Listening to Hal Holbrook in a phone interview, it’s easy to think that Mark Twain might still be alive, even if you’ve never talked to Twain in person.
We’re having the conversation because the accomplished American actor is bringing “Mark Twain Tonight” back to Washington. The show will be at the National Theatre April 4 to 5, perhaps in the nick of time, and with the star, once again, burning with a passion for the part.
In rumpled whitish hair and a white suit, Holbrook has been doing his one-man show for years, going back to 1954, when the Cleveland, Ohio, native first performed the role at Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania.
Ed Sullivan put Holbrook-Twain on his show in 1956, and Holbrook made it to Off-Broadway in 1959. He performed the role again in a production at the New York World’s Fair in 1964 and 1965. In 1966, “Mark Twain Tonight” went to Broadway for the first (but not the last), and the following year it was presented on CBS. Holbrook won an Emmy. He would return to Broadway and continue to tour with the show.
Holbrook said he has performed as Mark Twain more than 2,000 times over 60 years of his life. There is a very good chance that he never performed it the same way twice, so rich is the material, so endless is Holbrook’s love for the man and the part. He is 88 years old now, and you have to ask: Why do you do it?
“Why do I do it?” Hobrook said. “Why, because it keeps me alive, man. It keeps me alive. It makes my blood run. It makes my heart beat faster every time I do it. It keeps you young and interested and curious and passionate. It’s hard sometimes. I do all my own research, I change the material a lot. Sometimes, you never know where it exactly goes. He did the same thing you know. That’s what he became, Mark Twain on the road, on tours, talking about America, God, politics, greed, the big business guys. Nothing has changed.”
“I can’t wait to get to Washington, let me tell you,” he said. “I can’t wait. I don’t have to change a thing. I don’t have to update him. He’s as current as all get-out. We’ve got the same things going on, the gap between rich and poor, the intolerance of the zealots.” “He speaks to me, you know,” Holbrook said. The voice was garrulous, rich in timbre. “I don’t mean literally, I mean in terms of what he says. He speaks to all of us. Because he does what other people don’t do: He tells the truth. That’s what always separated him from everybody else, it’s why he was funny. Because he’s not just a comedian. He tells the truth and the truth is always funny, to begin with, because you hardly ever hear it. So people laugh, but they also listen.”
“When I first starting doing him, I was trying to figure out how to survive on stage by myself,” he said. “That seemed to be the hardest part. I wanted to get the laughs then. Now, well, I need to do it, because it’s worthwhile. Plus, there aren’t that many good parts for a guy my age any more.”
Maybe. But he seems to find them or, anyway, they find him. He had an Oscar nomination for supporting actor in 2008 for “Into the Wild.” He was in Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and the well-received “Promised Land” last year. He works. You guess he needs to work for the sake of it.
Twain did the same thing. He did it to make money, for sure, and he had created this Mark Twain character. Moreover, he was both a great American novelist – “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is still being banned after all these years – and a great and mordant observer of American mores. “Shaw called him the American Voltaire,” Holbrook offered.
Holbrook, of course, is in the pantheon of fine American actors, with an ability to play memorable roles on stage, in films and on television. He was a villainous foil to Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry,” playing a law-and-order zealot. He was the wise broker to Charlie Sheen’s hustler in “Wall Street.” He portrayed an assistant secretary of state on “The West Wing,” appeared on the popular sitcom “Evening Shade” and played Dixie Carter’s swain on “Designing Women.”
That was a part he played in real life, also. She was the enduring love of his life. They married in 1984. Both he and Carter appeared at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Holbrook as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” Carter giving remarkable performances in two plays by Oscar Wilde.
“She was an original, and I loved her dearly,” he said. “She had courage, intelligence, talent, humor and grace and a remarkable capacity for forgiveness, for which I was grateful.”
Carter passed away in 2010.
Twain saved some of his sharpest jibes for politicians, as in the famous: “Suppose you were an idiot and suppose you were a member of Congress . . . but I repeat myself.”
“I can’t wait to unleash Twain on Washington,” Holbrook said. For sure, we could use a dose of Twain, and the presence of Hal Holbrook, too.