Hal Holbrook Tonight: “People say to me, you must be tired of doing it. I’m not tired of it! It’s what gets me out of bed, what fires me up for the day, is this old man’s telling the truth. I can’t wait to get out there and do it, because there’s too many people lying!”
Hal Holbrook is bringing his one-person Mark Twain Tonight back to Washington. The role he has become so well-identified with is a part he has been doing on stage for 60 years, believe it or not. One of its Broadway runs brought Holbrook a Best Actor Tony award. Like the Beatles, he was introduced to a national U.S. audience on The Ed Sullivan Show when, in 1956, he appeared on it as Twain. It’s been said that Holbrook has played Mark Twain longer than Samuel Langhorne Clemens did.
I was a fan of the short-lived TV series The Senator, which starred Hal Holbrook in the title role. It was part of the anthology series The Bold Ones, and it was the only one of the original three parts that was canceled after the first season. When Holbrook brought Mark Twain Tonight to Ford’s Theatre in the early 1970s, my dad took me to see it because I had been such a fan of that series. I began my conversation with Holbrook by relating that personal history, and the subject of The Senator quickly engaged him and provided a natural segue into his return to DC as Mark Twain.
“I’m glad to hear that,” Holbrook told me. “I poured my heart into that, and my mind, and everything else, and we were knocked down. We were nominated for eight Emmys, won six [including one for Holbrook as Best Actor in a Drama], and were cancelled in one year. It showed that there was something that had gone wrong in the television business. We took on tough subjects, important subjects that people weren’t talking about. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing. What else is there?”
Mark Twain Tonight, Holbrook continued, “is an extension of the same idea. Even though I’m talking in the point-of-view of a man who lived 100 years ago, what he is saying is as true today as it was 100, 150 years ago. I can’t even come across one comment that wouldn’t apply to what’s going on today. It’s eerie, really eerie how we haven’t progressed. It proves what Twain said about human nature, that it doesn’t change at all. All that Gilded Age stuff I quote in there — I edit together all kinds of material from Twain and put it in a certain format that is useful for the stage. This is just one quote in the middle of a political piece. It’s from 145 years ago.” And here he quoted verbatim from Twain:
These lobbyists are called our invisible government in Washington, with headquarters on Wall Street. The rich corporations have to be shielded and protected in the Congress, and this requires vast sums of money to keep their political party in power. And they understand that the members of Congress did not get elected to serve their country for nothing. There are a lot of poor people in the Congress, every Congress, and they need looking after. They’re an expensive lot.
“You can’t get closer to the truth than that!” Holbrook proceeded, “And other things he said, boy…It’s very difficult to find the truth in public statements today. I don’t want to do a preachy thing, but it’s the biggest danger we face in our country. And that’s the whole heart of the matter under what I try to do with Twain — I try to make people think about what is going on in the country, in our lives. We don’t tell the truth to each other. Twain has this marvelous ability to vocalize it.”
Holbrook cited another example of Twain’s perceptive truth-telling, one which has a particularly eerie echo of the recent “47%” incident. “I’m going to put this in the show in Washington. Thirty years ago I used it in something. I’ve got so much material, I don’t know what to do next! But this is an example of his ability with words.” And he again quoted verbatim:
At the banquet, last winter, of that organization which calls itself the Ends of the Earth Club, the chairman, a retired regular army officer of high grade, proclaimed in a loud voice, and with fervency, “We are of the Anglo-Saxon race, and when the Anglo-Saxon wants a thing he just takes it.” That utterance was applauded to the echo. There were perhaps seventy-five civilians present and twenty-five military and naval men. It took those people nearly two minutes to work off their stormy admiration of that great sentiment; and meanwhile the inspired prophet who had discharged it – from his liver, or his intestines, or his esophagus, or wherever he had bred it – stood there glowing and beaming and smiling, and issuing rays of happiness from every pore…
“He doesn’t miss anybody,” Holbrook continued. “I have a new number I’ve been doing.” (Holbrook referred to the segments of his show as “numbers,” almost as if they were part of a song set.) He explained that he didn’t have a film to do this summer and that gave him the chance to explore other writings and develop more material for the show. The new number involved religion and discussing it led him to talk about his late wife, the actress Dixie Carter.
“My wife was was a wonderful, wonderful human being.” She was also from a Republican family. Holbrook said that involved a certain psychological adjustment for him, and for his preconceptions, but that eventually he was embraced by her family and, from that experience, he came to learn a lot about people. “Dixie was very loyal to her family, and she was very much a real Christian. She didn’t talk about it or preach about it: she just lived it. She was a great, wonderful, funny, outrageously funny, talented person. She had a phrase, and I think of it an awful lot: ‘If you’re waitin’ for me, your backin’ up.’ It was almost a mantra with her. She was extremely well read. She read Proust! She would read in bed at night before going to sleep. And that Russian writer, what’s his name? [I think he meant Dostoevsky.] I mean, Holy Mackerel! I revere her and respect her belief in God and everything, even though I have a lot of questions.”
