Then there was that time I got on Hal Holbrook's nerves...
I interviewed Hal Holbrook a couple of times and met him in person once as he was bringing his Mark Twain show through. It was the second interview in which I got on his nerves, but I handled it well, I think.
I asked him to tell me about the first time he did Mark Twain, and he gave me the terse “that’s all in the bio” response, but then he went ahead and told me the story anyway, taking about 20 minutes, talking about him and his first wife touring the West doing a program about great writers, living and working out of the back of their car doing two shows a day and so on.
When he was done, I said, “You see, Mr. Holbrook, in your bio, all that is covered in three sentences, but you gave me a real story.”
He chuckled and said, “I see what you mean,” and then we had a great chat for about another hour. He even gave me a 10-minute recitation of some politically charged material.
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It’s now been 55 years since Hal Holbrook started portraying American humorist and social commentator Mark Twain.
He was fresh out of Denison in Granville, Ohio, where his mentor had booked Holbrook and his first wife Ruby to perform an educational program, performing 307 shows in a tour of schools in the Southwest.
“We did two or three shows a day and traveled over 30 thousand miles at tremendous speeds to get from one show to the next,” he said in a phone interview.
Doing Mark Twain was only a small part of that show that gave an overview of literary history and included a lot of Shakespeare, and he had to put on the makeup in 45 seconds, he said, while Ruby would do the introduction.
When he started performing “Mark Twain Tonight!” as a solo show in 1954, it took him four hours to do the aging makeup in a pre show routine that he maintained for nearly 30 years. But around 15 years ago, he said that he was doing a play in New York and was getting ready to go on tour as Twain, and while waiting for his cue backstage one night, he explored his face.
“I got out my hand mirror and saw the wrinkles, the indentations and the sagging jowls,” he said. “I said to myself, ‘You idiot! You don’t need all that makeup anymore.’ ”
Holbrook still uses a prosthetic nose to give it the distinctive shape along with the wig, mustache and eye brows.
“Mark Twain Tonight!” has been a constantly evolving program as Holbrook continues to edit from the wealth of material Twain left, not only his novels, but newspaper columns, essays and personal letters, estimating that he has about 17 hours of material to draw from every night. He said he’s able to keep the show up-to-date and relevant to the news of the day without making contemporary references because little has changed since the late 19th century as far as human nature is concerned.
“If you’re careful and spend of lot of time working on it, you can string the material together so that the audience makes the connection,” he said, and said that lately he’s been weaving portions of Twain’s essay “The War Prayer” into the second act.
“Because of terrorism, a handful of people from God knows where they can knock down two towers and we are aware now that we cannot be safe behind two great oceans,” Holbrook said. “If we want to live in a world without wars, it may be that we have to learn how to live with other people.
“I don’t think that people, no matter what their political persuasion, would have a hard time accepting that.”
This story was originally published on May 8, 2009 in the Hamilton JournalNews.