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All Hail Hal Holbrook!

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

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

Everett Collection

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

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.

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.