Alert
Close

Watch the NASCAR race on Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway. Join the Drive to End Hunger!

Highlights

Open

2015 LIFE@50+ MIAMI

Miami skyline viewed through palm trees.

Enjoy fun in the sun during Life@50+, May 14-16, 2015

AARP-iPad-ePub-app

AARP TV

Watch episodes of AARP Live and other AARP broadcasts.

Most Popular

Viewed

All Hail Hal Holbrook!

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

Harold the Boy Who Became Mark Twain by Hal Holbrook

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.

Hal Holbrook in one-man play Mark Twain Tonight, 1967

Hal Holbrook in his one-man play "Mark Twain Tonight", 1967. — Everett Collection

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.

Topic Alerts

You can get weekly email alerts on the topics below. Just click “Follow.”

Manage Alerts

Processing

Please wait...

progress bar, please wait

Tell Us WhatYou Think

Please leave your comment below.

AARP Bookstore

Discounts & Benefits

From companies that meet the high standards of service and quality set by AARP.

Cirque Du Soleil

Members save up to 20% on live Cirque du Soleil shows with their AARP membership card.

Member Benefit AARP Regal 2

Members pay $8 for Regal ePremiere tickets purchased online. Conditions apply.

Movies Unlimited

Members save 10% on purchases of DVDs & Blu-ray discs from Movies Unlimited.

Member Benefits

Join or renew today! Members receive exclusive member benefits & affect social change.