Hal Holbrook: A Lifetime Of Diverse Roles After a lifetime of acting, the 85-year-old Hal Holbrook is still racking up new accomplishments. In 2008, he received his first Oscar nomination for his performance in Into The Wild. Last year, he starred in That Evening Sun. Now, he has a reoccurring role on the new FX series Sons of Anarchy.
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Hal Holbrook: A Lifetime Of Diverse Roles

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Hal Holbrook: A Lifetime Of Diverse Roles

Hal Holbrook: A Lifetime Of Diverse Roles

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Our next guest, actor Hal Holbrook, would be worth listening to even if there weren't two timely reasons to replay a conversation with him from last fall. After all, the 85-year-old actor is most famous for playing Mark Twain on stage in a one-man show that he's been performing and constantly reshaping for more than 50 years. But he's still acting, and not only as Samuel Clemens. Last year, he starred in "That Evening Sun," a movie that was released this week on DVD.

And also this week, he began a recurring role on the FX drama series "Sons of Anarchy." Katey Sagal stars in that series, playing the widow of a biker gang leader. And Holbrook plays her estranged father, whom she visits after a long absence to drop in unannounced. She finds him watching TV and his state of dementia so progressed that though he recognizes her as his daughter, he has no idea that his wife had long since passed away.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Sons of Anarchy")

Ms. KATEY SAGAL (Actress): (as Gemma Teller Morrow) Hi, daddy. Hello. It's Gemma.

Mr. HAL HOLBROOK (Actor): (as Nate Madock) Oh, my, my God. My baby girl. My baby girl.

Ms. SAGAL: (as Gemma Teller Morrow) It's me. It's me.

(Soundbite of crying)

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Nate Madock) Oh. Oh. Your mother is going to be so glad to see you. Rose? Rose? Rosie? Where are you, sweetie? You'll never guess who is here. Rosie? Oh, she's probably - she probably down at Pretenders getting her hair done.

Ms. SAGAL: (as Gemma Teller Morrow) Yeah.

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Nate Madock) Sit with me.

Ms. SAGAL: (as Gemma Teller Morrow) Okay, daddy. Come on, daddy. Here.

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Nate Madock) Yeah. She'll be back soon.

BIANCULLI: A sad footnote: In real life, Hal Holbrook lost his wife, Dixie Carter, to complications from cancer this spring after 26 years of marriage.

Among Holbrook's most famous film roles was Deep Throat in the film "All the President's Men," and in 2007, he was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting role as a lonely old man in "Into the Wild." Holbrook stars as a lonely old man in "That Evening Sun," which came out this week on DVD.

He plays Abner Meechum, a crusty old farmer who slips away from his nursing home and returns to the farm he used to run with his late wife. Abner's son has rented the farm to his father's old enemy, and Abner wants it back. In this scene, Abner's son - played by Walton Goggins from "The Shield" - is basically telling Abner that his life is over and he should just give up the farm.

(Soundbite of movie, "That Evening Sun")

Mr. WALTON GOGGINS (Actor): (as Paul Meecham) There's nothing out there for anymore dad. Things change, life goes on, and you got to go on with it. There ain't anymore to it than that.

Mr. HAL HOLBROOK (Actor): (as Abner Meecham) Life goes on, huh?

Mr. GOGGINS: (as Paul Meecham) For those who let it.

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Abner Meecham) I'm a 80-year-old man with a bum hip and a weak heart. How much life do you think I got left to go on with? I'm no fool, Paul. The road ahead ain't long and it ain't winding. It's short and straight as a goddamned poisoned arrow. But it's all I got, and I deserve to do with it as I please. And what makes me so angry is that I cut and scraped and did without so that you could go to an expensive school and learn a trade, which you now seem intent on using to do me out of what has taken me a lifetime to accumulate. This must be God's finest joke.

Mr. GOGGINS: (as Paul Meecham) So, you're angry at me for getting an education?

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Abner Meecham) I'm angry at you for not caring about the only thing left that matters to me.

BIANCULLI: That's Hal Holbrook and Walton Goggins in "That Evening Sun."

Hal Holbrook, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Thank you. Thank you. Good to be with you, David.

BIANCULLI: I have to ask you about one sequence in "That Evening Sun." It's flashbacks of you with your late wife in the movie, who's played by your real life wife, Dixie Carter. And it's just scenes of you two, you know, embracing each other, caressing each other, looking at each other.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Dancing.

BIANCULLI: And dancing.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Dancing.

