Hal Holbrook took a break from writing his second book for a telephone interview in anticipation of his performance of “Mark Twain Tonight!” at the Cohan Center on Oct. 15.
Although the Mark Twain piece has become iconic for him over the past 50 years, he recently completed filming three new movie roles to add to the 40 films he has made in the past. These roles are a drop in the bucket to add to his extensive movie, stage and television resume.
Writer Mark Twain, born Samuel Clemens, died 100 years ago, but his quotations about war, politics, racism, the media, and economics remain relevant today, Holbrook said. Although he fine-tunes his show to coordinate with the times, changing the quotes he uses now and then, it’s all Twain.
“I don’t update anything,” Holbrook said. “I was determined to be authentic.”
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As an example, he cited Twain’s observation of Wall Street, where he spoke of “the limitless rottenness in our great financial institutions, where theft has been carried on as a profession by our most distinguished commercial men.”
“This could be said this morning in the newspaper,” Holbrook noted.
He began his Mark Twain show when he was 29. He and his first wife, Ruby, had been doing a show together performing as different famous people. When they had a child, he decided to go solo with the Twain character, which had been well received.
“I did it to make a living — to get bread on the table,” he said. “I knew I could do it.”
He went to the Argosy book store in New York, and among the dusty used books found a trove of volumes by and about Twain.
“I had to find out who the man was, and it was a gold mine of material.” He said his search led him to a window of one man’s mind. “He had been all over America and abroad, and he had a vision and understanding of the American character and of our place in the world.”
Holbrook decided to depict Twain at 70 years old, he said, “because by that age he would have written about everything I would want to put in a show.” His makeup to make him look like a 70- year-old Mark Twain took hours in the early days. Now, at 85, it’s much easier.
Even after all these years, Holbrook continues to hone the show.
“I keep exploring, and adding when something looms up in front of me and I realize it’s what’s going on in our lives today.”
For example, Twain made some prophetic statements as he observed the growing populations of China and India and said America was “a country on the verge of heading downhill” and said, “We are fat and greedy committing suicide creating a life that depends on consumption.” He spoke of impending mass unemployment and cited a “monarchy of the rich and powerful.”
There is a moment in the show when Twain discusses his Presbyterian religion and a Muslim talks about his own religion, and they each declare the other “insane.” It goes on to illustrate the deep divides that open up, not only in religion, but today, in politics, Holbrook pointed out.
“This is stuff so on the nose that it’s scary.”
The performance has remained simple and straightforward over the years. It’s all about the words, the actor said: “It’s just a man talking, thinking as he talks, and people listen in a rapt manner. The way he wrote his autobiography is the way I put the show together. It’s stream of consciousness.”
It’s active, dramatic and visual and has evolved as an exploration of a man’s mind, and that creates suspense. They never know what he will come up with next.”
One segment of the show includes excerpts from “Huckleberry Finn” that illustrate Mark Twain’s strong opinions on racism and slavery. Although its language may be considered politically incorrect today, Holbrook said “It’s a story by an uneducated juvenile delinquent in the language he used in that town, in that time.”
Twain’s bottom-line premise, he said, is that “basically, we’re all racists and don’t know it.”
In 1959, after five years of researching Mark Twain and performing in small towns, Holbrook opened at an off-Broadway theater in New York and received rave reviews. Ed Sullivan gave him national TV exposure, and he has performed the show every year since then.
In 1966, he won a Tony Award and a Drama Critics’ Circle Award, and the following year received an Emmy nomination for the TV version. The State Department sent him and the show on a cultural exchange mission behind the Iron Curtain.
Holbrook’s career took off and Mark Twain was just part of it. He went to Hollywood to star in “The Senator” on TV, which won five Emmys but was canceled, Holbrook said, because he tackled some controversial subjects. He has done some 50 TV movies and miniseries. In addition to more than 40 films, he has continued to perform on stage, in nearly 100 roles.
Two of his favorite characters have been Shakespeare’s King Lear onstage and Abraham Lincoln on television. He researched Lincoln much as he did Mark Twain, he said, traveling Lincoln’s territory. Holbrook would like to do Lear again, now that he is an appropriate age.
He has roles in three new films, “Flying Lessons,” which premiered at the Santa Barbara Film Festival in February, and “Good Day for It” and “Water for Elephants,” both soon to be released.
He is working on the second volume of his memoirs. The first, “Harold,” is expected to be out in the fall of 2011. He could get only halfway through his extensive career in the first book, so he’s covering the rest in the second.