Hal Holbrook Retires Mark Twain Character After 63 Years
Fifty years ago, a young actor took the stage in a tiny Off-Broadway theater and introduced the world to a man they would never forget. The actor was Hal Holbrook and the man was Mark Twain. According to Star News, the stage and screen star has finally retired the character after sixty-three years, and over 2000 performances.
The 92 year-old was scheduled to perform in Mark Twain Tonight! at Wilmington, North Carolina's Thalian Hall, but just canceled his October show. He told the Hall: "I plan to keep working in film and TV with anyone who will have me."
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Hal Holbrook was born in Cleveland in 1925. When he was two his mother disappeared, his father followed suit, and young Holbrook and his two sisters were raised by their grandfather in South Weymouth, Massachusetts where his people had settled in 1635. He was sent away at the age of seven to one of the finer New England schools, beaten regularly by a Dickensian headmaster, and at twelve was sent to Culver Military Academy where he learned self-discipline and discovered acting as an escape from rigid authority. He believes Culver saved his life.
After three years in World War II, Holbrook completed his college education at Denison University in Ohio, where the Mark Twain characterization grew out of an honors project which gave him and his young wife an immediate job after graduation, playing scenes from Shakespeare to Twain on the school assembly circuit in the Southwest.
His first solo appearance as Mark Twain was at the Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania in 1954, a desperate alternative to selling hats or running elevators in New York to keep his young family alive. When a radio and television soap opera, The Brighter Day, rescued them, Holbrook still pursued the Twain character in a Greenwich Village nightclub. While doing the soap opera in the daytime, he developed his original two hours of material in the curve of a baby grand piano at night and Ed Sullivan caught his act.
The New York stage debut three years later was such a stunning success, he quit the soap; the State Department sent him on a tour of Europe where he was the first American dramatic attraction after World War II to appear behind the Iron Curtain.
Then he pursued a new career as himself, playing Shakespeare, Abe Lincoln in Illinois Off-Broadway, and booking Twain in between. He joined the original Lincoln Center Repertory Company in New York and built a career as an actor in a variety of roles with no connection to Mark Twain - Man of La Mancha, King Lear, Shylock, Willy Loman onstage, and in more than 50 feature films. He has no set program in Mark Twain Tonight! It changes and evolves and he sometimes chooses the material he will do as the show goes along.
Photo Credit: Walter McBride / WM Photos