By now veteran stage actor Hal Holbrook has been playing Mark Twain longer than Samuel Langhorne Clemens did. Holbrook’s acclaimed one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight!, began to take shape in the early 1950s and opened in something like its final form at a Manhattan nightclub in 1959. Clemens first wrote under his famous byline in 1863 and sustained that persona until his death in 1910.
But there’s more — much more — to Holbrook than his signature role, as he proves in Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain (on sale Sept. 13), the first installment of his autobiography-in-progress. Growing up in Ohio and Connecticut, he was blessed with a doting grandmother and a grandfather who made a bundle as a traveling shoe salesman, but his parents all but negated those early advantages.
Holbrook’s mother deserted the family when the boy was only two years old, and his father spent much of his life in and out of what used to be called insane asylums. At age 13, Hal was sent to a military boarding school, which gave him stability — and acting classes. The classes were suggested by a teacher as a way for the struggling pupil to get some needed credit hours, and agreed to by the latter because they entailed no homework.
Colorful and character-shaping as those circumstances may sound, they deprived Holbrook of a role model as he was growing up. “The person I wanted to be,” he writes, “was a dream with no dimensions.”
At Denison University in Ohio, Holbrook made the tough decision to forgo sporting glory (he was an ace cross-country runner) in favor of more acting, for which he seemed to have a knack, to say nothing of the good looks to be a leading man. After his 1943 enlistment in the Army, he was stationed in Newfoundland, where he met a local actress named Ruby Johnston. They hit it off professionally and personally, marrying in 1945.
What followed was a decade of performing two-person scenes stitched together into a kind of dramatic sampler, played before audiences at high schools, colleges and women’s clubs, back and forth across the American hinterlands in rattletrap cars driven at high speed to cram in as many performances as possible. Like his grandfather before him, Holbrook had become a traveling salesman, peddling not shoes but culture — and himself. Along the way, he and Ruby had a daughter, Victoria, then a son, David. Later Holbrook squeezed in a recurring role on a radio soap opera called The Brighter Day, broadcast live from New York City five days a week. But this alleviation of the family’s financial problems came at the expense of its emotional well-being. He and Ruby drifted apart, and Holbrook admits to having been an absentee father.