- Historic Sites
“With Mark Twain You Can Get Away With Murder”
The man who has lived with him nearly as long as Samuel Clemens did tells why Twain still has the power to delight—and to disturb
August/September 2003 | Volume 54, Issue 4
Beginning with a lecture in St. Louis in 1867, Mark Twain’s famous career as a public speaker spanned about 40 years. But thanks to his avatar Hal Holbrook, he has gone on amusing and instructing and scolding us for another half-century on stages all over the world. Though Holbrook has now lived longer than Twain did, he continues to portray the old man with undiminishcd vitality and even eerier authenticity in his one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight!
A recipient of five Emmys, twelve Emmy nominations, a Tony, an Obie, a Peabody, and assorted other awards, Holbrook makes his home atop one of the Beverly Hills in the Rrst house that has ever induced in me a desire to live in Los Angeles. He greeted me there on a windy afternoon last December. In my estimation, he is one of the two or three finest actors in America, and in the field of historical portrayal there is no one who can touch him. Though I had been inspired to interview him after recently catching his act in Nashville, Tennessee, my admiration has been almost lifelong.
I had seen Mark Twain Tonight! on CBS back in the sixties, and I had heard it later on tape. But it was wonderful to sec how much further Holhrook has taken his portrayal of Twain and to watch how he worked an audience. We all squirmed as we laughed at Twain’s pungent commentaries on issues every bit as urgent and complex and fundamental as anything we face today.
I wanted to know what it meant to Hal Holbrook to dig so far under the skin of Mark Twain and the other historical characters he portrayed. So I began by asking when he first found out that Mark Twain still had so much to say.
Well, in the early 1960s I came to realize that Twain was, as George Bernard Shaw said, America’s Voltaire and that there probably hadn’t been another one to equal him as a voice. The depth of his commentary and its long life are almost mindblowing. You figure there must be an end to it somewhere. I do all my own research, my own editing and writing, and everything I pick from Twain’s work depends on what my view of the world happens to be and how I convey what he might want to say about it. Oftentimes I’ve thought I’ve got it all, but then the world changes in the next decade, and things happen, and there’s suddenly material that I’d overlooked 10 years before.
That’s how I developed that new number where Twain says the character of the human race never changes; only its circumstances do. We think we know more than our forefathers, but is our intellect any better? “We’re richer, but”—beautiful line—“does our character show improvement?”
Your parents absconded when you were quite small, and you were raised by your grandfather in Massachusetts. I wonder if he influenced a very young man to take on the role of an elderly Mark Twain.
I think he probably did. When I started acting, my first role was as an old man. I seemed to be able to portray one with a good deal of accuracy and believability, even when I was 18. I’m sure it was from observing my grandfather.
My grandfather had a store in Cleveland, one in Boston, and several others, but he was a tough man who had come up the hard way. He started helping support the family when he was about 11 years old, making 50 cents a week cleaning spittoons.
Why did your parents run off?
They were just a couple of kids. My father couldn’t hold down a job. There was something a little off about him.
He became a hobo. Literally. He was a jungle cat. I used to get calls from the police in Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, Alaska. “Hello, are you the son of Harold R. Holbrook? We have him in custody for vagrancy.” [He points to a picture of an abashed elderly man slouched in a sun chair.] That was taken in 1975 or ’76, when we finally got him down here and I put him in a nursing home. I had found him in a flophouse on Mission Street in San Francisco, after not seeing him for 18 years.
So your grandfather raised you?
Actually, Dickensian teachers in a New England school raised me. By the time I went to college, I had had four years of regimentation at Culver Military Academy, and that was after four years at an academy in Connecticut where I had had just about enough of getting whipped and every other damn thing. I’d had enough of it. I hated it. Not that I didn’t derive something good from it.
How did you first get interested in acting?
My whole interest had been in sports. Then, in my senior year at Culver, I desperately needed another hour of credit because I flunked algebra and had to take an extra-heavy load of work to graduate. A friend of mine said, “Why don’t you take the dramatics class?” Now, I thought all those dramatics people were very weird. But he told me there was no homework, and I thought, “Well, what the hell.” But then the first play I was in, I walked out on stage, and God, I thought I was in wonderland. I was thunderstruck by the feeling that people were listening to me. I wanted to be noticed, you know, and to be listened to. It became very important. And it is now. It’s one reason we’re sitting here today. I mean, I want to be listened to. I want to say something. I want to try to have some effect upon the way people think about things.