Hal Holbrook: An Appreciation, An Obituary, A Remembrance, A Friendship

The Internet, once touted as the information superhighway, is positively littered with spurious quotes attributed to Mark Twain. To a lesser extent, the same is true for a writer who knew and admired Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson. The author of a book that continued to fascinate Twain, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson frequently is cited as having offered this bit of wisdom: “A friend is a gift you give yourself.”

Hal Holbrook & Mark Dawidziak

Trouble is, he probably never said it or wrote it. But given Stevenson’s gift for friendship, he undoubtedly believed it. Spurious or not, the quote has been much on my mind since learning of Hal Holbrook’s death at 95. For me, for 35 years, Hal was the remarkable gift that kept on giving and giving, in countless wonderful ways – a great actor who also was a great friend.

Struggling to even suggest the magnitude of those gifts, I find that the memories wander back to the beginning. We met at a network press reception in the mid-’80s. On assignment as the television critic for the Akron Beacon Journal, I spotted Hal in a quiet corner of a Los Angeles hotel ballroom, being interviewed by another critic. I briskly moved into the on-deck position. I established my post within a few feet of them, patiently waiting my moment to jump in, all the while wondering if, when I got my turn at bat, I could possibly maintain some semblance of journalistic integrity.

When my colleague snapped off his tape recorder and wandered away in search of another interview, I introduced myself, amazingly, without sounding like the blithering fan boy who was lurking right below the barely controlled professional surface. We quickly bonded over, of course, our shared love of that mutual friend who had so enriched both of our lives, Mark Twain. I told Hal how seeing the 1967 CBS airing of Mark Twain Tonight! had sparked my interest in Twain, and how seeing a 1975 performance of the landmark one-man show at the Kennedy Center had fanned that spark into a brush fire.

The conversation grew warmer and more fervid and more intense in that special where-two-or-more-are-gathered kind of way. We were getting ourselves good and worked up, talking about Twain’s life and works. I refrained from mentioning that I had been playing Twain on stage for about six years (I mean, upon meeting Picasso, would you tell him, oh, and I draw a little, too?). And then, suddenly, Hal grew silent. He looked down at the glass in his hand, then slowly lifted his gaze and arched an eyebrow at me (a look that would become endearingly familiar). “You do realize I don’t think I’m Mark Twain, right?” he asked.

I knew. For one thing, I knew it was death for an actor to be overwhelmed and consumed by a role. One of the oldest rules of the theater is, don’t lose yourself in the part. You can’t continue to be a brilliant interpreter of role if you’ve crossed that line. Then, you are truly lost. For another thing, I already prized Hal Holbrook as an actor for so many more accomplishments than playing Mark Twain: his portrayal of an idealistic politician in The Senator, the groundbreaking TV movie That Certain Summer, the miniseries Sandburg’s Lincoln, his riveting segments as Deep Throat in All the President’s Men, the masterful mystery Murder By Natural Causes, his Emmy-winning turn as Commander Lloyd Mark Bucher in the TV movie Pueblo, and the horror films Creepshow and The Fog.

Holbrook & Martin Sheen in That Certain Summer

Although best known for playing Twain, Holbrook was a versatile actor who starred on Broadway, in movies, and on television. Indeed, his remarkable run of celebrated TV work earned him five Emmy awards, not one of them for playing Twain. Hal didn’t get lost in the part when playing Twain, and we shouldn’t lose sight of how many parts he could play. Perhaps the best description was given by Martin Sheen, his co-star in That Certain Summer, when he called Hal “nothing less than an actor’s actor.”

And yet, he also was a living piece of Mark Twain scholarship, not only giving us a best-guess notion of how the great American writer sounded, but also bringing him alive as a complex artist and staggeringly insightful social critic. As I said all of this, not quite as coherently, about Hal as an actor and Hal as a Twain scholar, he smiled,  put a hand my shoulder, held my gaze, and nodded, as if to say, “You do get it, don’t you?”

