Holbrook, Hal (1925—)

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Holbrook, Hal (1925—)

On April 6, 1959, a thirty-four-year-old actor named Hal Holbrook literally became the seventy-two-year-old Mark Twain and made theatrical history as the creator of a new genre. From his hair to his shoes, from his voice to his movements, Holbrook was, from that night on, a living version of the icon of American literature. What was so extraordinary and historical about this innovative dramatic event was that no actor had ever done a one-person show for two hours not merely reciting, but acting out a character. Holbrook's feat was a masterpiece of creativity; his acting was electrifying, and he received standing ovations every night. Holbrook thus initiated the one-actor play based on an historical, political, or literary figure.

For more than forty years Holbrook has advanced the public's knowledge of Samuel Clemens's writings. Prior to that momentous evening, the young actor had invested years of research in a scholarly study of Twain to create Mark Twain, Tonight!, which he has played more than two thousand times in forty-eight states, Canada, Eastern and Western Europe, and Scandinavia. In recognition of his unique contribution to the humanities, Holbrook received an honorary degree from Ohio State University in 1979; since that time many other institutions have awarded him similar honors. He has also received an Outer Critics Circle Award, a Drama Desk Vernon Rice Award, a Tony, and a special OBIE Award for Mark Twain, Tonight!

Along with his stage work in Twain and other plays including King Lear and Death of a Salesman, Holbrook has been a well-respected television and film actor since the 1950s. He is the recipient of five Emmy awards: for Mark Twain, Tonight! (1966, CBS); for his portrayal of Lincoln in Sandberg's Lincoln (1973), for his Kennedy-like senator in The Senator (1971), and two for his performance as Commander Bucher on the ill-fated Pueblo (1973); and for his part as the informational host of Portrait of America: Alaska (1989). He also accepted the challenge to be cast in the very first television drama dealing with homosexuals in the critically acclaimed That Certain Summer (1972). Holbrook portrayed Abraham Lincoln in the North and South TV miniseries in 1985 and 1986; Reese Watson in Designing Women (with third wife, Dixie Carter) from 1986 to 1990; and "Wild Bill" McKenzie in several Perry Mason Mystery episodes in the 1990s. Holbrook has acted in numerous motion pictures, most of which were not worthy of his exceptional talent with the notable exception of his portrayal of "Deep Throat" in the award-winning All the President's Men.

Holbrook was born in Cleveland but was raised by his grandfather in Hartford, Connecticut. He attended Culver Military Academy and Denison University where he majored in acting. After his graduation, he and his first wife, actress Ruby Holbrook, toured the southwestern United States, playing Shakespeare to small-town high schools. These road shows ceased after two children arrived, and Holbrook returned to New York to act in the CBS television day seriesThe Brighter Day from 1954 to 1959. At this time, Holbrook was encouraged and backed financially by his former drama teacher at Denison and others to take his one-man Twain to Broadway.

—Toby Irene Cohen