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Holbrook marks a half century of performing Twain

This year represents two incredible milestones for actor Hal Holbrook. It marks his 50th year bringing Mark Twain to life on stage. And earlier this year, he celebrated his 2,000th performance of his acclaimed one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight!

Holbrook, who first performed his Mark Twain show at Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania in 1954, won a Tony Award and a Drama Critic’s Circle Award for the show on Broadway in 1966. He also has five Emmy awards to his credit for his work on television, and has appeared in more than 30 films, including All the President’s Men , Wall Street , The Firm , and Men of Honor .

On Saturday, Feb. 14, Holbrook brings Mark Twain Tonight! to a sold-out Baker Hall at Zoellner Arts Center. “I won’t be with my wife (actress/singer Dixie Carter) on Valentine’s Day, doggone it,” he said in a recent phone interview with Jack Croft, Lehigh’s director of editorial services. In a wide-ranging discussion, Holbrook talked about his remarkable career and how he’s managed to keep the Twain show fresh for half a century.

I understand you now have about 15 hours of material and no set program.

Every year it accumulates, and some of the stuff that’s on the list I haven’t done for years. There’s just a great deal of material. I find myself wanting to add material for two reasons. One, it keeps me excited and a little nervous because I’m dealing with new stuff and having to work it out in front of an audience, because I don’t have a director. The audience is the director, so I have to test stuff out in front of the audience. It keeps me on my toes and excited.

Also, I like to try to develop material that seems—and the word seems is very important because I don’t update the material—to be referring to things that are going on in our lives right at this very moment. Like, for example, terrorism. Or this political season and all the almost ridiculous political attitudes that people take and the partisanship and everything. It gets to be quite a joke when you analyze it as well as Twain does and make people laugh at it. And it also makes them think.

It hasn’t changed much in all these years.

It hasn’t changed at all. It sounds pat, but the truth of the matter is, you’re absolutely right. It just simply hasn’t changed.

You say the audience is your director. How do you take your cues from the audience on any given night?

There’s no exact formula for the show. There are a lot of different things that can happen with a show. I can program a show in advance. Usually, I write out a list of selections I want to do because so many of my dates are repeat dates. That is to say I played this venue two, three, four, five years before and I’m coming back again. So I want to try to avoid most of the material I did the time before, just on general principles, and do new stuff for them. That’s one reason.

I always make some kind of a list of selections to follow. But I can change in the middle of that and go to something else, just on the spur of the moment. Or if I’m doing a lot of shows and I want to just fly blind, I can go out there and not even know how I’m going to start until I open my mouth. There’s a lot of different ways I can go because I keep at least five or six hours in my memory at any given time. So I can turn this way and that at certain junctions in the show.

The show is basically built in links, with junctions. There are four different ways to open the show, for example, and each runs four or five minutes. Then there’s three or four different ways, depending on how you think of it, to introduce the cigar and the smoking and the bad habits routine. Then I get into the beginning of his career. It’s not set up in a chronological way, but in a rather subtle fashion, you have to remind people who Mark Twain was, you have to remind them when he lived. Not directly, not by giving dates or anything like that, but just talking about going west and hunting for gold. Suddenly, it places him somewhere in people’s memory if they don’t know that much about him. A lot of people don’t.

You orient people, but you do it all with little anecdotes and stories as if he was just popping them off the top of his mind. The whole show is carefully designed, but it’s designed to make you think that he is just coming up with all these things off the top of his mind and doesn’t know where he’s going next. And that is one of the ways you create suspense in a solo show.

As we know, suspense is essential to any dramatic presentation. Whether it’s comedy or drama, you have to make the audience wonder what is going to happen next. And when you have one person out there, thinking through things and using this brilliant mind, it’s his mental process that creates the suspense. The show has an arc—no matter which number I do, we’re going to build up in the second act to Huckleberry Finn. That’s the peak of the show. Well, I now have four different Huckleberry Finn numbers.

