Hal Holbrook, whose portrayal of Mark Twain in a touring one-man show won him a Tony and worldwide acclaim, died Jan. 23 at his home in Beverley Hills, his personal assistant told The New York Times on Monday night. He was 95. Over his long career, Hobrook won five Emmys, was nominated for an Oscar at age 82 for his role in Into the Wild, and played Deep Throat in All the President’s Men, a wizened stockbroker in Wall Street, and influential Republican Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. “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,” the Times recounts.
Holbrook added the Mark Twain character to his roster of “Great Personalities” in 1947, when his mentor at Ohio’s Dennison University, Edward Wright, convinced him to. “Ed, I think this Mark Twain thing is pretty corny,” he recalled telling Wright after the first rehearsals. “I don’t think it’s funny.” But it was a hit on the touring show he embarked on with his first wife, Ruby, and he started developing the Twain character into a one-man show in 1952.
Holbrook debuted Mark Twain Tonight! in 1954, and performances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show in 1956 gave his career boost. He won his Tony when Mark Twain Tonight! opened on Broadway in 1966. He finally retired the character in 2017, after a TV special and more than 2,000 live performances around the world.
“Holbrook played Twain longer than Samuel Langhorne Clemens, who made Twain his pen name in 1863,” The Hollywood Reporter notes. “Holbrook was 29 when he started playing Twain at 70,” the Times adds. “As he grew older, he found he needed less and less makeup to look elderly. He continued the act well past his own 70th birthday, returning to Broadway in 2005, when he was 80.” He told the Los Angeles Times in 2005 that “Mark Twain gets me out of the bed in the morning.”
Harold Rowe Holbrook Jr. was born in Cleveland in 1925, and his parents abandoned him when he was 2, handing him off to grandparents in Massachusetts. After attending military high school in Indiana, he enrolled at Dennison to study drama, completing his degree after a stint in World War II. Holbrook is survived by a son and two daughters, plus two stepdaughters from his third marriage, to actress Dixie Carter, who died in 2010.