Hal Holbrook, Actor Who Channeled Mark Twain, Is Lifeless at 95

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Hal Holbrook, Actor Who Channeled Mark Twain, Is Dead at 95

Hal Holbrook, who had a formidable acting career in television and film but achieved his greatest acclaim on the stage and embodied Mark Twain in all his rugged glory and vinegar wit in a one-man show around the world, died on Jan. January at his home in Beverly Hills, California. He was 95 years old.

His death was confirmed by his assistant Joyce Cohen on Monday evening.

Mr. Holbrook had a long and fruitful career as an actor. He was the shady patriot Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men” (1976); a painfully grandfather character in “Into the Wild” (2007), for which he received an Oscar nomination; and the influential Republican Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012).

He played the 16th President himself on television in Carl Sandburg’s “Lincoln,” a 1974 miniseries. The performance earned him an Emmy Award, one of five won for his role in television films and miniseries. Others included “The Bold Ones: The Senator” (1970), his protagonist, who resembles John F. Kennedy, and “Pueblo” (1973), in which he played in 1968 the commander of a Navy intelligence boat confiscated from North Korea.

Mr. Holbrook appeared regularly on the 1980s television series “Designing Women”. He played Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman”, Shakespeare’s Hotspur and King Lear and the stage manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town”.

Most of all, however, he was Mark Twain, who stood alone on stage in a crumpled white linen suit, filming an omnisciently sharp, succinct, and humane narrative of human comedy.

Mr. Holbrook never claimed to be a Twain scholar; in fact, he said, he had read little of Twain’s work as a young man. He said the idea of ​​reading Twain’s work staged came from Edward A. Wright, his mentor at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. And Mr. Wright would have been the first to recognize that the idea actually came from Twain himself – or rather from Samuel Clemens, who had adopted Mark Twain as his stage name and had read his work for years.

Mr. Holbrook was finishing his senior year as a drama major in 1947 when Mr. Wright persuaded him to add Twain to a production that Mr. Holbrook and his wife Ruby were planning to portray, entitled “Great Personalities”. including Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Mr. Holbrook had doubts at first. “Ed, I think this Mark Twain thing is pretty cheesy,” he recalled telling Mr. Wright after the first rehearsals. “I don’t think it’s funny.”

But Mr. Wright was committed to keeping him there, and in 1948 the character came along when the Holbrooks took to the streets with a touring production of Great Personalities.

They first tried the Twain sketch in front of an audience of psychiatric patients at the Chillicothe, Ohio Veterans Hospital – a circumstance that Mr. Holbrook only vaguely explained in his 2011 memoir “Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain.” In the sketch, Mr. Holbrook’s edgy Twain was interviewed by Ruby Holbrook:

“How old are they?”

“Nineteen in June.”

“Who do you consider the most remarkable man you have ever met?”

“George Washington.”

“But how could you have met George Washington when you were only nineteen?”

“If you know more about me than I do, what are you asking me about?”

The patients stared straight ahead – “Nobody was looking at us,” wrote Holbrook – and laughed at the laugh lines to prove that “the guys on the ward were more sensible than they looked” and that the material had legs.

The Twain play became her favorite sketch for the next four years as the couple crossed the country performing for school children, women’s clubs, students, and Rotarians.

Mr. Holbrook began developing his one-man show in 1952, the year Ms. Holbrook gave birth to their first child, Victoria. He soon looked like this, in a wig to match Twain’s unruly mop, a walrus mustache, and a crumpled white linen suit like the one Twain himself wore on stage. His grandfather gave Mr. Holbrook an old pocket knife which he used to cut the ends of three cigars he had smoked during a performance (although he wasn’t sure if Twain had ever smoked on stage). He looked for people who claimed to have seen and heard of Twain, who died in 1910, and listened to their memories.

He had more or less perfected the role by 1954 when he began a one-man show called “Mark Twain Tonight!” at Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania.

Two years later he put his Twain on television and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. and “The Tonight Show”. In the meantime he had got a permanent job in 1954 in the TV soap opera “The Brighter Day”, in which he played a recovering alcoholic. The stint lasted until 1959, when, tiring from roles that were no longer important to him, he opened in “Mark Twain Tonight!” at Off Broadway 41st Street Theater.

At this point the metamorphosis was complete. Hal Holbrook, with his restless walk, Missouri Drawl, sly looks, and exquisite timing, had become Mark Twain in every way.

