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“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
When it comes to Huckleberry Finn , people who aren’t able to use their imagination properly or are frightened into “political correctness” or are just deeply involved in their own pain over this word will say the book should be banned because he’s a racist. Well, the idea that Huckleberry Finn is racist is absurd. It’s not racist; it’s about racism. There’s hardly one decent white person in the whole damn book. The portrait of Jim and the development of this ignorant white juvenile delinquent’s respect for this black man is a beautiful thing. But Pudd’nhead Wilson is a scathing statement of the white man’s idea that he’s better than the black man.
Are there any parts of Twain that rub you wrong? I mean, he had a narcissistic streak, and he sure could hold a grudge. Are there places where you say, “I can’t follow him there.”
Yes. He had a way of taking almost any side of any issue at any time. He was not consistent. There was an overall consistency about his philosophy that reflected a sensitivity toward the pain of life and a respect for and a seeking after the humanness in a human being. But he could argue two or three different sides of an issue, if he wanted to.
Do you suppose anyone will come along and take on the mantle of Twain after the comet comes round for you?
Sure. I mean, gosh, it’s a gold mine. I’ve already had to sue one fellow because he stole my material, word for word. Everything I do is copyrighted, because I’ve edited, rearranged, and spliced Twain’s work, sometimes to create a routine he didn’t write. But everything in it is his. I don’t rewrite Twain.
In addition to Twain, you’ve played a slew of historical figures. You portrayed Commander Bucher in The Pueblo on television in 1973 and effectively turned American public opinion in his favor.
I thought the man had been deeply wronged. I felt that he had been made a scapegoat by the head of the Pacific command and by President Johnson for a mistake of judgment the military had made. They put that man and his crew of 86 men off the coast of North Korea unarmed and in the way of great danger, and they did not save them from it.
In All the President’s Men you were one of the phantoms of American history: Deep Throat. I’m afraid I’m among those who don’t believe there ever was such a person, but I thought your portrayal was one of the most compelling elements in a very good film. There was a kind of anguished idealism under all his fear and cynicism.
It’s very interesting that you would catch that. We didn’t know who Deep Throat was. My idea for the character was that this was a man who had served several Presidents, and his allegiance went well beyond party and partisanship. His allegiance was to the United States and to his President, whoever that was. I learned from my research for the television show The Senator that one of the major rules in Washington is that you do not violate the code. To do what he did was unheard of. Unheard of. But he was driven to it by his recognition of the fact that the life of the country was in danger.
I think your portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Sandburg’s Lincoln , of 1975, is the best I’ve ever seen. You sounded like Lincoln. You brought out his simplicity but also a sense of his incredible complexity.
Once again, I did a great deal of research. I mean, a great deal of research. For instance, Billy Herndon’s book, which scholars don’t think a whole lot of, was tremendously important to me, because he was Lincoln’s law partner and knew him more intimately than all those other people who would write about him. He described him in detail. For instance [he stands up to demonstrate], Herndon said that when Lincoln gave speeches, he kept his feet together and straight parallel, like this. He bent from the knees, and he used his arms and swayed like a tree in the wind.
He also described how Lincoln laughed. I mean, you never see Lincoln laughing. No one has ever seen him with a big smile. Only the slight smile in that great photo by Alexander Gardner. But you never see his teeth. He had big, thick teeth. And when he laughed , he laughed. [He laughs loud and long.] I mean, he laughed like that.
The five words eyewitnesses used to describe Lincoln’s voice were: high, shrill, flat, nasal, unpleasant. And I found out that one reason he won the debates was that he didn’t lose his voice. Stephen A. Douglas did. Douglas had a beautiful voice, but the candidates had to speak to 8,000 to 10,000 people. And Lincoln’s voice was [he launches into an imitation that embraces all five adjectives] high! It was up in his he-e-ead! Over and out of his throat! Actors know that’s where you’ve got to get your sound so you won’t lose your voice. That doesn’t mean it’s how he’d sound sitting here with you. But it wasn’t the rolling, deep Raymond Massey voice, although I think Massey did a hell of a job with that character.
What else did you do to prepare for Lincoln?
I got on a plane, flew to Springfield, Illinois, and rented a car. I was going to retrace—backward—Lincoln’s steps from Kentucky to Gentryville, New Salem, and Springfield. It was late when I got the car, but I thought, “Fm going to drive up to New Salem anyway.”