03.05.09

Remembering Horton Foote

Newscaster Dan Rather reflects on the Texas roots he shares with playwright Horton Foote, the screenwriter of To Kill a Mockingbird, who died Wednesday at the age of 92.

This one’s from the heart, from an unabashed fan to a friend and fellow son of Wharton, Texas: Horton Foote, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and renowned screenwriter, was an American master.

His mastery sprung, most of all, from his extraordinary ear. He had the best ear for dialogue of any American writer over the past three generations. The voices he wrote always—always—rang true as the blue of a Texas sky.

Wharton, Texas, from which Foote drew sustenance to the end, is a small river town at the mouth of the Colorado River (the Texas Colorado River, not the “Big Colorado” of the far West), on the Gulf Coast. It was cotton country in the heyday of King Cotton. It’s also long been cattle country, and hurricane country. Native Americans once roamed here, living on plentiful deer and ducks.

He had an almost mystical ability to bring the characters of 20th-century Texas to life.

Foote’s forebears were among the early Texans of European descent, eventually establishing plantations out of early land grants given by Mexico. Foote’s early surroundings were not that far in sensibility from William Faulkner’s Mississippi, and the old South of poet Sidney Lanier and songwriter Stephen Foster. They, along with Flannery O’Connor, were all favorites of his, and he could recite them from memory. He once told me, “They all had perfect pitch for place and tone for talk.”

And that’s what he had. His place was southeast Texas in the 20th century, Wharton and other small towns like it. It was in his blood and in his bones and he wrote it better than anyone.

He had an almost mystical ability to bring the characters of that time and place to life, even and perhaps especially to those who knew them best. I’ll never forget practically levitating out of my seat in a near-empty New York theater when a character in his 1980 film On Valentine’s Day opened his mouth and spoke with a voice and words uncannily like those of my long-dead father. He had the rare writer’s power to strike at the heart, something he managed with seeming ease.

Dan Rather is anchor and managing editor of HDNet's Dan Rather Reports. For 24 years, he served as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. His books include The American Dream, Deadlines and Datelines, The Camera Never Blinks, and The Palace Guard.