I put a new one on this fall that I developed this summer while I was swimming in the pool. I keep memorizing stuff while I’m swimming in the pool or standing up talking to myself. People think I’m a little weird, but that’s the way I do it. Children, especially, don’t quite understand—especially when they’re only four years old—what this old man with gray hair is doing standing in the pool talking to himself. But that’s the way I do it.

There’s a number I developed a couple of years ago, when all the Enron stuff came out. It’s a very, very tough number about corporate stealing, the dishonesty in business and commercial fields, and I move it from there into how we began our love affair with money in this country, with Vanderbilt, and Jay Gould, and Rockefeller and all, how we fell in love with wealth. To quote Twain, “Money is becoming more respectable than virtue.” That’s really the essence of the number right there. It nails us right straight in the head where we will do anything, almost sell our mother, to make a buck in this country. And it’s sick, and it’s eroding our society. I don’t say those things directly because it’s not Twain’s way. He says it indirectly. You may even laugh sometimes at what he says. But it opens up the truth of what’s underneath so you get the point. I don’t know how to describe it, it’s kind of in an oblique way, but you get the point all right.

You’ve been performing the Mark Twain show for 50 years and yet it sounds like you are still finding new things.

It’s quite magical. I mean it is literally magical. Maybe it is just me or I’m nuts or something but I can’t get disinterested—I can’t get bored with this guy. It just seems whichever way you look you find another nugget. I mean it’s like hunting for gold. You open pages when you’re looking for one thing and you get distracted because you run across something else and you say, “Oh my god, this is wonderful. I think I read this 40 years ago. Gee whiz. This has become fresh.”

You could take Huckleberry Finn, drop the book on the table and wherever the page is open, you can start reading. By the end of the page, you are really interested. The man has an extraordinary way to make you interested immediately in what he says.

What do you remember about your first Twain performance at Lock Haven?

The first one? What I remember is being surprised. I didn’t know what would happen and I was surprised at the response. That was my major reaction. I was nervous and scared, of course, because I had never done a solo performance and I was even frightened to get up and speak in front of an audience. Now, I can get up and just open my mouth and talk about anything. Maybe bore people to death. But I found out some years ago, the best way to give a speech is to get up and say the first thing that comes to your head. And you just start rolling. But in those days I couldn’t even do that. So, when I got up to do the solo I was scared.

The interesting thing is when I would find these little anecdotes, I would do them for my friends to see if they were funny, if I could put it in the show. And they wouldn’t laugh. They would smile sadly at me as if this poor guy is really going off the deep end. I didn’t know whether the stuff was funny or not. But it was funny to me.

I remember going out there and I stood behind a lectern. It was a 50-minute morning assembly at this college. I was introduced and I walked out in my white wig and heavy makeup on my young face and I pretended to be Mark Twain as best as I could. And I was surprised they laughed. The thing is, I only did that show because I knew I was going to have to give it up. After two years in New York walking the streets, I had gotten a job on a soap opera, guaranteed $200 a week for a year. That was like a fortune to me. I couldn’t believe it.

I had worked a year on the Twain show and I had some bookings I was going to have to cancel now. So I asked the people on the soap opera if I could just do one show at Lock Haven State Teachers College to find out what I had, if that year of work meant anything. I thought, my gosh, maybe you shouldn’t give this up. Maybe you should keep it in your back pocket. Maybe you could use it someday.

There’s an understatement for you.

You always hear about actors being afraid of being typecast or identified too closely with one character and going to the extreme to break that.

Hal Holbrook

That’s a danger. And it was a very, very big thing in my mind for a long time. It was a big deal in my mind because my success when I first did it in New York in 1959 at this little off-Broadway theater was so enormous, it was so unexpected. It was like out of a story book. It frightened me to death. People were saying “Who is this kid? Where did he come from? My god, did you hear what The New York Times said last night about this kid doing Twain?” It was frightening to me and I thought I would be stuck forever in type.

