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

By Mervyn Rothstein
15 Oct 2011

Cover art for "Harold"
You're very tough on yourself in the book about your first marriage — how your pursuit of success damaged your relationship with your first wife and your children. Would you talk about that — and why you decided to write about it?
HH: Because I wanted to tell the truth. The thing that bothers me most of all and gets me worked up to go onstage tomorrow night here is that our country has become a country where nobody's telling the truth anymore. We're covered with lies and half-truths and bullshit, by people who are trying to rile up one section of the population to hate the other.

I learned a long time ago from walking out in front of an audience that you can tell the truth out there. It's not always easy, but if you can't tell the truth what in the hell is the use in going out there? Why sit down and write a book about your life if you don't want to tell the goddamn truth about how tough it is not just on you but everybody else around you to try to make a success? No one can tell me you can go home and you're a good daddy all the time, because you don't have time for it. And the book I'm writing now [the second volume of his autobiography] is very tough, very difficult, because that's when the shit hit the fan, the next decade of my life.

What would you say is the current book's main theme?
HH: Survival. It's about the survival of a boy who's on the cover of the book. And what I had to do to survive.

The book ends as Mark Twain Tonight! opens Off-Broadway, just as it is about to become a major hit. Why end it there?
HH: I stopped the book when I got to be a success as Mark Twain in New York. I don't talk about any successes or not successes that happened after 1959. That's all in the book I'm writing now. It's just about how this little boy got to be a survivor.

Looking back, are you happy with your life and your career?
HH: Well, partly. I'm very sorry for all the pain that I caused people. Particularly my two older children, with whom I have spent decades trying to make up for what I didn't give them. Which was time. I didn't give them time, I didn't give them attention.

Here you are, at 86, in Birmingham, about to go onstage again as Mark Twain. You're writing a second book. Many people your age have decided to take it easy, not work so hard. Why do you keep on performing? Why do you keep on doing this?
HH: Because I can't help it. I have guys I went to school with who say to me, when the hell are you going to retire? What are you working so hard for? And I say, what the hell am I going to do? Play golf?

Merv Rothstein's work is often seen in the pages of Playbill magazine and He pens the monthly A Life in the Theatre feature.