25 a week to show him how to do it.
Harper Lee won a Pulitzer for the 1960 novel, which tells the fictional story of a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman in an Alabama town in the 1930s. The book was the basis for the film that also earned Gregory Peck a best-actor Oscar for his role of attorney Atticus Finch.
"I really don't think I'm an expert on film writing," Foote says. "I have to write about what I know about. I just couldn't go to the studio and take all the assignments like many screenwriters do. In that sense, I'm very rigid.
"I have to do things that I really feel strongly about or that I might have written."
Continuing to work as he nears 90 is something as necessary to him as breathing, he says. As for the topics, he has never selected them. He's a product of the Southern storytelling tradition, and the material must reach out and grab him.
"I don't think you could choose them anymore than you choose the color of your eyes," he says.
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