Hal Holbrook has portrayed Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens did.
First playing the role in 1954, the acclaimed actor opened the one-man “Mark Twain Tonight!” on Broadway in 1966, winning a Tony Award, and again in 1977 and 2005. The show has repeatedly toured the country in what, as of 2005, has amounted to more than 2,000 performances.
“It was an accident,” Holbrook says. “When I started doing Mark Twain as a solo, it was never with the idea that I would be doing it for years or making something unusual out of it. It was just a way to earn enough money to put bread on the table for my wife and little baby child in New York when we first moved there. We had $200 in the bank and no help, no family to support us, no nothing. I walked my feet off trying to find a job. Out of desperation, I did it, hoping to get 35 bucks out of it.”
It’s been argued that seeing “Mark Twain Tonight!” is better than the real thing. Journalist William Allen White wrote about speaking with the celebrated humorist in 1907. “His hands were behind him as he walked, slightly stooped and he droned on,” according to the account. “My ideal, Mark Twain, had bored us.”
No one has ever described Holbrook’s Twain as boring.
“I was a nobody — no one had ever heard of me before,” Holbrook recalls when the show first opened on Broadway. “When the reviews came, everyone was startled, but mostly me. The opening line in the New York Times review was, ‘A young actor named Hal Holbrook opened at the 41st Theater last night in a one-man performance called “Mark Twain Tonight!” There should have been posters up all over town to announce his arrival’ and then he went on raving about the show. That quote was repeated over and over. It was a tremendous shock to me, that it became such a tremendous success.”
Explaining the enduring popularity of Twain, Holbrook says, “He told the truth. Twain was incredibly insightful. And almost every thought he uttered in the last century has relevance today. What more could you ask for?”
Drawing on the author’s writings, the show is a facsimile of one of Twain’s public appearances in his latter years as a sort of celebrity raconteur, spinning comic yarns studded with bits of cynical wisdom.
“I’m using Twain’s words, carefully researched over many years, quotes put together like a jigsaw puzzle,” Holbrook adds. “The show gains a good deal of power by the fact that the audience updates it when they listen to it.”
In addition to countless theater performances, Holbrook has acted in more than 50 television movies and miniseries, been nominated for 12 Emmys and won five. He has had memorable roles on two sitcoms, “Designing Women” (alongside his wife Dixie Carter) and “Evening Shade,” with guest appearances on “The West Wing,” “ER and “The Sopranos.”
His 40 films include “Water for Elephants,” “The Firm” and “That Evening Sun.” In 2008, he received an Academy Award nomination for “Into the Wild,” rendering him, at age 82, the oldest nominee in history in the Best Supporting Actor category.
Along with Twain, Holbrook has portrayed myriad other historical figures: John Adams in the miniseries “George Washington,” Watergate’s Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men,” Shakespeare’s King Lear at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego and Abraham Lincoln in the miniseries “North and South” — along with journalist Francis Blair in Steven Spielberg’s recent “Lincoln.”
“Once you play two or three historical figures, they figure that’s what you do,” he says.
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