Back to “the number I’ll be doing in Washington on the Christian Bible. Twain had a great deal to say about Bible behavior, and it’s time to say something about it, because the Christian movement has now aligned itself with politics, they have taken it upon themselves, the responsibility to elect the President and everyone else right on down the line. And that’s the beginning of a death knell for any country. Twain had plenty to say because he knew the Bible forward and backward.” (He then interrupted himself to say that, “I had Dixie looking over my shoulder from heaven all the time I was working on this.”) He continued by saying that “most religions are created by man and it’s time someone just came out and said it, and he does, he says it clearly, with humor, and so truthfully that you cannot escape the truth, you have to sit there…” What followed was another verbatim Twain quote:
So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the Gospel: “Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor’s religion is.” Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code. Because of this omission, we have made a graveyard of the globe.
“I defy anyone to say that’s not true.”
Holbrook observed, “I’ve realized over many years that, when I chose this man, to create this man on stage, I made a decision that I’ve never changed — that I will never update him or his material. You’ll always be listening to a guy who died in 1910 talking about stuff that happened in the 50 years before that. The people who update it are sitting in front of you: the audience. And the fact that they are updating it as you’re talking gives Twain a power that you don’t have normally, because they are doing the work. ‘Wait a minute, oh my God, he said that 120 years ago?’ Then people in the audience have to think to themselves, ‘Oh my gosh, what are we going to make of this, to do about this?’ And I think that is really where the inherent power of presenting Twain resides, it creates a situation when the audience has to do the work.”
Holbrook talked about how the show has resonated wherever he’s taken it across the country and how impressed he has been with the sharpness of audiences: “I just played Iowa. Cedar Rapids. Very smart audience. They attach labels to people in Iowa. They’re not smart? They’re some of the smartest people in the country, in Iowa.” Laredo, TX: “Wonderful audience. The thing about traveling for all these years, you cannot draw conclusions and stick labels on somebody. One major thing you learn from the beginning, don’t go out there if you’re preaching to the choir. Go on TV if you are. You’re not really helping anybody, you’re just confirming old rules that are dragging us down. People want me to challenge them, and that’s what this old man does.”
MARK TWAIN TONIGHT!
April 4 and 5, 2014
1321 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
2 hours, 20 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $48 – $78
Details and Tickets
How did Holbrook come to Twain? (Or, how did he and the Twain meet?) “It’s one of these strange accidents that happen in life. It arises out of desperation. I was on the road with my first wife Ruby [the actress Ruby Holbrook, who frequently acted here at Olney Theatre back in the day, and on Broadway during the runs of Da and 5th of July] with a two-person show we put together in college. We toured all over the States for three or four years, scenes from Shakespeare, high-grade stuff, classical stuff. It was very popular. And we came to New York in ’52, I was 27 years old, we’d just had a baby, my wife had a nervous breakdown and couldn’t work, we were broke, we had no money, neither of us had any family that could help us. (My parents left when I was 2. The only time I ever saw my father was in the insane asylum.) I was desperate, I had a sick wife, a baby. I tramped the streets of New York. I wouldn’t take the subway, I’d walk 100 blocks, to save money and to walk off my frustration. It was two years before I could get a job.”
Holbrook went to see James B. Pond, Jr., known as “Bim” — the son of Major James B. Pond, a Civil War officer and Medal of Honor winner who became, after the war, a lecture manager, with clients including Churchill, H.M. Stanley…and Mark Twain. (Pond, Sr. was played by Donald Crisp in the 1944 biopic The Adventures of Mark Twain, starring Fredric March as Clemens.) His son took over the business after the father’s death, and his clients included Admiral Byrd, Ruth Draper, and Cornelia Otis Skinner.
Holbrook approached Bim. He wanted to get someone to take over Ruby’s part of the two-person show and asked Bim about the likelihood of getting bookings. “He was a tough man. He didn’t talk much. When he said something, it was flat out. I asked, ‘Do you think we could get bookings?’ He looked at me for a while and said, ‘Why don’t you do a solo show? I think you could get bookings.’ I said, ‘Oh my God, being onstage alone? I’d be frightened to death!’ He just looked at me. I went out onto 46th Street and just stood there, looking at cars and people going by. I was really scared, but I kept it in my mind. One day, I went up to the Argosy Bookstore, near Bloomingdale’s. (I don’t know if it’s still there; when I was doing Abe Lincoln I went in there, too, to do research; they had old, old books.) And I asked, ‘Where is Mark Twain?’
They pointed upstairs. I’d never read anything, nothin’. I knew nothing about playing an old man, though I’d done character parts in school. It was born out of desperation, looking for something in there that would work onstage…maybe, maybe, maybe…and I was astounded, I really was, at how interesting it was, just open to a page — it’s interesting! George Bernard Shaw called him America’s Voltaire. He was one of the major social critics of the 19th century, and it came as a tremendous revelation to me.”