“After seeing and hearing him for five minutes,” wrote Arthur Gelb in the New York Times, “it is impossible to doubt that he is Mark Twain or that Twain must have been one of the most adorable men to ever tour went.” Lecture tour. “

But to Mr. Holbrook, the Mark Twain figure he put on every night was a mask; Behind it, he wrote in his memoir, was a loneliness that plagued his early life when his parents abandoned him as a young child. As an adult he found his marriage, his fatherhood and even his stage life in an existential impasse in which “survival and suicide impulses work together”. His escape, he said, punished a lot of work, not to mention the company of friends like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

In his memoir, Mr. Holbrook described an emotional low point in the early 1950s. He was sitting in a hotel room at the end of a long day, still undecided about doing an All-Mark Twain show and feeling lost when he read “Tom Sawyer” for the first time since high school.

“You heard the voices right from the side,” he wrote. “That was a surprise, and after a while I began to feel good, and that was a surprise too. The bitterness subsided and a boy crowded in for him, his friends came in and his family, and it wasn’t long before I was no longer feeling lonely. Mark Twain had cheered me up. “

Harold Rowe Holbrook Jr. was born in Cleveland on February 17, 1925. He was 2 years old when his parents left him. His mother, the former Aileen Davenport, ran to join the chorus of the revue “Earl Carrolls Vanities”. Harold Sr. moved to California after leaving young Hal in the care of his grandparents in South Weymouth, Mass.

Young Mr. Holbrook spent his high school years at Culver Military Academy in Indiana and then enrolled in Denison for an acting degree. However, his training was interrupted by service as an army engineer during World War II. He was stationed in St. John’s, Newfoundland, for a while, where he joined an amateur theater company and met Ruby Elaine Johnston, who became his first wife. The couple returned to Denison after the war, and Mr. Holbrook soon became Mr. Wright’s prize student.

After becoming an established attraction in the United States, Mr. Holbrook took “Mark Twain Tonight!” to Europe, appearing in the UK, Germany and elsewhere. The German audience roared when he presented Twain’s view of the Wagner opera: “I went to Bayreuth and recorded ‘Parsifal’. I’ll never forget it. The first act lasted two hours and I enjoyed it despite the singing. “

Mr. Holbrook toured the country with the show several times a year, playing well over 2,000 performances. He gathered an estimated 15 hours of Twain’s writings to immerse himself in whenever his routine needed refreshing. He won a Tony Award in 1966 for his first Broadway run in “Mark Twain Tonight!”

Mr. Holbrook was 29 when he started playing Twain at 70; As he got older, he found that he needed less and less makeup to look older. He continued the action well after his 70th birthday and returned to Broadway at the age of 80 in 2005.

After playing Twain for more than six decades, he abruptly retired in 2017. “I know this long struggle to do a good job has to come to an end,” he wrote in a letter to the Oklahoma theater where he was to appear. “I served my profession and gave everything, heart and soul, as a committed actor can.”

Mr. Holbrook made his Broadway debut in 1961 in the short-lived “Do You Know the Milky Way?” He returned there in the musical “Man of La Mancha”, in Arthur Miller’s “After the Fall” and other plays.

His numerous television appearances include “That Certain Summer” (1972), a groundbreaking film in which he appeared as a divorced man who eventually had to admit to his son that he had a gay lover (Martin Sheen). In the early 1990s he had a recurring role on the sitcom “Evening Shade”.

Mr. Holbrook’s many film roles were on the small side, though there were exceptions. One of them was the mysterious Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men,” the film adaptation of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s 1976 Watergate cover-up. Another was in “The Firm” (1993), based on John Grisham’s corporate Whodunit in which Mr. Holbrook played the stop-at-nothing director of a Memphis law firm.

His Oscar-nominated appearance in “Into the Wild,” directed by Sean Penn, was as a retired soldier who encounters a young man in the desert in search of self-knowledge that would ultimately lead him into the Alaskan wilderness. His last film roles were in 2017, when he was 92 years old in episodes of the television series “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Hawaii Five-0”.

Mr. Holbrook’s first marriage ended in divorce in 1965. In addition to their daughter Victoria, they had a son, David. His second marriage to actress Carol Eve Rossen ended in divorce in 1979. They had a daughter, Eve. In 1984 he married actress Dixie Carter, who died in 2010.

He is survived by his children and two stepdaughters, Ginna Carter and Mary Dixie Carter; two grandchildren; and two bootlegs.

In adapting Mark Twain’s writing for the stage, Mr Holbrook said he had the best guide possible: Twain himself.

“He had a real understanding of the difference between the word on the page and being deployed on a platform,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2011. “You have to leave out a lot of adjectives.” The performer is an adjective. “

Richard Severo, Paul Vitello and William McDonald contributed to the coverage.