And so it started as Casablanca ends. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Hal, like Stevenson, had a lovely gift for friendship, and I know that I’m not the only one who has been thinking about how a line Mark Twain did say seems sadly appropriate right now: “Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”

Hal lived that kind of life, all right, and then some. The Cleveland native, who died at the age of 95 on January 23, announced at the age of 92 that he was retiring his Twain show and hanging up the white suit for good. He had performed it more than 2,300 times since beginning regular tours of Mark Twain Tonight! in 1954.

“You cannot help being aware of the fact that you’ve been doing it for 50 years,” he told me in 2004. “It does sort of put a little headline on the notion that you’ve been out there, pursuing this man and fighting your way across the country for half a century. It does put that little headline on it that says, ‘You’ve really done something worthwhile.’”

Something worthwhile? How deep into understatement territory are we at this point?

Holbrook & Emile Hirsch in Into The Wild

In 2008, at the age of 82, he received his first Oscar nomination, which he described to me as “a miracle.” It was for his moving portrayal of retiree Ron Franz, the lonely widower who befriends young wanderer Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) in director Sean Penn’s Into the Wild.

Many of our conversations about his career and about Mark Twain were recorded – hours upon hours of talk for various stories written for various publications. “In one interview, Sean said that, years ago, he was thinking of Marlon Brando for the role,” Hal said during one of these talks. “I don’t know how he settled on me, because it’s so different from any role that anyone has given me in the movies. It’s hard to exaggerate how important this is to me.”

His first Emmy was in 1971 for his portrayal of Hayes Stowe on The Senator, one of three rotating segments of NBC’s The Bold Ones. Pueblo (1973) won him two more Emmys. Others followed for portraying another iconic American, Abraham Lincoln, in Sandburg’s Lincoln (1975), and for narrating the Portrait of America documentary series in the late ’80s.

In addition to playing newspaper editor Evan Evans on the CBS series Evening Shade (1990-94), he starred in such powerful TV movies as The Whole World is Watching (1969), That Certain Summer (1972), When Hell was in Session (1979), Murder by Natural Causes (1979), and Day One (1988).

On the big screen, Hal appeared in such films as The Great White Hope (1970), Magnum Force (1973), All the President’s Men (1976), Julia (1977), Creepshow  (1982), Wall Street (1987), The Firm (1993), The Majestic (2001), That Evening Sun (2009), Water for Elephants (as the Older Jacob in 2011), Promised Land (2012), and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (as Francis Preston Blair in 2012).

And many an impressive non-Twain theater engagement also brought him back to Cleveland, where he made his professional theater debut at Cain Park Theatre in a 1942 production of The Man Who Came to Dinner. During the ’90s, he starred in the Great Lakes Theater Festival productions of Shakespeare’s King Lear, Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman.

Troubled childhoods often are described as Dickensian. Hal’s early years more than merited that billing, and then some. He always was quite candid about this, sometimes marveling that he even survived it all.

Harold Rowe Holbrook Jr. was born in Cleveland on February 17, 1925. His mother, who disappeared when he was two, was a dancer in vaudeville and musical comedies. Hal didn’t learn this until, at the age of twelve, he discovered her trunk in the basement. Inside were pictures of her in costume and his baby shoes.

“I had no idea,” he said. “One of the pictures was of her posing outside of the Palace Theatre in Cleveland, which is the very theater where I play Mark Twain when I get back to Cleveland.”

His mentally unstable father abandoned the family a short time later, so he and two sisters were sent to live with their grandfather in South Weymouth, Massachusetts. Holbrook ancestors had settled in this New England town in 1634 and were, according to his grandfather, “some kind of criminals from England.”

The first volume of Holbrook’s autobiography.

When he was seven, Holbrook was sent to what he called “one of the finer New England schools,” where he was beaten regularly by, you got it, “a Dickensian headmaster.” He returned to Cleveland at age twelve to live with his grandmother in a big house on Lake Avenue.

He attended St. Augustine Academy in Lakewood, then a coed elementary school, for a year in 1938 before entering Indiana’s Culver Military Academy, where he discovered acting.

“When I see pictures of myself at that age, I can’t believe that that little boy became me,” he said during one chat about those formative years. “I remember the freight trains used to stop to take on water in Rocky River. Well, the engine would be over in Rocky River and the rest of the train would stretch across that big, high trestle over the canyon and into Lakewood. We would jump on the freight train over in Lakewood and hang on, hanging out over the canyon as the thing picked up speed over the trestle. Then we’d jump off on the other side. You had to learn to hit the ground and roll. Can you believe it?”

