When Hal Holbrook opened a solo show impersonating Mark Twain in a little joint off Broadway in 1959, he never imagined it would turn out to be the theatrical sensation it's become.
Holbrook, then in his 30s, was simply pursuing a theater career that was his lifelong dream while trying to earn enough to feed his family. He was simply building on a show that he had toured with his wife since 1954, a production involving multiple literary figures.
The legend of stage and screen has donned Twain's white mustache and bushy brows every year since, and thanks to 15 hours of material he's accumulated, each show is different. After a three-week run in June on Broadway - only his third appearance there - Holbrook embarks on a multistate tour of "Mark Twain Tonight!" starting next month.
"It has become more topical, or more connected to what seems to be a commentary on what's going on right now," says Holbrook on the phone from his Los Angeles home. "Whether it's terrorism, or should we - yes or no - be in the war, or whether politicians are telling the truth when they're running in an election, or whether corporations are lying to us, and how did we fall in love with money in this country. All these different topics become food for the Mark Twain mill."
In the half century that Holbrook has embodied the white-suited scribe, many people have come to see him as one of the country's leading Twain experts, which is a major reason he has been awarded honorary degrees from six colleges and universities.
Not that Twain is Holbrook's only creative outlet. At 80, Holbrook is taking on two world premières. He's currently in Ken Ludwig's "Be My Baby" at the Alley Theatre in Houston (through Oct. 23), then he'll head to Miami's Coconut Grove Playhouse for a February opening of Kate Clark's "Southern Comforts." His costar in both is his wife, Dixie Carter.
"It's very unusual to get offered a new play you really like, but to be offered two of them to be done in one year is almost unheard of. This is an opportunity for [Dixie and I] to work together, so that has a great deal to do with it. Plus we both liked the plays very much," he says. "It may end up in failure, but that's the point. That's what you go through in this business. It's a constant struggle not to fail, to find out how to make something work and if you can't, pick yourself up, and get back on the road and go on.... We're doing it because of our dedication to the theater, to the thing we love to do."
Holbrook is especially committed to regional theaters, a source of much excitement and new writerly blood, he says. He's the honorary chairman of the National Corporate Theatre Fund, a fund-raising organization for regional theaters. He's devoted to these establishments because they're where actors "get a chance at big important difficult roles from the wealth of dramatic literature instead of ordinary dramatic literature," he says, adding that more interesting work is done in those houses than in New York, which he sees as "just a stop on the road."
His cynicism toward Broadway is unmistakable. It should be called "The Great White Circus," he says. Listening to Holbrook take potshots at Broadway's electronic grandeur and other aspects of American pop culture, like the media's superficiality and society's "commercialized intellect," it's easy to hear how his own voice and his Twain persona are reciprocally informed by each other. It's inevitable when you know someone as intimately as Holbrook knows Twain.
"It's turned out to be an extraordinarily fulfilling experience. I didn't realize 40 years ago it would be, but it is now because the character I inhabit on the stage now as Mark Twain becomes almost ... me," he says. "I don't mean that I change the characterization, that I don't try to be Mark Twain anymore; it's just that my perceptions, my feelings, my passion when I go out on the stage no longer feel like an actor portraying a role. It feels like I am a living something."
Hal Holbrook could be coming to a theater near you. For more information, call the box office.
Bass Performance Hall
Ft. Worth, Texas
Turning Stone Casino
Mesa Arts Center