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

By Mervyn Rothstein
October 15, 2011

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.



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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.

Ruby onstage during their two-person Mark Twain show
How did you meet your first wife? And please tell me about the two-person show you put together.
HH: I was in the military in World War II and I got sent to Newfoundland and met this young woman named Ruby Johnson, and we did a play together. And when I came back to the States we got married. Then, at Denison University [in Granville, Ohio], in my senior year the head of our theatre department, Ed Wright, to whom I owe my whole career, came up with this offer of a job in the Southwest — playing school assemblies in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico — if Ruby and I could put a show together. It had to be educational. So we used my senior year to put it together. We did some Shakespeare, scenes from Hamlet, As You Like It, etc. And one of the [pieces] was Mark Twain being interviewed…at the end of the show.

We were playing audiences that had never seen theatre, and didn't know what in hell we were doing in green tights, dancing around the stage. We played 307 shows in 30 weeks, two and three shows a day in different towns, driving 80 miles an hour in a station wagon to make the dates, carrying our own equipment in and out of the schools. The audiences were from first grade to the twelfth. It was like being in front of a bullring. We had to learn how to survive. How to capture an audience's attention and hold it by any means you could think of. One thing that saved us is that we were always, always serious about what we were doing. We didn't know how to quit.

How did you get interested in Twain, and when did you decide to put together what became Mark Twain Tonight!?
HH: We moved to New York when we had a baby. My wife and I had played summer stock in Holyoke [Massachusetts, the Valley Players], where we got our Equity cards. We moved to New York and Ruby had a nervous breakdown. She should never have gone back to work with a little six-week-old baby that summer.

A young Holbrook as Mark Twain

I went into New York and got an apartment, and I had no money. I had some shows booked, and she couldn't do them. I had hired somebody while she was pregnant to tour with me, but it wasn't the same. At that time, after four or five years, Ruby and I had moved up in the ranks, away from high schools, to colleges and women's clubs. We were, in our own little way, very successful. We were getting 200-300 bucks a show, a lot of money in those days. And then we couldn't do the show any more.

A friend of mine, who ran an important magazine for that particular business, named James B. Pond, was the son of Mark Twain's lecture manager. So I went to his office and asked if he thought I could get booked with somebody else playing Ruby's roles. And he just looked at me. He said, "Why don't you do a solo? With Twain." He'd known Mark Twain as a boy. I said, oh my God, a solo, you mean go out alone on the stage? I'd be frightened to do that. He just looked at me and said, "I think you could get booked."

So I walked out and walked around the streets of New York, looking for work. I couldn't find work. I went to agents' offices. I walked miles every day. Sometimes I walked all the way to 107th Street to try to get rid of the anger inside me. Finally, I went to the Argosy Book Store on 59th Street over by Bloomingdale's, and I walked into their dusty corner and I started looking at Mark Twain books and I sat down and started to put a show together. For one reason only: to get bread on the table.

I didn't really know who Mark Twain was. I knew his picture was on a cigar box. I'd never read any of his books that I can remember. And that's how I started.

How long did it take for your Mark Twain show to get noticed, for you to become a success?
HH: It took five years, touring all around this country. At one point I got together with [singer] Lovey Powell and Bruce Morton, her accompanist, and we opened a nightclub down in Greenwich Village on Grove Street, which I named myself. Upstairs at the Duplex. It was above the Duplex bar and grill. We made it successful, but Lovey was the star. I'd come out, and I did Twain, two or three times a night, in the curve of a baby grand piano, at the end of a rectangular room that sat 59 people according to the fire laws on the wall.

I also really ran the club. And one night Ed Sullivan came in. All of a sudden, out of nowhere. And sat right in front of me. There were three other people in the club — it was the first show. After the show, he invited me to sit with him, and invited me to his apartment the next day. And we talked, and he put me on his TV show. And that started things rolling.

I never intended it to be a career. But as I got into it, as I began to get serious about who in hell Mark Twain was, and read his writing, get beyond the boy on the banks of the Mississippi River, and get into his sociological stuff, I thought, holy cow, this guy's really got a bead on America.

It was at that time, the middle 1950s, that the Civil Rights movement — I'm in Birmingham. I'm playing here tomorrow night. The Reverend [Fred] Shuttlesworth died yesterday. He was the guy who stood up to Bull Connor, the police chief, and the fire hoses right here in this town [in 1963]. I remember what it was like then because I was touring down here doing tough stuff — the lynching speech in "Huckleberry Finn." My show developed the same time the Civil Rights movement was developing. That was what I understood about Mark Twain in those days — I saw that he was deeply involved in not only what was going on in our country but particularly the terrible racism that had gripped our guts, and we couldn't shake it loose.

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 Playbill.com. He pens the monthly A Life in the Theatre feature.