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Horton Foote died just months before he could finally win that elusive Tony Award

March 5, 2009 |  3:30 pm

When Horton Foote died Wednesday at age 92, he was hard at work on the most ambitious project of his nearly seven-decade writing career. "The Orphans Home Cycle" — a collection of nine of Horton Foote's plays set in the fictional version of his hometown of Wharton, Texas — will premiere at Hartford Stage in the fall before moving on to off-Broadway's Signature Theater.

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The onetime actor turned to playwrighting at the suggestion of good friend choreographer Agnes DeMille ("Oklahoma!"). While Horton Foote turned out more than 60 plays — beginning with the one-act "Wharton Dance" in 1940 — only eight of them played on Broadway. And none of these lasted more than a few months. However, his most recent rialto run — the Lincoln Center Theatre production of "Dividing the Estate" — could be a contender at the Tony Awards in June.

That top Broadway kudo was the one prize that eluded Horton Foote in his lifetime. His only nomination came in 1997 for "The Young Man From Atlanta." While he was bested by Alfred Uhry's "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," Horton Foote did win the Pulitzer Prize for "Atlanta."

For his screen adaptation of the best-selling Harper Lee novel "To Kill a Mockingbird," he won at the Oscars in 1962. That hit movie earned eight Oscar nominations in all, including best picture. And leading man Gregory Peck finally triumphed with his fifth lead actor nod. The role of Atticus Finch would come to define the actor to generations and topped the 2003 AFI list of screen heroes.

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In 1983 Horton Foote won a second Oscar, this time for his original script for "Tender Mercies." That film starred Robert Duvall, who had made a memorable screen debut as Boo Radley in "Mockingbird." Duvall won the lead actor Oscar on the fourth of six nominations. And two years later, Horton Foote adapted his 1953 play "A Trip to Bountiful" for the big screen. Foote lost his writing race to Kurt Luedtke, who adapted various works for best pic "Out of Africa." However, the film's star — Geraldine Page — finally prevailed as lead actress after seven losing bids in both lead (3) and supporting (4) categories.

Horton Foote also had a successful career in the early days of television. His adaptation of the William Faulkner story "Old Man" for "Playhouse 90" earned him an Emmy nod in 1959. He lost to James Costigan for his original teleplay "Little Moon of Alban." However, he did win an Emmy Award for the 1997 "Hallmark Hall of Fame" remake as well as the Humanitas prize. Among his other laurels, Foote also won the WGA award for each of his Oscar-winning screenplays. And he won the Indie Spirit award for his "Bountiful" script.

Top photo: Horton Foote at the Booth Theatre on Broadway before a matinee of his play "Dividing the Estate." Credit: Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times. Bottom photo: Playbill

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