While his stay at St. Augustine was brief, it had a profound impact. The boy was new to the school when he learned that his sickly grandfather had died in Massachusetts.

“There was a young nun named Sister Mary Ernestine (Cutcher), and she was very kind,” he said. “She could see something was troubling me. She said, ‘What’s the matter, Harold?’ When I told her, she said, ‘We’re going to pray now for Harold’s grandfather, who has gone to heaven.’ It was pretty sweet, and, you know, it’s those acts of kindness that happen in your life that keep you moving. They can be very few, but as long as they’re there in the middle of all the other stuff, there’s some hope. There’s something to grab onto.”

He never forgot those acts of kindness. In 2001, before a Cleveland performance of Mark Twain Tonight!, the boy who was Harold performed a benefit for St. Augustine.

Acting was something to grab onto, and it gave him a sense of purpose and direction.

“It all started in Cleveland, on a streetcar going back to Lakewood after working all day selling hats at the May Company,” he said. “I was 16 or 17 years old and I was reading the Cleveland Press and I saw a little notice that this place called Cain Park Theatre was casting plays.”

He auditioned and won that small part in The Man Who Came to Dinner, getting paid $15 a week.

“And I found something that made me feel good – being on the stage,” he said.

It was at Cain Park that Hobrook met the man who became his mentor, Denison University theater professor Edward A. Wright. After his 1942 stint at Cain Park Theatre, Hal entered Denison University in Granville, where he majored in theater. World War II temporarily pulled him out of college and into the Army Engineers.

Back at Denison after the war, he married another student majoring in theater, Ruby Elaine Johnson. His interest in Mark Twain was sparked by a suggestion Wright made to the couple for an honors project. Holbrook and his first wife put together a two-person show, playing scenes from Shakespeare, Moliere and Twain. They began working on the show in September 1947. He was 22 at the time, and it was the beginning of his education about Twain.

“Up to this time I knew he had written Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, but I was not sure about Robinson Crusoe,” he wrote in his 1959 book about Mark Twain Tonight!

The Holbrooks worked up an adaptation of a Twain sketch titled “An Encounter With an Interviewer.” He first donned Twain’s trademark white suit for a show staged at the suicide ward of the Chillicothe Veterans’ Hospital.

“That was my introduction to Mark Twain,” Holbrook said. “That was the gift Ed Wright gave me, along with many other things. So, you see, it all goes back to a streetcar in Cleveland. But I wasn’t really playing Mark Twain back then. I was just playing an old man. I really didn’t know very much about Mark Twain. I was playing my general idea of Mark Twain.”

After graduation in 1948, the couple toured the show on the “school assembly circuit,” performing 307 times in 30 weeks and traveling 30,000 miles by station wagon. Back in Cleveland, they were represented by Ricklie Boasberg, whose office was in the city’s iconic Arcade building.

He was 29 when he began regular tours of Mark Twain Tonight! in 1954. That same year, he was cast as Grayling Dennis, a minister’s son, in the daytime serial The Brighter Day.

Holbrook Meeting President Eisenhower in 1959

He was 34 when his Twain show became one of the most lauded events of the 1959 New York theater season. “Mr. Holbrook’s material is uproarious, his ability to hold an audience by acting is brilliant,” raved the New York Times.

Job offers poured in, most of them to play elderly men. Hal was afraid of being typecast, and he was afraid that the Twain show would become stale if he didn’t continue to make changes. How many actors, upon becoming the toast of New York, would have locked in a celebrated one-man show at this point, living off it for the rest of their natural acting days? If you think the young actor took a moment to rest on well-earned laurels or succumbed to even a momentary complacency, you know nothing of Hal Holbrook.

“I’ve always been filled with fear, ever since the New York critics bowed down and put a nice carpet under my feet in 1959,” he said. “I was frightened to death that this show would kill me off as an actor. I was desperate not to let that happen. I was determined not to grow complacent or comfortable. One of the ways I fought that off was to pursue as many different kinds of projects as possible. The other was to keep adding material to the Twain show. And it’s still growing. It’s still a work in progress.”

