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All Hail Hal Holbrook!

The living embodiment of Mark Twain steps out from behind the mustache

Harold rambles a bit — but then, Holbrook has earned that privilege, and eventually an underlying theme emerges: Of all the artistic professions, acting may rely the heaviest on the judgments of others. Writers, painters and composers can go to work whenever the spirit moves them, but actors have to wait until someone takes note of their talent and casts them in a production. Holbrook comes close to saying that it requires not just luck but also monumental selfishness for an actor to get off what he calls “Also Ran Street.”

Perhaps aided by all those years of channeling Mark Twain, Holbrook writes pungent English and tells a good story. I particularly liked his description of a stripteaser whose act he once caught: “One thing after another flew off her like shingles in a hurricane.” He’s at his best, however, when explaining how hard he worked to give his Twain impersonation the ring of authenticity. Not only did Holbrook interview people who, as children, had heard the great man speak; but once, aboard a ship, he paced the deck for hours on end, trying to absorb how Twain’s years as a steamboat pilot might have influenced the rolling gait he exhibits in a rare surviving film clip.

Harold ends with its 86-year-old author remarking that the success of Mark Twain Tonight! was more than a personal triumph; it also freed the real Hal Holbrook to “step forward,” and one result is this thoughtful, self-searching book (which covers the first 34 years of his life, to 1958). The boy who became Mark Twain has enticingly set the stage for Harold’s planned sequel.

Dennis Drabelle is the author of Mile-High Fever, a history of the Comstock Lode silver rush, in the midst of which Samuel Clemens took the pen name Mark Twain.

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