"Remembering Hal Holbrook"
February 16th, 2021
During his storied career, Hal Holbrook portrayed, among other things, a president, a senator, a secretary of state, and a “Deep Throat” whistle-blower, all of whom spoke eloquently about life, politics, and the human condition.
But it was Hal himself who often articulated views that were befitting of the characters he played, such as this gem from a private conversation we had in 2013:
“What’s more important in a 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?”
It’s unfortunate that Hal never was a senator or a president in real life, but he left us with a body of work that entertained and inspired us, and we are better for having experienced it. Hal Holbrook passed away on January 23. He was 95.
Harold R. Holbrook may have lived a storybook life as an adult, but his childhood was almost Dickensian. Abandoned by his parents when he was only two years old, little Hal was shuffled off to live with his grandparents for a while, then sent away to military school. From there he made his way to Dennison College where he studied acting, and met his first wife, Ruby. The couple developed a two-person stage show in their senior year, prompting their drama teacher, Ed Wright, to help them make an important career connection. Hal recalled the story to me:
“Ed 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.”
That led to a job touring a variety of venues.
Hal: 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.
Jim: What was the difference between the Kiwanis and the asylum patients?
Hal: Well, mainly we didn’t know which ones were nuts.”
After the tour was over, the Holbrooks only had $200 dollars in the bank and a baby on the way, so Hal went looking for work. That’s when an agent suggested that Holbrook start doing a one-man show of Twain. Hal took his solo act on the road and, buoyed by an album and a spot on Ed Sullivan’s show, he signed with CBS to televise a live performance of Mark Twain Tonight in 1967. He would continue to portray the famous humorist for another fifty years.
Along the way, Holbrook starred in such films as The Fog, The Firm, All the President’s Men, Star Chamber, and Midway, and in countless television shows, including The West Wing, Evening Shade, North & South (as Lincoln), and the ground-breaking 1972 TV movie, That Certain Summer, about two gay men. Hal also headlined a one-season run of The Senator, for NBC. His many awards included four Emmys and a Tony.
I first met Hal through his third wife, actress Dixie Carter (Designing Women) who had participated in a panel I convened for the Television Academy in 2000. During that event, titled, “Women in Drama”, Dixie recounted stories of how she loved to read as a child. Naturally, then, I assumed that Hal had read all of Mark Twain’s books when he was growing up. I was wrong, as Hal explained.
“I didn’t know anything about Mark Twain at all. He was a total stranger to me. But I do remember reading “The Rover Boys” 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.”
Hal and I met up in 2013 when he performed Mark Twain Tonight at the Carolina Theatre in Greensboro. Dixie had passed away three years earlier, and the tour was starting to tire him out. Hoping to lift his spirits, I showed up backstage with an early edition of his favorite “Rover Boys” adventure. His long-time friend and assistant Joyce Cohen would later tell me how touched Hal was to receive the book.
I once asked Hal if he ever changed his Twain material from one performance to the next, and he said that he did. Just prior to visiting Greensboro, for example, he had played in Nashville, where he allowed Twain to ponder the “hypocrisy going on in religious circles.” But hands-down, my favorite piece from Mark Twain Tonight is about the time that the author arrived in San Francisco with a really bad cold. Said Hal as Twain, “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 makes a half a gallon.”
Hal is survived by his children Victoria, David, and Eve, and by millions of fans around the globe who have enjoyed his stage and screen performances over the years. Rest in peace, Rover Boy.
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