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Arts & Culture

Hal Holbrook Still Interpreting Hartford's Mark Twain

Mark Twain House
Hal Holbrook gets into character.
"I don't have that sense of ownership with Mark Twain. To me he is an American original and he does not belong to me. He belongs to everybody."<br><em>Hal Holbrook</em>

Hal Holbrook has played Mark Twain in his solo show "Mark Twain Tonight" for more than 60 years, and at almost 90 years old he's still channeling the author.

It's a show that Holbrook never expected to catch on when he first started performing off-Broadway in his mid 30s. It took more than three hours to do his makeup, he told WNPR's Colin McEnroe Showto get in character as an aging Twain. 

Holbrook was an unknown actor in 1959 when the New York Times critic gave him rave reviews, calling it "an extraordinary show," and saying "there should have been posters up all over town to herald its arrival."

"I mean, it was a star making review. It shocked me out of my mind," Holbrook remembered. "Nobody had ever treated me like I was particularly special and all of a sudden the New York critics, who I was frightened to death of when I walked on that stage that night, gave me a career."

And Holbrook's career took off. He was cast in movies like "All the President's Men" and "Promised Land." He won an Emmy for "Sandburg's Lincoln", and was nominated for an Oscar for his 2007 role in "Into the Wild." But throughout his TV and film work, Holbrook's Twain character was never far away. 

Credit NBC Television
NBC Television
Hal Holbrook in the 1977 TV adaptation of the play "Our Town."

Despite the amount of preparation that goes into his one-man show, and how long he's been immersed in the meticulous details of Twain's work and mannerisms, Holbrook said he does not have a sense of ownership over Mark Twain. "To me, he is an American original, and he does not belong to me. He belongs to everybody. I only have a little share of him," Holbrook said. 

Holbrook talked to WNPR about his experience meeting Ed Sullivan, and being a guest on his show:  

Holbrook said that when he's playing Twain's character, he's not portraying a mask, but the real man. "When you do the kind of research that I have done, most actors don’t have to do because they just play the role, I create the material. That is to say I create the arrangement of material," he said.

For one show, Holbrook said he puts together five to six hours of material. And that material changes depending on what might be relevant for the audience. For example, in his most recent show he's included a feud based on two families from Huckleberry Finn - the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons. "Its a very powerful number about gun violence -- really people using guns, killing each other," he said. "It has something to say, like a lot of his stuff in an oblique way, about what’s going on in our country today."

Holbrook said that Twain had a deep understanding of the human condition, and that he stays true to the authors words.  "I never update his material. I never do anything to violate the impression that I am Mark Twain on the stage," he said,  "And I just do so much looking and looking and reading that it's easy to find stuff that sounds like he was talking about what’s happening today in the papers, because we haven’t changed a bit."

Holbrook talked to WNPR about his connection with Twain, and how he shares the character with his audience: 

Later this month, Hal Holbrook will spend his 90th birthday performing "Mark Twain Tonight" at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford: Tuesday, February 17, at 7:30 pm. The show benefits the Mark Twain House and Museum.

Adam Blutt contributed to this post. 

Arts & Culture historytheaterThe Daily
Catie Talarski is Senior Director of Storytelling and Radio Programming at Connecticut Public.

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