From shadow-cloaked, chain-smoking whistleblower Deep Throat in All the Presidents Men, to a POW who blinks Morse Code in Pueblo to a recurring role on The West Wing, Hal Holbrooks long and impressive resume has made him one of Americas most beloved actors.
However, future generations will likely remember him most for the remarkable run of his celebrated Mark Twain Tonight!, a one-man show Holbrook has performed for the last 51 years.
As a hungry young actor with a new wife and baby to feed, Holbrooks first solo performance as Mark Twain was at the Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania in 1954; he has performed some version of that show in every year since without a break.
Now acknowledged as one of the worlds foremost Twain scholars, Holbrook brings Mark Twain Tonight! to the Johnny Mercer Theatre Thursday, Jan. 5.
Mark Twain Tonight! follows no set program, and no performance is ever the same. Holbrook keeps the show fresh not only by constantly mining history for new Twain quotes and anecdotes, but by steadily rotating the 15 or so hours of continuous Twain material he has memorized over the years.
Holbrook has won five Emmys for his long resume of film and TV work, with Mark Twain Tonight! winning six major stage awards. An avid sailor, Holbrook singlehandedly raced his 40-foot Yankee Tar from San Francisco to Hawaii in 1980 Now 80, he is married to the actress Dixie Carter. They divide their time between L.A. and Tennessee.
Holbrook spoke to Connect from New York City on Dec. 13.
Connect Savannah: Before we talk about Mark Twain Tonight, I want to ask the man who played Deep Throat how he feels about now knowing the real identity of Deep Throat.
Hal Holbrook: It was a role I played. Of course I had an idea in my mind of who it was. Mark Felts name often came up as a possibility, but I didnt attach a whole lot of importance to who it was. It wasnt the important point, which of course nobody got. The media spent the entire time on that one point.
The important thing is why Mark Felt did it, not who he was. What was the seat of that decision that made him do it? The quandary I had to deal with as an actor was the morality of that action, which was the important point. In the very superficial news media situation were in, nobody gets into that. Everyone wants to ask me, So did you guess right or wrong? Which is typical, I guess.
Connect Savannah: Mark Twain traveled the country for years doing humorous solo performances. In a sense, was Mark Twain himself the originator of what we now call the one-man show?
Hal Holbrook: Oh no, not at all. He saw Artemus Ward out in Virginia City doing lectures, which is what those kinds of performances were called in those days -- Bob Hope would have been called a lecturer. That gave him the idea to give it a shot himself.
There were people Josh Billings wrote about doing the same thing. There were other people who did that, all the way up until I started doing it. Emlyn Williams was doing Dickens in that manner before I did Twain.
Connect Savannah: What was the germ of the Twain show you began in 1954?
Hal Holbrook: The idea took shape out of an act I did with my first wife, Ruby. We developed a show in our last year at college. In that show we did scenes from Shakespeare and Moliere, and scenes from the Brownings. The last number was always Mark Twain being interviewed by a newspaper reporter -- basically a satire of what you and I are doing right now.
We had no money and no family to support us. In those days, it wasnt expected that your family would always support you. In those days your family didnt support you until you were 35 years old, like now. You had to work for yourself.
Then we pounded the pavement for a while here in New York. I developed a solo show about Mark Twain because I knew I could get it booked. I developed the solo show to put bread on the table. That was the whole reason for developing the show, really. I was provided opportunities to continue doing it off and on, so I decided to take advantage of the opportunities instead of discarding them. Ive always had that deep-seated knowledge in my brain: That the business of being an actor is a survival trip. Being an actor is totally a survival trip. You can go down anytime. You just
dont throw away any prospect of earning a living. That has ruled my whole life Ive been very, very fortunate in this, because there were times I wanted to quit it. Of course Ive done a lot of other things -- a lot of theatre, then I started doing movies and TV -- but I never gave this thing up. I knew some day Id be more than happy to have it.
At my age its nearly impossible -- or certainly its very difficult -- to get a job in movies or TV. The kinds of stories theyre putting out now dont have anything to do with people my age. There are few opportunities open to those of us in the business who are my age. Its all about kids now.
So I still have this wonderful show that I really enjoy doing. Its a tremendous outlet for my exasperation with the world. I get out my frustrations -- thats a calm word for what I feel about things that are going on now (laughs). I have access to all this marvelous material I can seek and edit and put together. Its for the most part the main source of income for me now at this age, so Im very fortunate.
Connect Savannah: Im most intrigued by how you tailor your mental storehouse of Twain material differently for each performance. The show is an evolving thing almost with a life of its own.
Hal Holbrook: That comes out of a couple of things. First, I dont like to repeat myself. I realized a long time ago that with all these bookings of Twain over and over again, the great danger was to get tired of the show and to lose interest. While Twains material is hard to lose interest in because it has a wonderful lifelike quality, you can get tired.
Thats why I dont book myself heavily. I take a day or two between bookings to travel and get a good nights sleep. I cant afford to get tired. Good physical condition is important so your morale doesnt suffer from erosion or exhaustion from dragging around the country.
The other reason is Im always looking for something more to say. Because the only thing I watch on TV is the news. Of course you can hardly find news anymore, just some cute featurettes or something about somebody getting stabbed in Akron or a car crash in the valley in California. Real world-stopping events (laughs).
Nobodys trying to find out whats really going on in the world. C-SPAN is about the only place on TV where people speak logically and intelligently about things. I do read the newspapers, because you find out so much more from them than from watching TV.
I try to find out what the country is dealing with at that moment -- what are the most important things the country is concerned about or should be concerned about? What are the dangers eating away our society? What are the dangers up ahead if we dont watch out? All these actions contribute to my search for more material so I can say something about all this stuff.
