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Mark Twain Tonight!

Hal Holbrook at the MACC.

December 2, 2010
Paul Janes-Brown

“It really looks wonderful,” Holbrook said from his Los Angeles home. “I hope the picture’s going to be as good as I hope it’s going to be. It’s a good story.”

This will be Mr. Holbrook’s 56th year performing in Mark Twain Tonight!, arguably, the most famous one-person performance in theatrical history. Holbrook credits his mentor, Prof. Edward Wright, for inspiring him to become Mark Twain.

“He was like a surrogate father,” Holbrook said. “He was the best friend I ever had. I owe my whole career to him.”

Article Photos

“God made idiots first…that was for practice…Then he made Congress.” Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight!.

It was Prof. Wright who assigned Holbrook to portray Mark Twain as an honors project at Dennison University. It was also Prof. Wright who offered pros and cons when Holbrook was presented with the opportunity to attend West Point.

“My family was very conventional and they thought it would be best the thing in the world for me to go to West Point,” he said. “… Ed would never tell you what to do, but he wrote me and pointed out that if I went to West Point, I’d have to put in eight years, and suggested I would want to think it over.” He was frustrated because, “All we wanted to do was go over and fight, and the Army kept sending me to Harvard and all over the place… because, I guess I had an IQ two points higher than this sergeant,” Holbrook said.

Holbrook decided that he wanted to be an actor—not spend eight years in the Army. Mr. Holbrook mused that his life would have been much different had he gone to West Point.

In 2007, he achieved the distinction of being the oldest person ever nominated for best supporting actor for his performance as Ron Franz in Into the Wild, which was directed by Sean Penn. He also won a Tony for his portrayal of Mark Twain in Mark Twain Tonight! and five Emmy Awards.

His portrayal of Abner Meecham in That Evening Sun is also worthy of an Academy Award. However, the picture, the first by Director Scott Teems, was too small to reach the level of Oscar contention. I feel it’s the best picture most people haven’t yet seen.

“Watching Holbrook, I was reminded again of how steady and valuable this man has been throughout his career,” commented film critic Roger Ebert. “I saw his famous Mark Twain Tonight! three times in the ’60s… I remember him most recently as the old man who cares and worries about the doom-seeking hero of Into the Wild. Here he incorporates everything he knows about getting to the age of 80 (he’s actually 85) and conveys it without the slightest sign of effort. This isn’t a performance, it’s an embodiment….”

Since Holbrook and I have the widower brotherhood in common, I shared a quote with him from Robert Anderson’s I Never Sang for My Father. “Death ends a life, but it doesn’t end a relationship.” I asked him about his relationship with Dixie Carter, his late wife, who passed in April from endometrial cancer.

“I talk to her constantly,” he said. “I swear to heaven that I could hear her talking back to me. I can hear her voice right now, right now, while I’m talking... I could just hear her say, ‘That’s right, darling.’ I am surrounded by Dixie. I have pictures of her all over everywhere on every surface looking at me, and she’s absolutely a part of every minute of the day and night with me… I don’t expect it to ever change,” he emoted.

Hal Holbrook will be making his only Hawai‘i appearance in Mark Twain Tonight! on Sunday, Dec. 12, at 5 p.m. in the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater.

The event is a fundraiser for Rotary Club of Maui projects, with support from the Leslie Granat Foundation and Blue Hawaiian Helicopters.

Tickets are $60, $45 and $30. A VIP ticket ($150) includes a pre-show, sit-down dinner at the new Yokouchi Founders Court, the best seats in the house and a post-show meet-and-greet with Holbrook.



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