BIANCULLI: And it just seems so tender and so intimate. What was the camera actually capturing there?

Mr. HOLBROOK: They were just capturing me and Dixie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLBROOK: We weren't acting. We weren't acting at all. We were just enjoying - we were just loving each other's presence and face and eyes and everything. That's all. You know, I told Dixie, I mean, she said, well, it's a tiny little role, Hal. I don't know whether - and I said, believe me, darling, this moment in the film is going to be important because it's the only time you're going to see this, you know, grouchy old guy who is trying to stay alive and keep his farm and fight this character and - it's the only time you're going to see him sweet, vulnerable. You see a whole other side of his life that we never see at any other time, and it gives a kind of dimension to the character and the situation, I think.

BIANCULLI: Your most famous film role, I think, is a very small one, but so indelible and so iconic. I'm talking about your playing Deep Throat in the 1976 movie version of "All the President's Men." You're only in a few scenes but, boy, you know, what scenes. I'm going to play one. Here you are meeting Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, in an underground parking garage.

(Soundbite of movie, "All the President's Men")

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Deep Throat) Forget the myths that the media's created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.

Mr. ROBERT REDFORD (Actor): (as Bob Woodward) Hunt's come in from the cold. Supposedly, he's got a lawyer with $25,000 in a brown paper bag.

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Deep Throat) Follow the money.

Mr. REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) What do you mean? Where?

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Deep Throat) Oh, I can't tell you that.

Mr. REDFORD: (as Bob Woodward) But you could tell me that.

Mr. HOLBROOK: (as Deep Throat) No, I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I'll confirm. I'll keep you in the right direction if I can, but that's all. Just follow the money.

BIANCULLI: That's Hal Holbrook and Robert Redford in "All the President's Men." Now, what are your memories, first of all, of filming that?

Mr. HOLBROOK: Well, I'll tell you a story that, before the filming started, I was offered this role and I turned it down. Because it was so small, I thought...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLBROOK: ...aw, this is nothing, it's nothing, and the guy's in the dark. I mean, what the heck? So, I turned it down. And I knew Bob Redford very well, we were good friends long in those years, we had spent time together at various times. And so Bob come over to the house and he said, Hal, I'm going to promise you that this role will be remembered more than anything in the film. And I said, come on, you got to be - are you kidding?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLBROOK: Oh, there's nothing to it. He said, Hal, believe me, believe me. So, I said well, okay, Bob, fine, if you feel that way, okay, okay, I'll do it. So, he was right.

BIANCULLI: My favorite thing that I think you have done in your career is playing Mark Twain for more than 50 years on stage, and once quite memorably on television. Two thousand ten is the 100th anniversary of Twain's death. What does that say to you, that you can still find so much about Mark Twain, to say about today's times? I mean, that you can have Mark Twain's saying about today's times.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Oh, he never has ceased to astound me. And astound is the only word I can come up with. He had a bead on the corruption that went on late in his lifetime, in his country. I mean, the corruption is so similar to what's going on today. You know, I give - see if I can remember, it's been - I'm just trying to learn it. But, it's from "What Is Man? And Other Essays," and he says, it's a strange panic we're in. It's like a blight is falling upon us, as if a mighty machine had slipped its belt and was still running and accomplishing nothing. An atmosphere of fear has spread around the land. The phrase, laying off has become common. The laying off of a thousand, two or three thousand men, has become familiar. But there is a more disastrous laying off going on all over America: The discharging of one out of every three employee in every humble small shop and industry, from one end of the United States to the other.

BIANCULLI: Hal, there's two things that stun me about that. One is that, just it's so fresh after so many years that it's so vital to today. The other one, I imagine how much work it takes for you, as the shaper and the actor in "Mark Twain Tonight," to constantly go back to his material, constantly revise what you're presenting on stage, and to memorize it. How do you do all that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HOLBROOK: I stay up late. I am driven to do it. I enjoy it. It's hard work. I have to lose a lot of sleep. I cannot give up, I cannot stop worrying about what's going on with our country and the world, because I think that this country we live in is now at a far more crucial and critical moment in its history, than it has ever been in.

BIANCULLI: Hal Holbrook, I just want to thank you so much on being on FRESH AIR today. Thank you.

Mr. HOLBROOK: Thank you, David, I really enjoyed talking with you.

BIANCULLI: Hal Halbrook in a conversation taped last fall. His wife, Dixie Carter, died in April. "That Evening Sun," featuring their final screen appearance together, just came out on DVD.

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