Holbrook added that “it was also, at the same time, in 1955, that the civil rights revolution was beginning in the South in earnest, and Twain was deeply involved in writing about America’s problem with racism. Huckleberry Finn is told by an ignorant young boy who speaks the way he is taught to speak in a racist society. That confuses people who don’t think clearly. In Pudd’nhead Wilson, there’s a direct message from the author about what he thought about slavery. It’s a pretty ironic story, told by the author, a pretty satiric story about slavery. It’s pretty hard to escape” Twain’s attitude toward issues of race.
Holbrook was in DC a few years back when he played Shylock in The Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare Theatre Company, about which “I have very great memories. My wife did two shows there, by Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance and that beautiful one [Lady Windermere’s Fan]. One thing I’m going to do is see the current production there. I have a great, high regard for that company. Once again, I researched Shylock very deeply.”
Holbrook was determined that he “not be played as a crawling, weak person or a menial person at all, but as a very clever, minor-type business man of the street, living by his wits, using Gentiles to get money.” He told me about going to the University of Judaism in California and talking to a young Rabbi. “I told him that I was researching Shylock. We became very good friends. I brought him to Washington to talk to the cast.” What Holbrook learned from his research at the University of Judaism and from his new friend informed his characterization, and even the production. “He wanted to give me a prayer shawl from the Holocaust. He wanted me to wear it. ‘Oh, I couldn’t.’ ‘Please take it and wear it.’” STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn, who directed, embraced the young Rabbi’s idea and set the first scene in the Jewish ghetto, with Shylock coming home from prayer and Holbrook wearing the shawl.
“Research can do a hell of a lot to clear things up if you take the time.”
I’ve talked to some wonderful people since I began doing these features for DCTheatreScene.com, but this interview was special. Hal Holbrook was so generous with his time, and I was moved by what he shared with me. His meticulous approach to investigating his material demonstrates a vigorous curiosity and a standard of intellectual rigor that is impressive. It’s scholarly in its seriousness and thoroughness. The interview was also unusual because he spoke so passionately about his Twain piece and his research on Shylock, that I didn’t get to ask about so much else in his career that I would have liked to have touched on.
And what a career. He was part of the company that opened Lincoln Center with the premieres of After the Fall and Incident at Vichy; then, years later, he was back there in Wendy Wasserstein’s final play, An American Daughter. He appeared on The West Wing, which, in a way, took the torch passed from The Senator, as regards breakthrough TV dealing with politics. And he appeared on it opposite Martin Sheen, who had played his lover in another landmark drama, That Certain Summer, the first TV movie to portray a gay relationship not as a problem, but as the basis for a normal family.
He memorably played Deep Throat in All The President’s Men. This surprised me: he took over roles in the 1960s in a couple of Broadway musicals, replacing Alan Alda in The Apple Tree and Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha. (Michael Kahn: what about bringing him back to town for your production of La Mancha next season?) He was the oldest person ever nominated for the supporting actor Oscar, working for director Sean Penn in Into the Wild. And he played Lincoln frequently, in two TV miniseries, North and South and Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln and in Robert Sherwood’s play Abe Lincoln in Illinois on stage. He then closed that circle by playing Preston Blair in the recent Spielberg movie Lincoln. (Like Daniel Day Lewis in it, Holbrook was true to the historical Lincoln and his “high, shrill voice and hick accent.”)
I wish I had told Holbrook that my mother’s parents settled in Elmira, a few blocks away from the cemetery where Clemens/Twain is buried. Nearly every one of our visits to Elmira included a walk over to the site, which has a gravestone as well as an impressive monument.
A mostly forgotten movie from 1970 is The People Next Door, about a suburban family whose kids get into drugs. The parents are Julie Harris and Eli Wallach, and Holbrook plays the next door neighbor, whose son, the golden boy of the neighborhood, turns out to be the dealer (and is played by Don Scardino, a wonderful actor and director, mostly onstage). After Holbrook finds out about his son’s criminal activities, Scardino says something to the effect, ‘You won’t do anything, I’m the golden boy.’ Holbrook crosses over to his son, puts his hand lovingly on his face…okay, I won’t spoil it, in case anyone ever sees the film and wants a surprise, but let me just say that, for me, it is an indelibly moving performance that I have remembered decades after the one time I saw it.
Forty plus years later, Hal Holbrook is still one of my favorite actors, and after talking to him, I know better why that is so.
I’ll close with something slightly corny, but also sweet, that my brother Ed shared with me after I told him I was going to talk to Holbrook:
Charles Nelson Reilly’s one-man show included his talking about how, when they were young actors, HH always carried around a paper bag containing a wig and whiskers. Asked about it, he’d sheepishly say, “Oh, I go around to high schools and do this Mark Twain thing.” Nelson Reilly continued, “So, when young actors ask me for advice, I say [in full on CNR bray] ‘GET A PAPER BAG!!!!!!!!!!!’ [Voice catches with emotion.] ‘Put a dream in it…’”