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FROM THE MOYERS FILES: Bill Moyers talks with Horton Foote

March 29, 2002

MOYERS: Coming from Texas, I know all about carpetbaggers.

That's what we called Yankees who arrived in the south after the Civil War seeking political and financial gain, their belongings stuffed in carpetbags.

There's a new play at Lincoln Center here in New York called THE CARPETBAGGER'S CHILDREN.

It stars Jean Stapleton, Roberta Maxwell, and Hallie Foote.

And the moment they opened their mouths, I heard the voices of people I know from another time and place.

That's not surprising, given that the playwright is a fellow Texan.

But guess what, the New Yorkers in the audience on opening night were as mesmerized by the story as I was.

It's all about family secrets, tribal memories, sibling rivalry, and how change stalks our lives — universal themes, whatever the accent.

That's the kind of stories Horton Foote has been telling for over 60 years.

He's won the Pulitzer Prize and Academy Awards for classic movies like TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD.

Thank you for being with us today.

HORTON FOOTE: Thank you for having me.

MOYERS: Your first play, if my information is correct, opened in New York in 1941, TEXAS TOWN.

FOOTE: That's right.

MOYERS: Sixty-one years ago.

Do you still get butterflies on opening night?

FOOTE: Terrible. Awful. And I, I give myself a lecture.

I say, "now, you're a mature man, according to some people's estimate. And you really should get over this."

And there's nothing you're going to do about it. And you've taken your licks and you didn't... You weren't destroyed.

But I don't know what it is.

It's just some kind of chemistry begins to work and you get very kind of anxious.

I guess "anxious" is the word. All... I've seen all, most of them...

MOYERS: The reviews are all... I've seen all, most of the reviews, I think.

They're all good about THE CARPETBAGGERS' CHILDREN.

FOOTE: They loved it. They loved it.

MOYERS: When did you get them, and how did you feel when you saw them?

FOOTE: Well, you know, it used to be that the TIMES would come out around midnight, but since they've moved their plant to New Jersey, nobody knows when they come out.

So there's no point in worrying about it.

MOYERS: But didn't you know... I mean, I knew the moment it was over that night and the audience started clapping and then rising and then they just kept clapping, didn't you know that you had it made?

FOOTE: You just never... there's no point in me assuming that, you know?

MOYERS: The review people, despite the audience, the review can still kill you, right?

FOOTE: Oh, yes, and they can be disturbing, at least.

MOYERS: Television reviews are the same way.

I really wasn't sure that the urbanite audience of New York would get a play about a family from a small town in Texas. And yet they did.

What is it, you think, that travels so well across so much time and distance?

FOOTE: You know, Bill, I don't know that. I really don't know.

I mean, all I know, all I really feel that for good or bad, I've been given these people to write about.

MOYERS: "Given" them?

FOOTE: Yes. I didn't choose this.

MOYERS: You didn't sit down and write about it?

FOOTE: No. As a matter of fact, I think my life would be much happier if I could write about New York City. But, it's just, it's just been given to me.

And I... "obsession" is the wrong word, but I am, you know, it's what interested me and what I write about.

MOYERS: Were they people — I mean, Cornelia and Grace May and Sissy — were they people you knew?

FOOTE: Well, they're always people I know, but never as I... they don't end up in the play as I knew them.

It's like a collage, you know. You take a little bit from here, a little bit from there, a little bit from there.

And then you start out, at least I do, with a very definite impression and a feeling. But as you work on it, the play finds its life.

They change because there are things in the play that change that they haven't experienced or been through.

MOYERS: Did you spend a lot of time, as a kid, listening to people like Cornelia?

FOOTE: Yes, I did.

I mean, I'd rather listen than play baseball, to tell you the truth.

And I had a brother, two brothers, who were very different. They did... they thought I was out of my sit around and listen to all of those old people all the time.

But the past, in some ways — although I don't always only write about the past — but the past, in some ways, became as real to me as the present.

And the people in the past, I felt I knew them and, you know, because I'd heard so much about them.

MOYERS: You knew them from the stories that your family told?