So Holbrook kept reshaping and reevaluating this granddaddy of one-man shows to make sure it reflected the times. He estimated having “gone through” about eighteen hours of Twain material, adding new passages when they seemed particularly relevant.

In 1966, he won a Tony Award for a Broadway run of Mark Twain Tonight! In 1967, he took Mark Twain Tonight! to CBS for a prime-time special that received high ratings and an Emmy nomination. In 1985, Holbrook and Twain embarked on a round-the-world tour. And in June 2004, he began a three-week Broadway run of Mark Twain Tonight! at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre.

Starting with that Kennedy Center performance in 1975, I caught up to Mark Twain Tonight! about fifteen times. People would say, “How can you sit through the same show so many times?” Because it never was the same show. Each time was a fresh and exciting experience. Afterwards, Hal often would ask how I thought this bit or that section went. In everything he played, it always was about getting to the truth of a moment.

“What I’m putting into the show and what I’m getting out of it specifically relates to what’s going on in the world today and in our country,” he told me in 2015. “All of that has become more and more important to me in the last fifteen and twenty years. This show gets me out of bed in the morning. I think about it when I’m trying to go to sleep. I think about his material and how it applies to what’s happening today.”

Mark Twain once observed that there was “no surer way to find out whether you like people or hate them than to travel with them.” Hal certainly has had ample opportunity to put that particular maxim to the maximum test.

“The truth is that he’s been wonderful company,” Holbrook said of Twain. “It would be an understatement to say I like him. He never ceases to amaze me. Even after all these years, I’m still stunned by his insight into the human character. So much of what he had to say more than 100 years ago is right on the money for today. But, you know, I think I would end up in a mental institution if I couldn’t do this Mark Twain show. I get so angry about what’s going on in the world, I can barely contain myself. And this show gives you the freedom to go out on stage and say exactly what you’re feeling – exactly what needs to be said. It’s tremendously cathartic.

“The man’s ability to nail the body of deception and half lies and corrupt intelligence to the wall is extraordinary. Being on the road with this show, you watch TV screens in lonely hotel rooms and scream at the mendacity and hypocrisy being paraded before you. This show always has been an opportunity to speak my piece, and do it with thoughts and language that are as timeless as they are insightful. I like to make people think, and that’s what Mark Twain did. He forces you to think. That’s the greatest gift he’s ever given me., and I love sharing that gift with audiences. It’s my job, and it’s a job that becomes more precious to me, not only because of the pride I get out of doing something decent with my life, but because of the sheer pleasure and inspiration I get from working with this man’s ideas and thoughts and literature. He’s been great company.”

But determined to prove he was more than a one-role actor, Hal joined the original 1963 Lincoln Center Repertory Company in New York, appearing in productions of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall and Eugene O’Neill’s Marco Millions. Broadway roles followed, then his first movie (The Group in 1966), then television.

Holbrook as Abraham Lincoln

His many miniseries included North and South (reprising the role of Lincoln), George Washington, and Celebrity. Over the last twenty years, he made acclaimed guest appearances on such shows as The West Wing (reuniting with Sheen), The Sopranos, ER, and Sons of Anarchy. In 2017 alone, he guest starred on Grey’s Anatomy, Bones, and Hawaii Five-0.

Twain, though, remained a constant throughout Holbrook’s career. Since the mid-’80s, he scheduled about forty Mark Twain Tonight! appearances each year around other projects. You may go back to the Greeks and not find the equal to this feat in theater history: One actor living with a role for 63 years in an ever-changing stage show.

“If this show was the only thing he’d ever done, he still would be a legend in the theater,” Sheen said.

Samuel Langhorne Clemens adopted the pen name Mark Twain in 1863. It was how the world knew him until he died in 1910, which means ol’ cigar-puffing Sam was Mark Twain for about 47 of his 74 years on this planet. Which means, with 63 years of Twainian experience to his credit, Hal was Mark Twain longer than Sam Clemens was Mark Twain.

