Thornton glad to be off ‘red carpet’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 23, 2003

NATCHEZ &045; With humility and humor, filmmaker, screenwriter and actor Billy Bob Thornton received the Natchez Literary and Cinema Celebration’s screenwriting honor Saturday night.

Prize-winning screenplay writer Horton Foote, for whom the Outstanding Screenplay Writing award is named, is a longtime fan of Thornton’s.

And in accepting the second-ever award at the Natchez Convention Center, Thornton said the feeling is mutual.

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Foote &uot;has always been one of my heroes,&uot; Thornton said. &uot;And to have his name on my wall is just amazing to me. He was a humble man Š and a great writer.&uot;

That same down-to-earth quality is, Thornton said, one of the things that attracted him to the awards ceremony itself.

&uot;This is not Š walking down the red carpet and selling products,&uot; Thornton said. &uot;That’s why I’m so proud to be here tonight.

&uot;People think you won’t come if it’s not the Golden Globes or the Academy Awards.&uot;

But Thornton said that when Mississippi native and actor Gerald McRaney called to say Thornton was this year’s recipient, &uot;I said sure &045; make sure you clear the schedule out and let’s go.&uot;

Was Thornton’s schedule clear? Well Š

not exactly. He was up until 3 a.m. Saturday shooting the film &uot;The Alamo&uot; &045; in which he will play Davy Crockett &045; before traveling to Natchez Saturday afternoon.

Between that and what he characterized as an awkwardness in public speaking, &uot;basically, all I’ve done for you tonight is bring you a virus,&uot; Thornton said to the laughter of the crowd.

But Thornton, an Arkansas native, also brought those in attendance a few compliments.

He noted that in a one-man show he performed for many years in Los Angeles, he told audiences a few things about the South before he began his performances.

&uot;I said, ‘I want you to remember this &045; that if it weren’t for the southern United States, you wouldn’t have many great authors or any modern music. So just sit back and enjoy the ride.’ &uot;

Thornton also congratulated his fellow honorees, Richard Wright Literary Excellence Award recipients T.R. Hummer and Clifton Taulbert, whom he referred to as &uot;amazing people.&uot;

Poet and Macon native Hummer, however, said he knew his place in the ceremony. &uot;I’m just proud and pleased to be a warm-up act for Billy Bob Thornton,&uot; Hummer said.

But both Hummer and Taulbert went on to draw standing ovations from the crowd, reading from the works that helped earn their place at the podium.

For Hummer, those included poems drawing from a wide range of human experiences &045; from waxing poetic about a bust of Plato in a library to imaging how God was assembled in the work &uot;First Assembly of God.&uot;

He also read from &uot;The Chaos Primer,&uot; a collection of poems for each letter of the alphabet, which he wrote for his daughters to prepare them for life as it really is.

Hummer noted that he was accepting the award not only for himself, but for poetry in general, being only the second poet honored with the award.

&uot;I thank everyone, including God, for this medal,&uot; he said.

Taulbert &045; in keeping with this year’s celebration theme, &uot;Exploration and Discovery&uot; &045; told of exploring his hometown of Glen Allan for the themes of his books.

Taulbert said that if he does have a talent, it is in observing people and telling their stories. As a child, he would sit and listen to the grown-ups’ life stories at every opportunity. &uot;And I gently and safely packed them away,&uot; he said.

In doing so, he gathered the ingredients for his well-honored works. Those include &uot;Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored,&uot; &uot;The Last Train North,&uot; &uot;The Journey Home,&uot; &uot;Eight Habits of the Heart&uot; and &uot;Separate but Equal,&uot; among others.

Life wasn’t always easy growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the days of Jim Crow, Taulbert said, &uot;but racism didn’t have the power&uot; to overcome the influence of incredible people, black and white, that influenced his life for the better.

And when the young man from Glen Allan was summoned to New York City to introduce &uot;Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored&uot; on the Phil Donahue Show, he knew the recognition wasn’t just for him.

&uot;It introduced America to shotgun houses where incredibly big people lived with great big hearts,&uot; he said.