By Steven Suskin
18 Dec 2011
Passionate about theatre books? See what the Playbill Store has on its shelves.
For his senior honors project at a small Midwest college, an aspiring actor and his young wife assembled an hour-long platform piece called Theatre of Great Personalities — Hamlet, Victoria & Albert, The Brownings — which they then take out on a series of grinding tours to schools and community groups throughout the South. One of the eight skits features the 23-year-old actor slathered in makeup as Mark Twain. After almost a decade of trials, tribulations, and the breakup of the marriage, the actor is doing 20 minutes of Twain at a tiny upstairs cabaret in Greenwich Village. (Yes, Mark Twain in a smoky, boozy, afterhours nightclub!) One night someone brings in Ed Sullivan, who puts the act on his Sunday night variety show. This leads to a smashingly successful Off-Broadway run, which results in the actor — finally — getting the chance to act on Broadway and elsewhere without those three-hours of makeup.
The book only takes us through the Off-Broadway opening of Mark Twain Tonight in 1959. Holbrook, of course, went on to a celebrated and distinguished acting career which includes a Tony Award and multiple Emmys.
But this is only part of the story. Consider a fellow whose parents desert him when he's two; whose father briefly returns — only to be committed to the state insane asylum — when he's six; who is then sent off to a Dickensian boarding school, where he is abused by a sadistic headmaster; and who never sets foot in Los Angeles without thinking that maybe, somehow, he will find his mother. Holbrook, who is now 86, tells how he has lived under a shadow of depression, with fears of suicide or — worse! — ending up like his father.
"Harold" is a mesmerizing double tale, with theatre — and Mark Twain — on the one side and a tortured upbringing which Hal Holbrook can't quite shake on the other.Continued...