Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Tribute To Hal Holbrook

February 17th is the birthday of Hal Holbrook.

As a young boy growing up in the silver mining town of Cobalt, Ontario and later in the Uranium 'Boom Town' of Elliot Lake, Ontario, I read absolutely everything that Mark Twain had put his pen to.

My friends and I would build rafts and we would pole across the local ponds making believe we were with Huck Finn on the Mississipi River.

As a teenager my interest in books waned as I discovered girls. Mark Twain and many others were put on hold. It was to be temporary however.In 1965 while on a bit of a vacation in Buffalo New York I saw a poster announcing a live performance of some of the works of Twain at the Statler Hotel on Delaware Ave. The actor was Hal Holbrook, a man I knew very little about at that time. After that evenings performance my love for the writings of Mark Twain was re-ignited. And I became a lifelong fan of Holbrook.

'He has portrayed Twain longer than Samuel Langhorne Clemens did.'

Hal Holbrook,was born February 17, 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Aileen Davenport, a vaudeville dancer, and Harold Rowe Holbrook, Sr. After his graduation Holbrook served in the US Army in World War II and was stationed in Newfoundland, where he performed in little theatre productions.

It was in his early years in school that he first developed the idea of one man shows - which later in his acting life would bring him fame in his performance of 'Mark Twain Tonight!'

Holbrook's first solo performance as Twain was at Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania in 1954. Ed Sullivan saw him and gave Holbrook his first national exposure on his February 12, 1956 show.

In 1959, Holbrook first played the role Off-Broadway. Columbia Records recorded an LP of excerpts from the show.

In 1967, Mark Twain Tonight was presented on television by CBS and Holbrook received an Emmy for his performance. Holbrook's Twain first played on Broadway in 1966, and again in 1977 and 2005; Holbrook was at least 80 years old during his most recent Broadway run, older (for the first time) than the character he was portraying. Holbrook won a Tony Award for the performance in 1966. Mark Twain Tonight has repeatedly toured across the country in what as of 2005 has amounted to over 2000 performances.

He has portrayed Twain longer than Samuel Langhorne Clemens did. In 1964, Holbrook played the role of the Major in the original production of Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy.

In 1968, he was one of the replacements for Richard Kiley in the original Broadway production of Man of La Mancha, although he had limited singing ability. Holbrook co-starred with Martin Sheen in the controversial and acclaimed 1972 television movie That Certain Summer said to be the first television movie to portray homosexuality in a sympathetic, non-judgmental light. In 1976, Holbrook won further acclaim for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in a series of television specials based on Carl Sandburg's acclaimed biography.

He has also starred in many films and TV programs. He won an Emmy for Lead Actor in a Dramatic Series in the 1970TV series, "The Bold Ones: The Senator". In 1979, he starred, with Katharine Ross, Barry Bostwick, and Richard Anderson in the made-for-TV movie, "Murder by Natural Causes". Early in his career he worked on stage and in a television soap opera, The Brighter Day. Holbrook is also famous for his role as the enigmatic Deep Throat (whose identity was unknown at the time) in the film All the President's Men. More recently, Holbrook appeared as a featured guest star in a 2006 episode of the HBO series The Sopranos and the NCIS episode "Escaped".

Holbrook has appeared in at least six movies in which he is part of a conspiracy: Fletch Lives, Magnum Force, The Star Chamber, Capricorn One, All the President's Men, and The Firm. Holbrook appeared on Fisher Investments' infomercials. In 2000, he appeared in Men of Honor where he portrayed a racist and hypocritical officer who endlessly tries to fail an African-American diver trainee. He appeared in Sean Penn's critically acclaimed film Into the Wild (2007) and received an Oscar nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role at the 80th Academy Awards.

This renders Holbrook, at age 82, the oldest nominee in Academy Award history in the Best Supporting Actor category. On December 20, 2007, Holbrook was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for his work in the film. In late August 2007 through mid-September he starred as the narrator in the Hartford Stage production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Holbrook's most recent film is That Evening Sun, which he filmed on location with his wife Dixie Carter in East Tennessee in the summer of 2008. The film was produced by Dogwood Entertainment (a subsidiary of DoubleJay Creative) and is based on a short story by William Gay. That Evening Sun premiered in March 2009 at South By Southwest, where it received the Audience Award for Narrative Feature and a special Jury Prize for Ensemble Cast.

Joe Leydon of Variety hailed Hollbrook's performance in the film as a "career-highlight star turn as an irascible octogenarian farmer who will not go gentle into that good night." That Evening Sun also was screened at the 2009 Nashville Film Festival, where Holbrook was honored with a special Lifetime Achievement Award, and the film itself received another Audience Award.

