During a telephone interview that lasted an hour and 15 minutes, actor Hal Holbrook spoke in such a curmudgeonly way about politics, religion and the media that one might have thought he’d become Mark Twain.
But Holbrook insists he’s not morphing into the famous author, who he has portrayed on stage for more than 60 years.
“I don’t do that kind of identification,” Holbrook said. “I’m an actor, and that’s all I’ve ever been. But I’ll tell you one thing: Mark Twain has been my education. He has taught me more than I ever learned in college.”
At 90, Holbrook has already lived 16 years longer than Twain. But Twain’s writings — more than a century old — are still relevant today. So when Holbrook brings his one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight!” to the Performing Art Center in San Luis Obispo — due to a sudden bout of laryngitis, he has postponed Saturday’s show until March 13 — he doesn’t need to modernize Twain’s words.
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“I never update his material,” Holbrook said. “Because I realized very early on that you do not have to. We have not changed one bit since he was talking in the 1870s.”
As a writer, Twain was certainly ahead of his time. His humorous writings still garner laughs at Holbrook’s “Mark Twain Tonight!” performances, and his use of colloquial language was groundbreaking. Meanwhile, his critiques of racism, imperialism and organized religion tackled social issues that are still debated.
But Twain was more than an author. He was an international celebrity, a social commentator and a documentarian. Later in life, his trademark white suits, thick mustache and wild hair made him forever identifiable — as evidenced by modern-day sales of Twain bobbleheads, travel mugs and T-shirts.
But, as the New York Times wrote after Twain’s death in 1910, the “greatest humorist this country has produced” also experienced overwhelming sorrows, including the premature deaths of three of his four children.
“Later on, they said he got old and he got unhappy,” Holbrook said. “But when he got old and when he got unhappy, he was telling the truth about America and the human race and the church, and that scared the hell out of everybody.”
Mark Twain has been my education. He has taught me more than I ever learned in college.
Today the Twain books in Holbrook’s collection are tattered and falling apart, the actor said. But when Holbrook first portrayed Twain, as a student at Ohio’s Denison University, his Twain knowledge was still limited.
In 1954, Holbrook performed “Mark Twain Tonight!” for an honors project, not knowing he’d still be doing it 61 years later.
Holbrook has re-written the show through the years, but the different incarnations always feature the words of Twain. And Holbrook often selects writings that are pertinent to current events.
It’s not that difficult to do, Holbrook said.
“I’m shocked by how we just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again,” he said. “It’s a joke, but it’s not funny.”
Holbrook has chosen to perform as a 70-year-old Twain. That way he can refer to most of Twain’s writings.
“There were other reasons, too,” he said. “The older Mark Twain with the white curly hair and the white suit and the persona — that’s the Mark Twain we know about. That’s the Mark Twain instantly recognized by the American public.”
While Thomas Edison filmed Twain in 1909, there are no known audio recordings of Twain that Holbrook could use to mimic his voice.
“I used my imagination,” Holbrook said. “And I read a great deal. There are a lot of newspaper reviews of his lectures.”
Some of those reviews described Twain’s speech, Holbrook said. “Also, he wrote a little bit about his lecture technique,” the actor added.
While Twain was known mostly for his written works, he was also an effective speaker who knew how to maximize the impact of his words.
“For Mark Twain, the use of pause was of great importance,” Holbrook said.
Throughout his life, Holbrook said, Twain often paused to think about the world around him, asking questions about religion, politics and humanity. Meanwhile, he was exposed to other cultures through his vast travels.
“He wasn’t born smart,” Holbrook said. “He wasn’t born educated. He wasn’t born with an understanding of human nature. He learned it.”
Holbrook can only imagine how Twain would report on the latest presidential race.
“Donald Trump is like a perfect target for Mark Twain,” he said. “It’s like one of those targets you put up on the wall of a bar and throw darts at.”
While Holbrook’s portrayal of Twain has always garnered acclaim, he has had a distinguished acting career beyond “Mark Twain Tonight!” The winner of Emmy and Tony Awards, Holbrook also has a long list of movie credits including “Into the Wild,” “Lincoln” and “Wall Street.” Once of his most memorable roles was Deep Throat, the secret Watergate informant who suggested that reporters “follow the money” in the 1976 film “All the President’s Men.”
Not knowing who the real Deep Throat was when the film was made, Holbrook had to again use his imagination.
“My image was a much more elegant person than the actual man turned out to be,” he said.
In 2005, more than 30 years after the Watergate scandal, it was revealed that Deep Throat was an aging man in declining health named Mark Felt. While some critics contended that Felt, former associate director of the FBI, had betrayed President Richard Nixon, Holbrook said what Felt did was honorable.
“This man was placed in a terrible choice between his loyalty to the president and his loyalty to the people of the United States,” Holbrook said.
‘Mark Twain Tonight!’ with Hal Holbrook
7 p.m. March 13
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$37 to $66
756-4849 or www.pacslo.org