Tuesday, Sep 25, 2018
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Hal Holbrook, American icon


In this Jan. 22, 2008, file photo actor Hal Holbrook poses for a photograph in New York.


Roughly 20 years ago, at a time when I was writing editorials and political commentary in Connecticut, I was given a chance to interview the great actor Hal Holbrook by phone – because the theater critic was off. Mr. Holbrook was coming to Hartford to do a show and the producers and promoters were offering press availability. I wasn’t sure I was the man for the job.

But we had a great conversation that day. I discovered very quickly that Mr. Holbrook had zero interest in telling stories about other famous actors or in discussing acting methods. He was interested in the state of America. He was interested in ideas. And he was interested in literature, particularly the works of Mark Twain and William Shakespeare – many people do not know that Holbrook has twice played King Lear and that he has also played Shylock. He tackled the Shakespeare roles the same way he did Twain – devoting himself to text and devouring scholarship on the plays and the playwright.

I have been thinking about Hal ever since September when he announced that he would retire his one man show “Mark Twain Tonight!” after 63 consecutive years and over 2,000 performances. I suppose I have been in a kind of mourning.

The 63 years were consecutive. He did not miss one. Even in years when he was busy with other projects, Hal Holbrook snuck in some Twain shows. Most years he did a tour. Thanks to Twain he has seen a great deal of this country that has always fascinated and often frustrated him. In recent years Mr. Holbrook, who is now 92, did at least one show a month from Fall to Spring. Twain is the longest running theatrical piece in theater history. There has never been anything like it, and there never will be be again. Mr. Holbrook held the stage alone for 90 minutes night after night for more years than Twain himself trod the lecture circuit. He traversed much of Twain work and played many of his characters – from old men and yahoos to a young Huck Finn. And, right up to the end of the run, he was amassing new material. Mr. Holbrook had 16 hours worth when he finally retired the show.

Hal Holbrook brought Twain to the Valentine Theatre in Toledo two years ago, for a truly stellar performance. And I can say that because I have seen the show eight times – on Broadway, in Boston, in Hartford (twice) and other places. I never saw the same show twice, though there were some common, set pieces. Mr. Holbrook often, cleverly, adjusted the show to particular historic moments, and for place, and to avoid repetitions if he’s played the city or town previously. But he did so without ever altering Twain’s words or attempting to update them. Remarkable.

There is a documentary called “Holbrook/​Twain: An American Odyssey” about this unique partnership of living actor and dead writer that I hope the film will, one day, find wide distribution.

But Hal Holbrook’s TOTAL career is even more remarkable. For Twain, though a life’s work, was one of only four careers. Mr. Holbrook was a leading man in television and won five Emmies for his work. I was happy to read, a while back that he was proudest of his work on a program called “The Senator,” for that show was close to my heart growing up. “The Senator” has been compared to “The West Wing,” but it was better. Mr. Holbrook played a senator who was sort of half Bobby Kennedy and half Eugene McCarthy. He could have been Sen. Barack Obama a generation later. The character’s name was Hays Stowe, and he walked a tightrope – with idealism on one side and hard ball politics on the other. “The Senator” took on topics like the Kent State shootings, the mob and “development” of sacred Indian lands. Of course it was canceled after a season.

Mr. Holbrook also had a rich career in films (he was “Deep Throat,” and Clint Eastwood’s nemesis, and Tom Cruise’s boss, and Abe Lincoln before Daniel Day Lewis was Lincoln).

Moreover, Mr. Holbrook always went back to the theater (”Death of a Salesman,” “Uncle Vanya,” and many more). One year not so long ago he did two new plays in one season with his wife, the magnificent Dixie Carter who died in 2010. (A think a very thick book could be written about her power as a performer and the incredible range of her talents.) I was lucky enough to see Hal Holbrook as the stage manager in a stage production of “Our Town,” ten years ago. It was one of those nights critics describe as “a privilege” to witness. When I met him for coffee, a few weeks before the play opened, to talk about the play, he was restudying the text and re-imagining his character. He knew the play backward and forward and dove deeply into the text. He’d concluded that it was a widely misunderstood play. “It’s not sentimental,’ he said. “It’s a tough, tough play.” He’d done “Our Town,” on stage once before AND on film and he wanted to do it again, in part, because he was unhappy with both prior performances, particularly the film version. He said that though the stage manager is commenting on all the other characters in the play as if from outside, he must still somehow be one of the townspeople, and not stand above them.

The good news is that Hal Holbrook has not retired from acting, only the road. His turn on “Grey’s Anatomy” last year as an elderly doctor who was losing his wife left few dry eyes. Mr. Holbrook has only retired the Twain show because, after six decades of touring, air travel has become too much of a burden.

He owes Mr. Clemens nothing more. Hal Holbrook brought Mark Twain back to life and he brought him to the people, making it possible for Twain’s books to be rediscovered. He reintroduced America’s first truly great writer to his countrymen. And without compromise. Hal Holbrook is beloved by Twain scholars for this, and because, in his own decades of of searching for new material, he became a Twain scholar himself. The show, which grew darker in recent years it seemed to me, was never “an entertainment,” though God knows it was entertaining. It was social commentary, via an act of theatrical conjuring.

Hal Holbrook is an icon of the arts in America – “the beautiful American” in Duke Ellington’s phrase about Lewis Armstrong. But he is also something even more rare – an upright human being. It fits that he was an an expert, and intrepid, sailor.

That first interview, years ago, resulted in a friendship. We have met after Twain shows. I was privileged to interview him as part of a program in New York once. And we shared, on that night, a great meal with his colleague Joyce Cohen and my youngest son Will, a budding cinematographer. When Hal said goodnight, he turned to Will, age 21 at the time, and said, “see you on the set.” On another occasion we sat together watching Dixie Carter perform at the Carlyle. No one laughed harder, or applauded more loudly, than Hal. I saw palpable love that night.

Over the years we have exchanged many letters and e-mails, sometimes about personal triumphs and tragedies, but usually concerning our Republic and its people. He always said Twain gave him a voice for warning America about its own illusions, and kept him sane.

Hal Holbrook is incredibly tough, kind, and funny. He has taught me more than I could ever calculate about how to be honest with one’s self, how to be devoted to one’s craft, and how to be a man. Long may he continue to run.

Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade. Contact him at kburris@theblade.com or 419-724-6266.

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