Tony Winner Hal Holbrook Shares the Pain That Led to Twain in New Autobiography

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15 Oct 2011

Hal Holbrook
Hal Holbrook
Photo by Ana Gibert

On the occasion of the publication of his memoir "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain," about escaping the shadows of his childhood for the relative light of show business, beloved actor Hal Holbrook talks to Playbill about the origin of his Mark Twain Tonight! turn.


For many of us, Hal Holbrook is Mark Twain. Holbrook has been portraying the popular novelist and humorist for more than a half century, opening his Mark Twain Tonight! one-man show Off-Broadway in 1959 and on Broadway in 1966, and winning a Best Actor Tony Award. His first performance of Twain was at Lock Haven State Teacher's College in Pennsylvania in 1954.

But Holbrook is more than Twain. He has appeared in scores of roles on stage, film and television. He won an Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor in 2008 for "Into the Wild," making him the oldest actor to be nominated. He played the anonymous source Deep Throat in the 1976 movie "All the President's Men." He won an Emmy portraying Abraham Lincoln on television in the 1970s. He also appeared on Broadway in Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy in 1964 and Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter in 1997, among other roles.

Now, at age 86, he has written a book about his life — the first 34 years of it. In his autobiography, "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Holbrook talks about his difficult childhood: how his mother (an actress) and father (a drifter) abandoned him and his two sisters when he was two; how he was raised by his grandfather, who died when Holbrook was 12; how he attended boarding schools; how he went to see his father in an insane asylum, where his dad had been put by Holbrook's grandfather; how he hoped his mother would suddenly return; how he began acting in school, almost by accident; and how his success came at great cost to his first wife and their two children. The book ends in 1959, with the Off-Broadway premiere of Mark Twain Tonight!

Holbrook spoke on the phone from Birmingham, AL, where he had arrived to perform Mark Twain Tonight!

Why now, at age 86, did you decide to write an autobiography?
Hal Holbrook: Well, two reasons. One, a more subtle one, is that when I finish telling the endless stories that I'm likely to fall into when I get into a group, people tell me I should write a book. And then, the thing that really propelled me into it was about six years ago. I would turn the lamp off in the living room at night before I went to bed, and my dear wife, Dixie [Dixie Carter, who died last year] had put by that lamp a picture of me as a little boy, about 10 years old, with a tie and suit on, who was at a boarding school in New England. And he was smiling. That's the picture I put on the cover of the book.

And I'd look at that picture every night, and I would say to myself, why is that boy smiling? I know what he was going through. Forget that he didn't have any parents, and he was sent away when he was 7 years old to boarding school. But he was being beaten by this weird headmaster who loved to beat you and never tell you why he beat you. Why is this boy smiling? Is that really a smile? One day, after asking myself this question for a couple of years, I went and got a legal pad and starting writing a book.

Holbrook as Mark Twain

The book deals in great detail about your difficult childhood. Would you tell me about it, and the effect it had on you?
HH: I was not an unhappy kind of kid. I was always doing something. My grandfather took in me and my sisters. We were 1, 2 and 3 years old when my mother just simply disappeared. She was probably 24 years old. She had three children. Obviously she had had it and she took up and left. And my father must have loved her a lot, and he left too. According to my grandmother — though you can't really trust what she said, because she had her own ax to grind — we were left in a playpen with our pants full of you know what, and they found us there.

My grandmother did not want to raise any more children, and my 60-year-old grandfather, a tough man, took three little children down to South Weymouth, Massachusetts — our people had come here in 1635 in one of those early boats — and he raised us, with the help of nurses and stuff, till he died, when I was 12.

Before he died, he made me promise to go to Culver Military Academy. I didn't know what that was, really, but what could I say? I said, yes, grandpa. It took me many years to realize what my grandfather was doing. He was saving my life. Because he knew my grandmother would ruin it.

How and why did you start acting?
HH: I started acting at Culver. It was a very pragmatic decision. I was in my fourth year, my graduation year. I had flunked algebra. I had to take algebra over again, which meant I had to take my regular courses, plus algebra. I was searching around for the easiest subjects. I went to the least academic person I knew, who was Perry Warren Fisk, who was a member of the dramatics class. I didn't want to get mixed up with these people, because they were weirdos, they were very unmilitary. I was into athletics. But I knew Perry might have some idea how to get me something. Perry said, why don't you take dramatics? I hesitated. I said, I couldn't get on the stage, no thanks. He said, you'll get one line, it's nothing. And then he said, "There's no homework." So that did it. That's what I needed — a course with no homework. That's how I started being an actor.

But you fell in love with acting.
HH: I had an instant reaction when I walked on the stage, finally, in front of an audience. I was frightened out of my wits. I started my first goddamn play with me and another guy named Evans who knew how to act. We were playing a couple of caretakers in [a] hunting lodge in a play called Seven Keys to Baldpate that George M. Cohan had written [based on a novel by Earl Derr Biggers].

I walked out on the stage, and there I was in front of this mass of darkness, this silent, dark mass. I started talking, and my voice sounded almost frightening, but not really frightening. And I suddenly realized, for the first time in my life, that people were listening to me. They were silently listening to me. And I think that's what got me.


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