As a matter of fact, David Merrick called me up a year or so later and offered me a co-starring part playing an 80-year old Mexican bandit with Bob Preston in a musical he was putting on. He called me up personally on the phone because my agent had called me and I turned the job down. And he called me up and said, “Holbrook, this is David Merrick. I understand you turned down an offer I gave you to play a leading role in a new musical I am putting on. And I said, “Yes sir, I did.” He said, “Are you nuts?” I said, “Well, it’s an 80-year old man and I just don’t think it is good for me to do another old person.” He said, “Holbroook, I am offering you a co-starring part in a new musical I am producing co-starring with Robert Preston. And you are telling me you are going to turn it down because it is an old character?” I said, “Yes, sir. I am sorry, but I just feel I have to do that.” He said, “Okay, kid.”

Any regrets?

No, I don’t have. Actually, the musical failed. (Laughter)

That was the beginning of my being very careful. I had to go out and do the Mark Twain show a lot the first couple of years because I knew I had to nail it down. I had to create an ownership feeling about the show. I heard Fredric March was being asked to go out and do Mark Twain. So I thought you better go out and nail this baby down for a year. I did 154 performances around the country. And then I started to pull it way back to maybe 30 or so performances. And the next thing I did was a play in New York playing a young man and I went and did Shakespeare in Stratford, Connecticut. I kept limiting my performances with Mark Twain and taking anything I could get that would show that I was a young actor. Within a couple of years, I established myself as a young actor in New York City.

The 1970 network television series you starred in, The Senator, is one of my all-time favorite shows. How did that change your career?

It’s amazing the difference it made. Because suddenly so many people see you on TV—it is just amazing. I mean even though I did the Mark Twain thing on TV for CBS and it drew 22 million people, suddenly being on NBC in a series, I just wasn’t the kid that did Mark Twain anymore to the general American public.

The Senator probably was a bit ahead of its time. When you guested on The West Wing, it occurred to me that you were tackling the same kind of controversial topics on your show more than 30 years before, in 1970.

Yes. It was ahead of its time. Quite clearly. We dealt with very sensitive topics. One after another it seems—we just didn’t stop dealing with sensitive topics. And we got a lot of people upset by it. You know, that’s what I like to do. I like to get people upset in a theater, on television, or whatever. I think one of things that television misses and right now I think it is missing it a great deal is you’ve got to scare people. You have to get people upset so that they’ll start talking and thinking. We are living in this caged world of political correctness where people can’t even speak their mind anymore. This politically correct society we live in is sick. It is disgusting to me. It stops you from saying what you think and even if somebody doesn’t like it, tough, deal with it. You don’t like it, deal with it. Don’t hide it. And I think we are becoming a weaker, wimpier people than we used to be because we don’t stand up and say what we think anymore. And that is another thing I try to attack with my Mark Twain show, in an indirect way. Wake them up.

I think that is a pretty amazing thing that without updating or modernizing Twain’s material, it’s still pretty confrontational, pretty radical at times. Even today.

It is more radical and confrontational than any comedy material that you will see on television because most of the comedy material on television, they are just up there on television using filthy, dirty words or whatever to shock you. It is like children shocking their parents. They get laughs with dirty words or profanity. I’m talking about so-called comics. There are hardly any comics that you could describe as a thinking comic. They don’t exist anymore. None that I see. I know there are certain people that are supposed to have thought going on behind what they are saying, but when they come out with one filthy word after another to get a laugh, they lose me. I turn them off.

Is there anything on TV you do like these days?

I watch the news. If you could call it the news. I watch the news constantly. I switch from various channels, Fox, CNN—so you get the conservative point of view and you get the more liberal point of view—you switch around, switch around. I don’t have time to watch television shows. I find them rather boring. The only show that consistently my wife and I find really interesting to watch is Law and Order . They can put on a good show. I don’t know how they do it, but it’s good. I’ve seen it all. I’m 78 years old and four-fifths of what’s on is boring and disgusting.

One last question: Do you have any plans to do anything special to celebrate the 50th year of the Mark Twain performance?

No, I am just going to do the show. It’s just another year to me, you know. I’m just out there doing my show, earning my living and will keep on doing it until I can’t do it anymore, until I drop dead or something. It’s just another year to me.

Posted on Monday, February 02, 2004

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