On April 22, 2010, Holbrook signed on to portray Katey Sagal's character's father on the FX original series Sons of Anarchy for a four-episode arc in their upcoming third season. On May 5, 2010, it was announced by the film's director, Francis Lawrence, that Hal Holbrook will play the older version of Jacob Jankowski in the film adaption of Water for Elephants. Holbrook has been married three times, and has three children. He married Ruby Holbrook on 22 September 1945, and divorced her in 1965. They had two children, Victoria Holbrook and David Holbrook.

On 28 December 1966 he married Carol Eve Rossen. They had one child Eve Holbrook, and divorced on 14 June 1983. He married Dixie Carter on 27 May 1984. They remained married until her death on 10 April 2010.

A few other thoughts on Mark Twain Tonight!

It's a one man show devised by Hal Holbrook, in which he depicts Mark Twain giving a dramatic recitation selected from several of his writings, with an emphasis on the comic ones.

Holbrook is seen here with his third wife Dixie Carter who he married on 27 May 1984. They remained married until her death on 10 April 2010.

He made his first New York appearance as Twain in the Off-Broadway engagement in 1959and premiered it on Broadway in 1966. Holbrook's performance was first noticed by New York producer John Lotas at The Lambs Club in Manhattan. Lotas presented the show at the Forty-First Street Theatre, where it ran for 174 performances. He won a Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play for that appearance and an Emmy Award nomination for the 1967 television broadcast (which was produced by David Susskind) on CBS. Holbrook continues to tour in the play (on Broadway as recently as 2006) and alternates the material that he performs.

The original program from the 1959 Off-Broadway engagement included the note “While Mr. Twain’s sections will come from the list below, we have been unable to pin him down as to which of them he will do. He claims this would cripple his inspiration. However, he has generously conceded to a printed program for those who are in distress and wish to fan themselves.”

On the occasion of Mr. Clemens' 175th birthday, Holbrook performed Mark Twain Tonight! in Elmira, NY, at the Clemens Center in front of a sell-out crowd. The evening began with the singing of happy birthday to Mr. Clemens followed by Holbrook's appearance on stage. Remarkably, 2011 marks the 57th consecutive year that Holbrook has performed Mark Twain Tonight!

And what about Mark Twain himself?

Samuel Langhorne Clemens (pen name Mark Twain) was born on November 30, 1835 in Florida, Missouri. Twain is considered the greatest humorist of 19th Century American literature. His novels and stories about the Mississippi River: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1894) are still popular with modern readers.

In 1839 the Clemens family moved to Hannibal, Missouri, on the Mississippi River where young Sam experienced the excitement and colorful sights of the waterfront. Like many authors of his day he had little formal education. His education came from the print shops and newspaper offices where he worked as a youth. In 1853 Clemens left Hannibal with a yearning to travel. On a trip to New Orleans he persuaded a riverboat pilot to teach him his skill. By the Spring of 1859 Clemens was a licensed riverboat pilot.

At the outbreak of the American Civil War (1861) Clemens chose not to get involved and moved to Carson City, Nevada. After an unsuccessful attempt at gold and silver mining he joined the staff of a newspaper in Virginia City, Nevada. He first wrote under the pen name, "Mark Twain" (meaning "two fathoms" in riverboat-talk) in 1863. "Twain" wrote his first popular story, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County in 1865.

He continued to travel as a correspondent for various newspapers, and in 1869 his travel letters from Europe were collected into the popular book, "The Innocents Abroad." Encouraged by his success Twain married Olivia Langdon and settled down in Hartford, Connecticut to his most productive years as a writer. Between 1873 and 1889 he wrote seven novels including his Mississippi River books as well as The Prince and the Pauper (1882) and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889).

Some modern readers are offended by some of the language and content of Twain's books. One particularly sensitive example of this is the free use of the word "nigger" in "Huckleberry Finn." Twain used contemporary language in his books to bring his characters to life. This realistic prose style influenced numerous American writers. Ironically, for his time Twain was liberal on racial and many social issues. The underlying themes of "Huckleberry Finn" support a fundamental equality for people of all races.

As Twain's life and career progressed he became increasingly pessimistic, losing much of the humorous, cocky tone of his earlier years. More and more of his work expressed the gloomy view that all human motives are ultimately selfish. Even so Twain is best remembered as a humorist who used his sharp wit and comic exaggeration to attack the false pride and self-importance he saw in humanity.