FOOTE: Yeah. Yeah. They became very real to me.

MOYERS: One of the most revealing lines, to me, in THE CARPETBAGGER'S CHILDREN, occurred when Cornelia said, "We were such a happy family."

FOOTE: Yeah.

MOYERS: That little bit of nostalgia is important in all family mythology, whether or not it's true.

FOOTE: That's right.

There's a wonderful story of Katherine Anne Porter's, called "Old Mortality," which is the theme of that story, that the tales that are passed down are not always based on the reality...and anyway...

MOYERS: They don't have to be accurate to be true.


MOYERS: But we do... don't families do a lot of speculating about the past?

FOOTE: Yes, I think they do. And I noticed... the other night I was out with three of... four of my children, who took me out for my birthday.

And I felt quite left out because they began talking about "remember when we heard the Beatles do this" and "the Beatles do that?"

And though I was there and... It has not the same relevance to me that it has to them, you know.

That's their past. And I certainly realized every generation has its own past.

MOYERS: What birthday was this for you?

FOOTE: Never mind.

MOYERS: Doesn't have to be accurate to be true.

FOOTE: I have a friend that they... that when they ask him what his birthday is, he says, "that's none of my business."

MOYERS: All right. I'll have to look it up then.

There was one part of the play, however, that was unfamiliar to me.

And that was the hymn that kept floating through like a haunting refrain.

FOOTE: Yeah.

MOYERS: Tell me what you can about that.

FOOTE: Well, that's an old gospel hymn. I don't know where I've heard it, but I've heard it many times.

MOYERS: Your daughter was by this morning.

FOOTE: Was she?

MOYERS: She came by and she sang that hymn for us, "O' The Clanging Bells of the Times."

FOOTE: Yeah.

MOYERS: Let me play it for you.


The clanging bells of time

Night and day they never cease

We are wearied with that chime

For they do not bring us peace

And we hope our breath to hear

And we strain our eyes to see

If the shores are drawing near



MOYERS: Talk to me about that last line.

FOOTE: Well, it has all the mystery of life to me in it, you know. What is eternity and what are we going to share of eternity?

And Ben Brantley said a rather profound thing at the end of his review...


FOOTE: Yes. That it was not much consolation, this eternity, it sounded very lonely.

MOYERS: Yes. He said "as the word is sung again one last time, you do not doubt that eternity is a lonely place."

FOOTE: I didn't... There again, I love having people tell me what my play is about.

I didn't... I don't know that I think of eternity as a lonely place. I think it's probably a journey we have to take by ourselves.

MOYERS: Wharton is how far from Houston?

FOOTE: It's 50 miles southwest of Houston and 30 miles from the Gulf. And we call ourselves the heart of the Gulf Coast.

MOYERS: And you were born there.

FOOTE: Yes, I was.

MOYERS: Was it your Aunt Lulu who told all the stories?

FOOTE: Yeah. She was about...

MOYERS: Tell me about her. What'd you learn from her?

FOOTE: Well, she had a sense of dramatics. She also could exaggerate terribly, you know. So that everything was, I mean, she used to say things like... I love anybody that has a drop of Horton blood in them.

And I just thought that was remarkable, you know.

MOYERS: That she could say it that way?

FOOTE: Oh, yeah. That's right.

And then she'd close her eyes and she'd... and after she... had her child, which she had a hard time in childbirth, she'd say, "doc told me that they could tie him to a wagon and drag him around the courthouse square before he'd ever put me through that again."

Well, that's the kind of phrases you just don't buy, you know.

MOYERS: What did you learn from her?

FOOTE: Well, I just learned to listen.

MOYERS: What insights did you come to about family dynamics.

FOOTE: I'm very sentimental about my family. I know they had many faults. We had some... many terrible things to overcome. We had alcoholism. We had, you know, all kinds of but I always felt, myself, so nurtured by this family and accepted, warts and all, and, you know, they allowed me to leave at 17 during the depression.

And my father — and I didn't find this out until later, and I tell about this in my book FAREWELL — that he owned one piece of property which he had gotten when cotton was high, 40 cents a pound.