“We can quibble with interpretation, but I truly think that, in many ways, he knows more than anybody else about Mark Twain,” said filmmaker Ken Burns, who first saw Hal’s show when he was 10 years old. “He may not be able to synthesize disparate facts into coherent theses, the way a member of the academy could, but this man has on his hard drive, on his soul, a deep and abiding understanding of Twain.”

When Twain was past 70, he made an observation that Holbrook often used in his show: “I am old; I recognize it but I don’t realize it.” That was Hal. He had such energy and vitality and force of will, he made you believe the show would go on forever. When Hal was 86, he fell while turning to get on the right escalator. He fractured his hip. I immediately got in touch, and his assistant (and dear friend) Joyce Cohen told me, “You know it’s going to take more than a fractured hip to get him down.” A few weeks later, he again was standing on stage, performing Mark Twain Tonight!

Even when Holbrook was well past 70, he still spent two hours with his makeup box to look old enough to convincingly play Twain at that age. This became a joke between us when age and whitened hair had considerably shortened the time it took me to resemble Mark Twain. When I was 22, it took me those two hours to create a reasonable resemblance to Twain. Little did I know that I was showing myself what I would like at 64.

When the makeup process had dwindled considerably for me, I told Hal over dinner, “You know, you’ll always be the gold standard when it comes to playing Mark Twain. No one will ever touch you. But there is one way I now can beat you as Mark Twain.”

Another arched eyebrow, followed by a, “What’s that?” Well, I told him, “I now can get on stage faster than you. It still takes you a long time in front of the makeup mirror to look like Twain, while I pretty much put on the white suit, grab the cigar, and go. I’m out there while you’re still in the dressing room.”

Hal & Mark

Hal had a great laugh that could knock you back about two feet. He laughed that kind of laugh. “It’s a small victory,” I conceded, “but I’m a small person, and I’ll take my victories where I can get them.” He roared again, and the first point remained the only one that mattered. He was and always will be the gold standard.

Hal met his third wife, actress-singer Dixie Carter, in 1981when they were both cast in the TV movie The Killing of Randy Webster. Also in the cast was a young actor named Sean Penn.

“Dixie and I played the parents of a boy killed by the Houston police,” Hal said. “And there was an actor who had a tiny little part in the film. And he had just a few lines, but we couldn’t help taking notice of him. We thought he was very talented, and we told him so and encouraged him. And after the movie was over, I received a letter from this young man, who was very, very quiet and non-verbal and shy. We received this letter, thanking us for encouraging him, which is extraordinary in this business. But the thing I never forgot was the literary quality of the letter. It was a shock that this quiet, non-verbal kid could write such a beautiful letter.”

Holbrook & Dixie Carter

Holbrook and Carter married in May 1984. A few years later, he was playing lawyer Reese Watson to her Julia Sugarbaker on the CBS comedy Designing Women. Being Hal’s friend meant being Dixie’s friend, and her great warmth and loving nature gave Hal complete permission to express his emotions. If Hal loved you as friend, he made sure to tell you, and I think Dixie had a lot to do with that.

So many wonderful memories of both of them. One that stands out was when they brought the two-person show Love Letters to Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall in October 2001. My wife, actress Sara Showman, and I had recently performed Love Letters at Akron’s Coach House Theatre. I called Hal and told him, “I feel so bad for you and Dixie. Imagine, the two of you trying to follow us in the same show in Akron. It’s so sad. I mean, we’ve ruined the town for you.”

Another roar. Little Coach House Theatre seated around 90 people. E.J. Thomas, which they packed, seated around 3,000. After the show, the four of us went out to dinner, accompanied by Hal’s longtime stage manager and friend Rich Costabile, and Dixie, from west Tennessee, kept telling Sara, from east Tennessee, to call her Dixie. Sara kept responding, “Yes, Miss Carter.” Dixie finally got it and said, “Sara, honey, you can’t, can you?” Sara replied, “No, Miss Carter, I sure can’t. I was raised . . . ” And Dixie put her right at her ease and told her that was just fine. Meanwhile, Hal and I were enjoying the Dixie-and-Sara show, agreeing that there was great wisdom in marrying warm, gifted actresses from Tennessee.

