Hal Holbrook, the distinguished performer who toured tirelessly off and on for five decades as American wit Mark Twain, winning a Tony Award for the role in 1966, died January 23, 2021. He was 95. His death was confirmed by his assistant, Joyce Cohen.
Mr. Holbrook parlayed his aristocratic good looks into a series of roles as men of principle grappling with the conflicts of the real world. Amid hundreds of stage, film, and TV credits, Mr. Holbrook played many senators, presidents, business leaders, and literary lions.
On Broadway, Mr. Holbrook appeared in dramas, comedies, and musicals. He created roles in original productions of plays by Arthur Miller (Incident at Vichy and After the Fall), Robert Anderson (I Never Sang for My Father), and Wendy Wasserstein (An American Daughter, playing a U.S. senator). He was also a replacement in the title role of the musical Man of La Mancha during its lengthy original run, and replaced Alan Alda in the Bock and Harnick musical The Apple Tree.
He earned critical acclaim in 1954 for his solo stage show about author Mark Twain that he started developing as his senior honors project while still a student at Denison University. Though he made his Broadway debut in the short-lived two-hander Do You Know the Milky Way? in 1961 and worked steadily in all media forms afterward, he often returned to playing the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in the show eventually titled Mark Twain Tonight! and brought it to Broadway three times: in 1966, 1977, and 2005. He toured with the role to theatres and colleges across the U.S., and was dispatched by the State Department on a European tour that took him behind the Iron Curtain at the peak of the Cold War.
In 2011, Mr. Holbrook published Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain, recounting his youth and how it influenced his time creating and touring Theatre of Great Personalities with his first wife Ruby Johnson, the show’s eventual transformation into Mark Twain Tonight!, and its premiere Off-Broadway. In 2019, a documentary Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey was released following his career on the stage.
INTERVIEW: Tony Winner Hal Holbrook Shares the Pain That Led to Mark Twain
The thespian made his mark on film as well, playing Deep Throat, Woodward and Bernstein’s secret source of information on the crimes of President Richard Nixon, in All the President's Men. Other film work included Julia, The Fog, The Firm, and Men of Honor. His performance in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild as an Army veteran who has lost his family earned him both Screen Actors Guild Award and Academy Award nominations.
On TV, he earned 11 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, including one for his performance as President Abraham Lincoln in the 1976 miniseries Lincoln, based on Carl Sandburg’s biography. He again played the 16th president in the 1985 miniseries North and South, and was featured as Francis Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln. Throughout his career, Mr. Holbrook took home five Primetime Emmys, including a special Actor of the Year trophy in 1974. In his later years, he played the recurring character Nate Madock on the TV series Sons of Anarchy, and made guest appearances on shows like Grey’s Anatomy and the Hawaii Five-0 reboot in 2017, which turned out to be his final performance on screen.
Mr. Holbrook officially retired from the stage in 2017. He was married three times, first to Ms. Holbrook (neé Johnson) in 1945, second to Carol Rossen in 1966, and lastly to Dixie Carter in 1984. They remained wed until her death in 2010. Mr. Holbrook is survived by his children, Victoria, David, and Eve; as well as two stepdaughters, Ginna Carter and Mary Dixie Carter; two grandchildren; and two step-grandchildren.