September 19, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
It was on a sad note that Hal Holbrook announced his plans last week to retire his perpetual rendition of Mark Twain, perhaps the finest writer America ever produced. As he has been doing for much of the past sixty-nine years, Holbrook had been scheduled to hit the road next month for a tour of his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! Believe it or not, sixty-nine years have passed since the once twenty-three-year-old actor first donned a white suit and transformed himself into the seventy-ish Twain. In those early years ( and for some time thereafter), Holbrook endured a three-and-a-half hour makeup job that was more than twice as long as the show itself! Taking voluminous research and intensive memorization skills into heretofore uncharted territory, he never gave up his alter-ego. But now at age ninety-two, Holbrook is finally giving himself a well-earned rest.
The original impetus for creating Mark Twain as a persona, began as a way for Holbrook to earn money during what are the consistent downtimes between jobs for any actor. He crafted it himself in order to perform it all on his own. He couldn’t have known it at the time, but it evolved into a passionate lifelong journey, one that has been well chronicled for decades on the deep relationship he has shared with the writer. There is no doubt that the record books will forever highlight his achievement in terms of the staggering number of cities and countries he brought it to throughout the world. But how do you measure the commitment it took to play it more than 2,000 times? How do you gage the emotional, physical and psychological endurance of this singular endeavor?
For one thing, I would always joke that his opening cast parties must have been a bummer.
In 1966, when Holbrook brought Mark Twain Tonight! to Broadway for the first time, he had already been doing it in community halls, high schools and regional theatres for fifteen years. At forty-one, he found himself (at last) the toast of Broadway. The reviews praised his performance (garnering him the Tony for Best Actor in a Play), in which by cracked voice and aged gait, he convincingly forged both the robustness and fragility of the man, winning over critics and scholars alike. He ingeniously interweaved dozens of Twain’s stories throughout the show, an effort which took years of Holbrook’s poring through everything Twain had ever written, committing to memory large sections of text that he would change from night to night. His program for the show never announced a set version, which allowed him to choose from whatever suited him out of the SEVEN HOURS of material he had at his brain’s fingertips!
As an actor, Holbrook bore a deep hole in my consciousness throughout the 1970s, when, during my teenage years, I saw him take on such roles as a crusading U.S. Senator fighting for justice on the NBC-TV series The Bold Ones; a husband leaving his wife for another man in That Certain Summer, the first TV movie to implicitly deal with the subject of homosexuality; a beautifully modulated Stage Manager in a TV production of Our Town, and finally, unforgettable as Deep Throat, journalists Woodward and Bernstein’s “garage freak” in All the President’s Men.
In 1995 while living in Los Angeles, I got the chance to work with Holbrook in a TV movie. I was to have one line with him, which was more than enough for me, since it would allow me for the rest of my life to claim I acted with one of my heroes. My role was a reporter in a Perry Mason Mystery Movie that was naturally to have starred Raymond Burr in his most famous role. But when he took ill a few weeks prior to shooting, they went and filmed it anyway with Holbrook engaged to play a contemporary of the fictional Mason. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t change a word of dialogue, merely substituting the name “Bill MacKenzie” instead of “Perry Mason,” wherever it occurred in the script.
After we shot the scene, and while the cameras were being reversed (my close-up, thank you very much), I took the opportunity to engage Holbrook in conversation, where I brought up Mark Twain. I asked him why thirty years after it had been shot live in a Broadway theatre, taped for broadcast on CBS, it still wasn’t available on VHS (this before the invention of the DVD).
Holbrook pulled a drag on the cigarette he was smoking and said, “It will be.” Then, with emphasis, he added, “Eventually.”
I pressed further. “Who owns the rights?” I asked.
“I do,” he replied, with a twinkle in his eye, stubbing out the cigarette.
He went on to explain that he was holding out for the best possible deal (smart guy that he was). As the keeper of the flame of everything to do with his uncanny portrait, he wanted to make sure it was done right — and at the right time. True to his word, it was released four years later in 1999, whereupon I purchased one. It’s still available at Amazon for around twenty bucks — and it’s well worth it.
Years earlier, in 1959 to be exactly, Holbrook published a book on how he came to develop the piece. It’s titled Mark Twain Tonight! An Actors Portrait, and though now out of print, it can be found in used paperback editions pretty easily on line. I managed to track down a hardcover, and it’s a personal treasure.
Now a nonagenarian, Holbrook has played Twain for sixty-nine years, nearly as long as the great author had lived (he died at age seventy-four). Part of last week’s announcement was a letter of farewell, below in its entirety: the final word from this great man of the theatre, at least as it relates to the role of his career. With luck and hope, we still haven’t seen the end of Hal Holbrook’s run as an actor.
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to subscribe to them at Medium.com. My book, Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.