Hal and Dixie settled in Beverly Hills, also keeping a home in west Tennessee. When not acting, he often enjoyed skippering his 40-foot sailboat, Yankee Tar. Dixie died of endometrial cancer on April 10, 2010. He was scheduled to perform Mark Twain Tonight! two weeks later in Elmira to mark the 100th anniversary of Twain’s death. He kept the date, receiving a standing ovation from a sold-out audience the moment he appeared on stage.

The year before, in August 2009, I delivered a paper in Elmira at the Sixth International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies on the importance and impact of Mark Twain Tonight! I called Hal and told him I wanted to recognize the influence of the show in this setting. “Tell you what,” he said. “You write that paper, and I’ll come hear you deliver it.” He made good on that promise, and it was glorious run of days. He got to hear the praises of the many Mark Twain scholars I’d interviewed for that paper, including John Bird, Robert Hirst, Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Kevin J. Bochynski, R. Kent Rasmussen, and Hal Bush.

Audio of Holbrook’s speech following Dawidziak’s presentation in 2009.

“I had known from his work that Holbrook had had to become a Twain scholar in his own right to create his show, but I was unprepared for how deep and far-ranging his knowledge of Twain was,” Shelley said. “Having lived inside Twain’s voice for decades, he grasped aspects of his psyche that tended to elude mere mortals who hadn’t lived inside his voice or his head . . . Holbrook’s show has done more than keep Twain alive as a cultural presence: the show gave voice to a side of Twain that Twain himself could not show the public during his lifetime. By brilliantly melding Twain’s well-known platform gifts with some of the most biting satiric pieces of his later years that he left unpublished at his death, Holbrook allowed a very different Twain to take shape in the imagination of the American public . . . Hal in effect allowed Mark Twain to come to life as a social critic in our time . . . We need that Twain – the troubling Twain, not the tame one – now more than ever.”

The 2009 conference also was the opportunity for Twain scholars to show how much he meant to them. It was a gift to a friend who had given so much over the years. The Elmira conferences end with a picnic at Quarry Farm, where Mark Twain spent his summers. And the picnics end with a cigar-and-song ceremony at the site of Twain’s octagonal study – a ritual that John Bird and I (and six others) started at the 1997 conference. Hal joined us at the study site that year, telling stories, smoking a cigar (provided by John), and adding his voice in song. The selections vary year to year, but one constant is “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

The Mark Twain Circle, while unbroken, seems sadly diminished without Hal, who was counted as a special friend to all the sites dedicated to the preservation of Twain’s life and work, including Elmira, Hannibal, Hartford, and Berkeley.

Hal’s first book, Mark Twain Tonight! – An Actor’s Portrait, was published 1959. It included an account of how this one-man show developed and the Twain selections Hal used on stage. The first volume of an autobiography, Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain, appeared in 2011. Hal originally wrote his autobiography as one volume, which the publisher deemed as too long. But that was the first version he sent to friends like Shelley and me for comment and advice. It then was decided to split the book in two, the first volume ending with the 1959 opening of Mark Twain Tonight! In New York. The hope remains that the second volume eventually will be published.

Hal is survived by two children from his first marriage, Victoria and David; a daughter, Eve, from his marriage to Carol Rossen; and two-stepchildren from Carter’s first marriage, Ginna and Mary Dixie. Hal was buried in McLemoresville Cemetery in McLemoresville, Tennessee, alongside his beloved Dixie.

Harold, the boy who grew up to be Hal Holbrook, struggled to find a place he could call home. It was a long, often difficult journey. In a farewell speech, Mark Twain said that, “Praise is well, compliment is well, but affection — that is the last and final and most precious reward that any man can win, whether by character or achievement.” Let us never forget that Hal Holbrook won this precious reward through character AND achievement. The journey is over, just short of reaching pier 96. This is where we say goodbye. Hal Holbrook, 95 years out, homeward bound.

Mark Dawidziak is the author or editor of about 25 books, including five about Mark Twain. He has given papers at the last five quadrennial International Conferences on the State of Mark Twain Studies at Elmira College and has four times appeared as a Trouble Begins Lecturer at Quarry Farm. He also has been portraying Mark Twain on stage for more than 40 years. He was a longtime film and television critic for the Akron Beacon Journal and Cleveland Plain Dealer, and has written at length about classic horror, mystery, and film noir.