Over the length of his more than 60 year career on TV, stage, and screen, Hal Holbrook played John Adams, Abraham Lincoln (three times!), “Deep Throat,” and, in his signature role and creation, Mark Twain. Of course, Hal Holbrook didn’t actually “create” Mark Twain, although his portrayal of the great author and humorist was so definitive, you could be forgiven for thinking so.
Before Holbrook debuted his Mark Twain on Broadway in 1966, he developed the character in Holyoke , Massachusetts, performing his one man show for the first time in 1957. Holbrook not only won a Tony for his droll portrayal of Twain on Broadway, but an Emmy as well the next year when CBS broadcasted a version of the show (Mark Twain Tonight) on network television. Holbrook would return as Twain on Broadway again in 1977 and 2005 to rapturous reviews. Holbrook finally retired the performance in 2017 after 60 intermittent years of performances due to health issues.
Of course, Holbrook had a fine career on film and in television outside of his seminal work as Mark Twain. He memorably appeared as Cameron in Martin Ritt’s film adaptation of the play, The Great White Hope, a thinly-veiled telling of the life of the first black heavyweight champion of the world, Jack Johnson, played by James Earl Jones. He also made a strong impression as Lieutenant Briggs in Magnum Force, one of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films.
But it would be his performance as the informer to Woodward and Bernstein in the classic 1976 political thriller, All The President’s Men, that would cement his legacy on film. Appearing mostly in the shadows of a covered parking structure, Holbrook’s “Deep Throat” was the linchpin upon which this great film and true life story turned. It’s one of the best “less is more” performances in the history of cinema. Holbrook doesn’t need a lot of screen time or many lines to make an impression. Lord knows, that voice and delivery did so much with so little.
“Follow the money.”
Holbrook would win another Emmy for playing Abraham Lincoln in the six-episode miniseries for NBC that began in 1974 and concluded in 1976. He would play Lincoln again in both The North and the South Book 1 and 2 for ABC in 1985 and 1986.
In between, he made strong showings in Frederick Zinneman’s Julia and Capricorn One (both from 1977), John Carpenter’s The Fog in 1980, and as John Adams in the CBS miniseries George Washington in 1984. He then played the moral ballast of Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Lou Mannheim, in 1987, had a memorable recurring role on Designing Women from 1986 to 1989 for CBS, and turned his honorable persona on its head as the duplicitous head of a shady law firm in the Tom Cruise box office smash, The Firm in 1993. He also had a nearly 100 episode run as the improbably named Evan Evans on Evening Shade for CBS from 1990-1994.
Holbrook’s last grace note on film probably came in 2007 as the gentle, semi-retired leatherworker who briefly takes a soul-searching traveler, played by Emile Hirsch, into his home in Sean Penn’s wonderful true story of a young man alone in the wilderness from 2007, Into the Wild. There is a scene where Holbrook’s character offers to adopt the wayward Chris McCandless (Hirsch) that is a lesson in heartbreaking minimalism. Hal Holbrook always knew where the “too much” line was, and he never crossed it. Despite a relatively small amount of screen time, the Academy took notice of his sadly beautiful performance and recognized his work with the only Oscar nomination of his career.
Still, I suspect it will be his performances as Mark Twain onstage that Holbrook will be remembered for most. And that seems fair. He spent parts of seven decades playing Twain. He was so good at it that when I think of Mark Twain, I see Hal Holbrook.
I suppose the fact of the matter is that Hal Holbrook was so good, so subtle at playing an icon that we almost didn’t notice that he was one himself.
Hal Holbrook died yesterday, he was 95 years old.