R.I.P. Hal Holbrook

Mark Twain was 74 when he died and was considered ancient. Look at the clips of him in his last years (or listen to a recording of his voice — one exists, you know!) He may as well have been 100. We just learned that Hal Holbrook passed away at age 95 (a couple weeks shy of 96) about a week ago, and, his most recent performances are still fresh in our minds. In his last performances as Twain he was nearly 20 years more ancient than the Great American Author had been at his oldest extent.

Holbrook (b. 1925) left behind a triple legacy. The broader public know his movie and television appearances best, and we’ll get to those, but most obit writers are rightly naming his Twain appearances as his most significant achievement.

Holbrook’s mother was a vaudeville dancer but he was raised by his grandparents. Still the acting bug was in his blood. He began performing as Mark Twain in the mid 1950s, a triumph of make-up, character work, and good old fashioned acting. Adapted from Twain’s own writing, it was the kind of solo performance that people used to do on the Chautaqua circuit and in vaudeville. Being a creature of the modern age, Holbrook toured colleges, community centers and theatres, brought it to Broadway in 1966 (for which he won a Tony), and again in 1977 and 2005, to television countless times, and on record albums, which is how many of us experienced it. It was once a kind of modern experience, believe it or not! It seemed kind of hip and au courant. Listening to Holbrook’s performances on record was like listening to comedy albums, often just as funny, though he could also bring one to tears. (He did that me once. I can’t remember what the story was. I think it was either the loss of his daughter Susy, or the death of his brother in a steamboat explosion). At any rate, probably enough won’t be made of his influence in this area. Naturally, solo theatre has always been around, but Holbrook is largely responsible for the still-going vogue for solo performances centering around the impersonation of a dead celebrity. Gabe Kaplan as Groucho, Frank Gorshin as George Burns and the like. I have freinds who tour as Charles Dickens, Fanny Brice, etc. Ultimately, I think the entire subgenre owes its niche to Holbrook’s success.

So that was Holbrook’s first legacy. His second legacy was a Broadway stage career beyond the Twain shows. He was in the original productions of Arthur Miller’s After the Fall and Incident at Vichy (both 1964-65) and the original 1968 stage production of I Never Sang For My Father, which was made into a film a couple of years later with Gene Hackman in the role. He was also in Broadway revivals of plays by O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Moliere, etc

Holbrook’s best known legacy among the general public is undoubtedly his screen career. The Group (1966) was his first movie, followed by his appearance as an RFK-style Senator in one of my favorite film’s 1968’s Wild in the Streets. Holbrook had a craggy, distinguished, all-American look that often had him cast as politicians. His other movies include The Great White Hope (1970), the “Dirty Harry” picture Magnum Force (1973), All the President’s Men (1974, as Deep Throat), Midway (1976), Julia (1977), Capricorn One (1978), John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980), Creepshow (1982), Wall Street (1987), Fletch Lives (1989), The Firm (1993), Disney’s Hercules (1997), and The Majestic (2001). On television he was ubiquitous for decades, often in historical mini-series, such as when he played Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln (1974-76) and the two parts of The North and the South (1985 and 1986), and John Adams in George Washington (1984). From 1986 through 1989 he had a recurring role on the sitcom Designing Women (on account of the show starred his third wife Dixie Carter), and he was a regular on Evening Shade from 1990 to 1994. He was around so long that the last couple of times I saw him on a movie screen, as in Into the Wild (2007) and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), I was like, “Wait — Hal Holbrook is still alive?” He was appearing on TV shows like Bones and Grey’s Anatomy as late as 2017.

Holbrook earthly remains now repose in McLemoresville, Tennesee, next to Carter’s.