Lets see -- I have with me my notes from the last two times in Savannah, at the lovely Lucas Theatre. Here they are right here. When I come there and get ready for the show, Ill be looking at these notes and Ill be coming on with a lot of stuff I didnt do last time. I dont try to do all new shows each time, but I am motivated quite a bit by the need to say something about concerns on my mind right now. One thing I think Ill do is the savagery of corporations, about our love affair with money.
Connect Savannah: Its amazing how current Twains writings are to this day. They dont seem dated at all.
Hal Holbrook: I learned long ago that my instinct never to update the material turned out to be a good one. In the beginning I didnt want to modernize because I was so intent upon trying to remain authentic. It was a long time before I ventured to edit, only to find out that Mark Twain did the same thing. He changed stuff all the time. That was a great relief to me.
Also, I realized that some written material wont read -- that is, it doesnt play well to an audience. In spoken material you dont need as many adjectives as are used in literary material. You are the adjective as an actor. I am an adjective! (Laughs)
Connect Savannah: If he were alive today, do you think Mark Twain would go into entertainment rather than into literature and journalism?
Hal Holbrook: Given Twains dramatic personality -- nobody dresses in a white
suit when everyone else is in black -- its hard to believe he wouldnt get himself seen or heard through whatever material was available. But still, we cannot forget the fact that first and foremost he was a great literary genius. His literary output has stood the test of time, not only in this country, but throughout the world. Twain is widely read and revered as a world-class literary giant. This is not to be dismissed. People talk about him and compare him to current entertainment figures -- there are no comparisons!
Thats what annoys me about that Mark Twain Circle Award they give every year. To me theres something arrogant in it. There is no Mark Twain except Mark Twain! Hes one and only. To even suggest that anyone who is very clever and observant in the comedy area today can approach the depth of his observations and his commentary strikes me as ridiculous.
Connect Savannah: My first exposure to your work was as a boy watching you play Commander Lloyd Pete Bucher in Pueblo, about the North Koreans taking a U.S. Navy ship in 1968. My dad was a Korean War vet and he made sure we watched that movie together.
Hal Holbrook: That story has a lot to tell us about courage. Its healthy to pay more attention to the people that are showing such courage today, whether youre in favor of the war in Iraq or not.
Pete Bucher was a man who went through hell for his country, and never lost his love for the Navy and the country. He died a year and a half ago. His son is now on a ship in the Red Sea, I believe. Theyre a real Navy family.
Petes responsibilities were enormous. But he was a very humane person. In the Navy they have this dictum of never surrendering the ship, but he had 87 other people on board. Eighty-seven boys. That was very significant to him.
A lot of people dont know this, but Bucher was an orphan, he grew up in Boys Town. He remained grateful to Boys Town all his life, and I believe his experience growing up there had everything to do with his decision to surrender. He was thinking about his boys, there on that ship.
I mean, they just had rifles and pistols, with maybe one .50 caliber gun sheathed in ice. And they were being strafed with planes and attacked by gunboats. Say you go down with the ship -- in that water? It was 33 degrees. So youre dead in five minutes. It was that, or save the boys -- and Bucher decided to save the boys. That went beyond any other responsibility he felt he had.
I knew Pete. He was a wonderful man. Im very proud to have been able to play that role. I put every bit of my heart and soul into it.
Late in life he taught himself to paint. I have several of his paintings. Theres one of the Pueblo, of course, and one of three wild mustangs.
Connect Savannah: Your own hobby is sailing, but you dont sail so much anymore, do you?
Hal Holbrook: Oh... it hurts my heart to say my boat is still waiting. But when youre on the road as much as I am theres never time. Im working on a new play at the Alley Theatre here in New York. Dixie and I are doing a show down in Coconut Grove soon. But you dont make any money doing plays. So for example, Ive got a small role in a movie shot in Toronto, called Kill Shot.
Connect Savannah: Is The West Wing as fun to work on as it seems to be?
Hal Holbrook: Ive known Marty (Sheen) for a long time. But I wouldnt say its fun. Its serious work. Thats the trouble with TV -- they try to jam everything into this constrained amount of time. And you know an hour of TV times not a full hour, and that hours a lot shorter now than it used to be, because there are so many commercials.
Theres a lot of tension in maintaining the pace of shooting a one-hour show. Its nervewracking. A while back you would shoot a one-hour show in eight days, whereas now you shoot it in maybe six.
Connect Savannah: Living part of the year in Tennessee would tend to put a damper on sailing, too.
Hal Holbrook: Well, I married this beautiful Southern woman. Southern women are great, because theyre very feminine and pleasant. They havent decided to be a man yet! (laughs) Thats another thing that happened in the 60s. I understand the desire for freedom and equality, but I think in the 60s we threw out the baby with the bathwater sometimes.
Were living in Dixies family home most of the time now, since we took in her father. Hes one tough 95-year-old man. Its a little two-gas pump, one-cannon town between Nashville and Memphis.
Connect Savannah: Every small Southern towns got to have that one cannon.
Hal Holbrook: Yes, its a one-cannon town. Nathan Bedford Forrest went through there. Blew up the ammo dump on his way out. So of course weve got the cannon pointed north, towards the Yankees (laughs).
Theres a real honesty there, a real lack of pretense. Which believe me, is very refreshing when you come in from L.A. (laughs). Dixies never been to Savannah though. She would love it there.
Connect Savannah: Dixie Carters never been to Savannah?
Hal Holbrook: No, shes never been. But I know she would fall in love with Savannah instantly. She would have to buy a house right there on the spot.
Oh, Id go broke for sure if Dixie ever comes down to Savannah with me (laughs).
Hal Holbrook performs Mark Twain Tonight! Jan. 5 at 8 p.m. in the Johnny Mercer Theatre. Call 651-6556