Hal Holbrook, Actor Who Scored Mark Twain, Is Dead at 95

Hal Holbrook, Actor Who Scored Mark Twain, Is Dead at 95

Emmy and Tony winner Hal Holbrook, an actor best known for his role as Mark Twain, whom he portrayed for decades in one-man shows, died on Jan. 23. He was 95.

His death was confirmed by his assistant, Joyce Cohen, on Monday night.

Holbrook played the American novelist in a solo show called “Mark Twain Tonight!” that he directed himself and for which he won the best actor Tony in 1966. 

He returned to Broadway with the show in 1977 and 2005 and appeared in it more than 2,200 times (as of 2010) in legit venues across the country. He began performing the show in 1954.

Mr. Holbrook had a long and fruitful run as an actor. He was the shadowy patriot Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men” (1976); an achingly grandfatherly character in “Into the Wild” (2007), for which he received an Oscar nomination; and the influential Republican Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012).

He received an Emmy nomination for a TV adaptation of “Mark Twain Tonight!” in 1967, the first of multiple noms. He won four Emmy Awards.

He played the 16th president himself, on television, in Carl Sandburg’s “Lincoln,” a 1974 mini-series. The performance earned him an Emmy Award, one of five he won for his acting in television movies and mini-series; the others included “The Bold Ones: The Senator” (1970),his protagonist resembling John F. Kennedy, and “Pueblo” (1973) in which he played the commander of a Navy intelligence boat seized by North Korea in 1968.

He also drew an Oscar nomination for supporting actor for his role in the film “Into the Wild” in 2008. At the time of the nomination, the 82-year-old Holbrook was the oldest performer to ever receive such recognition.

Holbrook’s craggy voice and appearance lent itself to historical portrayals and other parts that required gravitas. Indeed, he also played Abraham Lincoln, winning an Emmy in 1976 for the NBC miniseries “Lincoln” and reprising the role in the ABC miniseries “North and South” in 1985 and its sequel the following year. Moreover he won his first Emmy, in 1970, for his role as the title character in the brief but highly regarded series “The Bold Ones: The Senator.” Mr. Holbrook was a regular on the 1980s television series “Designing Women.” He played Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman,” Shakespeare’s Hotspur and King Lear, and the Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” He played the commander-in-chief in 1980 film “The Kidnapping of the President”; a senior judge tempted into vigilante justice in “The Star Chamber”; and John Adams in the 1984 miniseries “George Washington.” Much later, he played the assistant secretary of state on a couple of episodes of “The West Wing,” and most recently he played a conservative Republican congressman in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and a judge in the 2013 historical drama “Savannah.”

But above all he was Mark Twain, standing alone onstage in a rumpled white linen suit, spinning an omnisciently pungent, incisive and humane narration of the human comedy.

In 1978 he was nominated for an Emmy for his role in a TV adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” as the Stage Manager, another role with which he is strongly associated.

Earlier, he drew an Emmy nomination for a noted role as a man who reveals his homosexuality to his son, played by Martin Sheen, in the ahead-of-its-time ABC 1972 telepic “That Certain Summer.”

Mr. Holbrook never claimed to be a Twain scholar; indeed, he said, he had read only a little of Twain’s work as a young man. 

He said the idea of doing a staged reading of Twain’s work came from Edward A. Wright, his mentor at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. And Mr. Wright would have been the first to acknowledge that the idea had actually originated with Twain himself — or rather Samuel Clemens, who had adopted Mark Twain as something of a stage name and who did readings of his work for years.

He recurred on the late ’80s Linda Bloodworth sitcom “Designing Women” as the boyfriend to his real-life wife, Dixie Carter; his character on that show was killed off so he could take one of the starring roles in another CBS-Bloodworth effort, the Burt Reynolds starrer “Evening Shade,” in which he played Reynolds’ irascible father-in-law. He appeared in 79 episodes of the show from 1990-94.

Holbrook also directed four episodes of “Designing Women.”

In 2006 the actor guested on “The Sopranos” as a terminally ill patient who imparts some wisdom to the hospitalized Tony Soprano.

Holbrook’s inimitable voice, full of a world-weary integrity, was inevitably attractive to documentary makers and feature film directors requiring narration or voiceover. He narrated docus such as “The Might Mississippi” and “The Cultivated Life: Thomas Jefferson and Wine” and movies including 2011’s “Water for Elephants.” He won an Emmy in 1989 for narrating the “Alaska” segment of the “Portrait of America” documentary series.

The actor made a deep impression on the bigscreen as well, playing Deep Throat in “All the President’s Men” — it was he who intoned the famous words “Follow the money!”; a power-mad police lieutenant in the Dirty Harry movie “Magnum Force”; and, in a brief and underappreciated performance, a stockbroker warning of the dangers of ethical lapses in Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street.”

Harold Rowe “Hal” Holbrook, Jr. was born in Cleveland; his mother was a vaudeville dancer. He was raised in South Weymouth, Mass., and graduated from Ohio’s Denison U., where an honors project about Twain led him to develop “Mark Twain Tonight.” Serving in the Army in WWII, Holbrook was stationed in Newfoundland, where he performed in theater productions including the play “Madam Precious.”

Ed Sullivan saw him perform “Mark Twain Tonight” and gave the young thesp his first national exposure on his television show in February 1956.

Holbrook was a member of summer stock legit troupe the Valley Players, based in Holyoke, Mass., and opened its 1957 season with a perf of “Mark Twain Tonight.” The State Dept. sent him on a tour of Europe that included appearances behind the Iron Curtain, and Holbrook first played the role Off Broadway in 1959. Columbia Records recorded an album of excerpts from the show.

On Broadway, Holbrook played the role of Major in the original production of Arthur Miller's "Incident at Vichy" in 1964. In 1968 he was one of Richard Kelly's replacements in the original Broadway production of "Man of La Mancha". Ability as a singer.

As Holbrook approached his mid-80s, he remained a busy actor, including multi-episode appearances on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” and NBC’s “The Event.” In 2011 he was also in an independent film, the thriller “Good Day for It,” in whose conception he was intimately involved, and he appeared as a science teacher who knows the truth in Gus Van Sant’s anti-fracking film “Promised Land.”

Holbrook’s memoir “Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain” was published in September 2011.

In 2014, Holbrook was the subject of the documentary “Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey,” directed by Scott Teems, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival and depicted Holbrook’s career portraying Twain. 

Holbrook appeared as Red Hudmore on the final season of “Bones” in 2017, and appeared in an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Hawaii Five-0” that same year. In September 2017, Holbrook announced his retirement from “Mark Twain Tonight.”

Holbrook was married three times. He and Carter were married in 1984 and remained together until her death in 2010.

He is survived by his three children and two stepdaughters, as well as two grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.