Hal Holbrook Looks Back on Long Career and Explains Why He’s Still Playing Mark Twain

Hal Holbrook Start in Hollywood
illustration: michael Hoeweler; source: Matt Baron/BEI/Shutterstock

This week marks the 50th anniversary of CBS’s airing of the Hal Holbrook “Mark Twain Tonight!” The March 6, 1967, TV special was the first national telecast of the one-man show, which Holbrook had been performing onstage since 1954. Even after 63 years, he’s still touring the country, with dates in the next few months in Newport News, Denver, Great Falls, Philadelphia and Minneapolis.

The actor, 92, won the Tony for “Mark Twain Tonight!” which he has performed more than 2,000 times. After extensive stage and TV work, he made his film debut in the 1966 Sidney Lumet-directed “The Group.” Holbrook has also won five Emmys and was Oscar-nominated for his supporting role in the 2008 “Into the Wild.” He first appeared in Variety on Aug. 13, 1952, in a review of the play “The Luck of Caesar.”

Do you remember 1952’s “The Luck of Caesar”? 

I don’t. I remember the name, now that you mention it. That’s about it. Good God almighty. I was a boy then.

Why did you decide to do a one-man show?

It was desperation. My wife and I moved to New York, and she had a nervous breakdown; she took our baby to Canada to be with her sister, and I was all alone. I had to find something to do. I went to see an old man who’d become an acquaintance of mine named Bim Pond; his father had been Major Pond, Mark Twain’s lecture manager. I went to see Bim one day in desperation up at his office at 45th Street. He was not a cuddly person; he was a tough man, very tough — a man of few words. He just looked at me and said, “Why don’t you do a solo?” I said, “A solo? On stage alone? I’d be frightened to death!” And all he said was, “I think you can get bookings.” That was it.

What do you like about Mark Twain?

In a world that lies 90% of the time, Mark Twain tells the truth — about who we are, what we are as human beings, what our country is like. His remarks are more appropriate than ever. He never becomes dated.

How do you prepare for a show? 

I have little notebooks, and after every show I write a complete report: how much money I made, if I made any; what the theater was like; how the lights were; what the audience response was; and how I thought I did. When I go back to a theater, I’ll look up and see what I did.

What has changed since your first performance?

I add material all the time. I probably have at least 15 hours of material that I have gone through and created out of his material. Every year I add at least one new number, not because I have to; I just want to.

What’s your proudest accomplishment?

I could say Mark Twain, but I had my comeuppance in this business, and I’ve never forgotten it. In 1970, I did a series on NBC called “The Senator,” and we addressed what was going on at the time, starting with Kent State, the killings of the students. We were nom- inated for something like nine Emmys; we won six. And we were canceled one week before the Emmy ceremony. It taught me the level at which Hollywood works. It has remained a disappointment to me all my life because this medium, this business, is a business. It does not have the guts, the courage, to speak the truth when it comes to the question of making money. But “The Senator” is my proudest accomplishment in showbiz.