"Holbrook and Twain to Visit Triad"

September 18th, 2013

Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain I usually devote my weekly columns to complaining about social injustice, and to poking fun at greedy industrialists and demagogic politicians. This week, however, my column is about two men who do a much better job of it than I. Hal Holbrook and Mark Twain.

I called Holbrook a few days ago to talk about his iconic, Tony and Emmy award winning, one man show Mark Twain Tonight in advance of his appearance at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro on Sept. 28. I had met his late wife Dixie Carter (Designing Women) back in November 2000 when I produced and moderated an event for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. She was a delight to work with and a great conversationalist. I recall her telling me how important reading was to her growing up, so I asked Hal if he read any Twain as a boy.

“I didn’t know anything about Mark Twain at all. He was a total stranger to me. But I do remember reading the Rover Boy books. You could call them corny, but they must have implanted something in me that gave me the kind of drive and work ethic that I began to develop through my life because I had no family, and I had to develop stuff on my own. I think reading those books gave me a sense of purpose.”

Holbrook’s parents abandoned him at age 2, and he lived with his grandfather until age 12, then spent time in boarding schools. That sense of purpose would serve him well in those years and beyond, including during his early acting career.

Holbrook and his first wife Ruby had developed a two-person stage show in their senior year at college. One day their drama teacher and biggest supporter, Ed Wright, had a fortuitous meeting with the couple’s future employer.

“He ran into this man from the Southern School Assemblies company, who was looking for actors to perform educational plays. Ed told the guy that Ruby and I did scenes from Shakespeare, Hamlet, and Mark Twain.”

The Holbrooks got the job, and soon found themselves touring a variety of venues.

“The first time we performed a Twain number was in the suicide ward of the Chillicothe insane asylum, and the next time we did it was for the Kiwanis in Newark, Ohio.”

What was the difference between the Kiwanis and the asylum patients?

“Well, we didn’t know which ones were nuts.”

Before long, Ruby became pregnant, and it was up to Rover Boy Hal to find a way to support his family.

“We had $200 in the bank, and I had to earn a living. I walked miles and miles throughout New York looking for work, but nobody would speak to me. We had no family who could help us out, and I was desperate.”

Eventually Holbrook got a meeting with an agent named Jim Pond who suggested that the young thespian do a solo act.

“You mean do Twain?” Hal asked Pond. “Yeah”, replied the agent, “I think you could get bookings.”

The rest is history. Hal took Mark Twain Tonight on the road, and later he recorded an LP version. Then, in 1967, CBS broadcast the one-man show, and millions of Americans became enamored with Holbrook’s take on the famous author and humorist. In January, Hal will celebrate 60 years of doing Twain, so I asked him if he was better at it now than 60 years ago.

“Yes I am, for a number of reasons. The material that I have in my show now is much truer to the heart of Mark Twain and the intellectual development of the man, because as he got older, he got wiser.”

I also wanted to know if Hal ever changed the material from one performance to the next, or from town to town.

“I change it all the time. I’ve just developed two new numbers. One I introduced this past week in Nashville, and it’s on the Bible.... There’s a great deal of hypocrisy going on in religious circles today, no matter whether it’s Christian or anything else. The other new number I might debut in Greensboro, is about the rich and the poor in our country.”

And while the new topic will no doubt contain a humorous slant, Holbrook, like the man he portrays, is concerned about the condition of man.

“What’s more important in this democracy, that somebody should become a billionaire at the expense of others, or that people who run things should make sure that the people of the United States have work and can feed their families? Anybody who tells me that sending two or three million jobs abroad is not crippling the common folk, then I can’t credit them with a fair intelligence.”

Those words sound like Twain’s, but they are vintage Holbrook. Speaking of which, I asked the 88-year-old actor if he thinks he might actually be Mark Twain reincarnated.

“Oh for God’s sakes no! That’s a lot of movie magazine nonsense. I’m an actor, I’m not Mark Twain. I mean, if an actor starts thinking he’s Lincoln, he’s dead.”


“Well, yeah ! You can’t live like the character you play, or else you turn into a nut.”

Even so, I’m glad that Holbrook occupies Twain’s character on stage because his performances are always memorable. My favorite line ever? It has to be the one about cold remedies. Says Hal as Twain: “I arrived in San Francisco with a very bad cold. A lady at the hotel advised me to drink a quart of whiskey every 24 hours. And another friend recommended exactly the same thing. That made a half a gallon.”

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