At one time they thought that was wonderful. And he bought this house. That's all he had.

To get me off to school he sold that house. Two days before he sold the house he was approached by a friend of his who said — he called him sugar — he said, "Sugar, you know we're getting together a little fun for an oil pool, and I can't guarantee it's going to come through but I've got one place left and we want you to come in."

He would have taken that money that he was giving me to go to acting school, which he didn't know anything about, and he decided to give me the money and not do it.

And the oil wells came in.

MOYERS: He put his money in you instead of the oil. He could have been rich.

FOOTE: How could I not love a family like that?

I could tell you stories that make your hair stand on end on the opposite side but it's all part of being a family.

MOYERS: Such as? Make my hair stand on end.

FOOTE: I had three uncles that were dissipated and would have wrecked what money my grandmother had if she hadn't been strong and able to, you know, to see through that.

MOYERS: I had the same in my family.

When did you know you had found your calling?

FOOTE: I took walks with my father and my mother in the late afternoon after the store was closed and we'd go. We always passed by a fellow sitting on the... on the porch, a very distinguished, gentleman.

And my father would say, respectfully, as we left, "that's Mr. So-and-so.

And he was preaching in the cotton fields of Mississippi and he got a call to come to Texas and preach."

I was so interested and I kept saying, "what does it mean to get a call?" I knew he was a Baptist. And I said, "do only Baptists get calls?" "No," mother said that "No, Methodists and Episcopalians." And I puzzled about it a long time.

And then, when I was 13... This sounds mystical, I guess, but I received a call that I wanted to act.

And I hadn't never seen a... I had seen two or three tent shows every, you know, every time they would come to town. I had seen a few movies. And I had, finally later on, this wonderful teacher came and put me in plays in high school. But I just... I just... That's what I wanted to do.

MOYERS: A call, a sense of...

FOOTE: It just came to me.

MOYERS: As words? As an impulse?

FOOTE: Just impulse.

MOYERS: To act?

FOOTE: To act. I wanted to be an actor.

MOYERS: So many of us yearn to do what you did: to go back to where we started, and live, probably because we... We think we might have... We might live... Have chosen an... The road not taken.

But you did it.

FOOTE: Yeah. Well, I've, you know, I've...really have never left. I think that's part of... and I'm not sentimental about this place, you understand.

I love it and I admire it and there's many strengths that I've... Of the people that I wish I had. But spiritually — I guess, if that's not too highfalutin a word — I've just never left it.

It's interesting about reactions. Here's a memory of an old town. When I got the Academy Awards, I was not there obviously.

MOYERS: Not where?

FOOTE: I was not in Wharton.

And it seemed like that I'd been elected president. I mean the phones rang, you know. And then when I got the Pulitzer Prize, I was home. And my wife is passed on now, so I was by myself. And I waited for my phone to ring. And some calls came from New York.

And I thought, "well, I'll just go out and walk." And I went down the street and I met somebody that said, "Hi, Horton.

How are you doing? You been to New York lately?"

"No, I haven't. I'm home. I'm writing now."

"Well, good to see you."

And nobody in town, not a soul called me, no one. They just, you know, it's just not part of the culture.

MOYERS: So movies have...become the new form of storytelling, the new novels.

FOOTE: Absolutely.


FOOTE: Totally.

Now, with my memoirs, I can't...they can't get enough.

They just packed and packed. And when I had a book signing, it was just... it was...

MOYERS: At home?

FOOTE: Oh, yeah.

MOYERS: Well, they want to see if you mentioned them. You know, flip back there.

FOOTE: But it's very nice. I mean, it's very pleasant to have that.

MOYERS: Are you writing another play now?

FOOTE: I'm having a play open in California. I'm leaving Thursday.

MOYERS: What's it about?

FOOTE: Well, it's about a family.

MOYERS: Another family?

FOOTE: Yeah.

MOYERS: Or the same family?

FOOTE: No, another family. Another family.

MOYERS: Family life really is your material.

FOOTE: Well, I guess so. I guess so.

MOYERS: Well, thank you very much.

FOOTE: Well, thank you for having me.

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