Hal Holbrook On The Road To Becoming 'Mark Twain' Hal Holbrook is best known for his timeless portrayal of Mark Twain in the one-man show Mark Twain Tonight. But before becoming a beloved actor, he endured a painful childhood. In Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain, Holbrook reflects on how he finally found his way.
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Hal Holbrook On The Road To Becoming 'Mark Twain'

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Hal Holbrook On The Road To Becoming 'Mark Twain'

Hal Holbrook On The Road To Becoming 'Mark Twain'

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Actor Hal Holbrook is best known for channeling Mark Twain.

HAL HOLBROOK: (As Mark Twain) Man is a reasoning animal.


HOLBROOK: Such is the claim, though I do think that's open to dispute. Well, I've been studying this reasoning animal for years now, and I find the results humiliating.

CONAN: In a new book, Holbrook tells us about the boy who would become Mark Twain, a boy named Harold, who suffered a childhood marked by abandonment, abuse and loneliness; who as a young actor learned to hide behind the multiple masks of greasepaint and costume until all of those characters yielded the most important character of all - himself.

We'll talk with Hal Holbrook in just a moment. His autobiography describes his process of uncovering himself, and we want to hear from his fellow actors today. How did you get there? Tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, Israel, the U.S. and a Palestinian state on the Opinion Page this week. Rashid Khalidi will join us. But first, Hal Holbrook is with us from our bureau in New York. His new book is "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain." And good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today.

HOLBROOK: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And you first debuted as Mark Twain in 1947 in a show in a suicide ward of the Chillicothe Veterans Hospital in Ohio.


CONAN: Tough crowd.

HOLBROOK: Yeah, that was - the beginning of it was in a two-person show with my first wife, Ruby. She played the interviewer. We did the burlesque Twain about what we're doing now, encounter with an interviewer. And the first time we did it was in the suicide ward of the veterans hospital.

And it was very hard to figure out the response because they would be looking at the high windows maybe to climb out and get away from us or looking at each other and smiling or laughing. We didn't know whether they were responding to the show or what.

So in the car, some friends were with us, in the car back to college. I said, you know, I think - you know, where there was a little, everyone got ha, ha, ha, there, remember that, where - at the end, where I said, somebody went ha, ha. I think that was a laugh. And nobody in the car responded to me at all.


HOLBROOK: I couldn't get any encouragement from anybody. So then the next show we did was for the Kiwanis Club in Newark, Ohio, and they laughed in the same places where these inmates made these sounds. So we didn't know how we were supposed to distinguish between the guys in the veterans hospital or the guys in the Kiwanis Club.

CONAN: The story of that show takes up a large part of your book, and it's a fascinating story of discovering, well, a lot of the things about the craft of acting and about yourself as an actor. But I want to go back for a little bit to that little boy.

And the opening scene that you tell in your book is just heartbreaking, a scene of a boy - I don't think tortured is too strong a word by a headmaster in a boarding school.

HOLBROOK: Well, it was the 1930s. It was tough. You know, it was New England. It was much different from now. I mean, we have so many distractions for kids now. They - you know, and you're not allowed to punish anybody or discipline them or anything. And it was a totally different world then. And if a teacher wanted to give - you know, whack you in the face, they could do it.

So it was tough. It was tough. We didn't have plastic toys. We had to make our own life, our own imagination. We had to - you know, and you had to obey orders and were disciplined, and it was a very difficult time compared to what it is now. I don't know that it was worse than what we have now. In some ways, I think it was much better - if you could survive it, you know.

But what happened early on to me, which - you know, you learn more about yourself from trying to write a book about your life than you ever knew before because you're forced to really think about why you did this, the effect on other people of what you did and what made you do it, what was operating in you that made you, you know, behave the way you did.

One of the first things that happened to me at that school, I was seven, eight - I was there four years, maybe when I was about nine years old - I was playing football with, you know, during the week, you know, playing with the team. And I got hit in the head, face with a football cleat. And I started to cry, and the coach banished me from the team because I was a sissy.

So I did something that became typical of what I would do the rest of my life. If I had a failure, I went and tried to do something unusual. So what I did, I went across to the running track, and I had never run a mile in my life, and I had football shoes on, and I had the pads on my shoulders, and I started running.

It was five laps around for the mile. There was nobody around except on the other field of the football team. And I pushed myself, I pushed myself, I pushed myself, and I finally finished running the mile. I put a mark in the cinders, and I finally made it five times around. And when I did, it was a victory for me. But then I turned around, and everybody was gone.

And I saw the team was going up the hill toward the little junior school, and I knew that the headmaster, who was really a tough character, would be waiting for me if I was late. So I ran and ran and ran trying to get up the hill. I came in much behind the team, and I went down into the stairs where it was dark in the basement where the locker room was, and the headmaster was waiting for me, and he said you're late.

And I said, yes, sir, I was playing - whack, he hit me across the face, kicked me in the groin with his knee, threw me against a wall, and, you know, I closed my eyes and twisted around and hit the wall just between two coat hooks. And when I opened my eyes, he was gone.

So I got myself together because I was crying and didn't want to go in the locker room, you know, where all macho, macho, macho little boys, and I waited until my eyes weren't so red, and I went in there.

So what happened then is something that happened over and over again in my life. If I ever felt a failure, whatever the failure was, I would do something unusual. Once I tried to climb a mountain all by myself. I was on it for four days alone. I never - I didn't even know how to start a fire right. You know, it was crazy stuff. But that's what I did.

CONAN: Just briefly, you were - your parents left when you were I think two years old. Your mother would never enter your life again. Your father was institutionalized for reasons that were never particularly clear to anybody in your family, at least not to you. And...

HOLBROOK: Nothing was clear to us, Neal. They didn't tell you the truth. They never told you the truth about anything. You know, they never told us why they put my father in the insane asylum. We used to go and visit him, carrying a carton of cigarettes. And, you know, my grandmother would take us, and she'd act like we were going to college somewhere or something.

Nobody explained anything, and I think that's where I - I early on developed a passion for having people tell the truth and telling the truth myself and a hatred for lying.

CONAN: I have to ask, and jumping ahead a few years, that passion for telling the truth, is that one of the reasons Mark Twain so appealed to you?

HOLBROOK: Yes, yes. I mean, Mark Twain tells the truth. The one - I can go - I have done Twain in all kinds of situations. I mean, through the South and the civil rights - it grew out of the civil rights period. I started doing it in 1954 and then really 1956, when I started touring, went all through the South.

I do stuff today that, you know, Mark Twain's heart was with the common man, not the Wall Street millionaires. And I drew stuff today that you probably couldn't get away with if you were me. But with him, he's telling the truth. He's telling you what the truth is, and it's so clear that people listen to it.

CONAN: And after doing this now for 60 years or so, do you think you've finally grown into the part?

HOLBROOK: Well, yeah, I mean, you know, I don't think that way. I don't ever think of something as finished. I never think of myself as Mark Twain or that I've finished creating a role. I mean, if you do that, you lose it. You can't do that. You can't do that and stay alive in a role. You can't think you've got it. You always have to think you still have something left you've got to find.

And the material is so - I mean, it's so rich, and it's so on-target. No, I don't update anything. I never have updated anything because you don't have to, and I learned that early on because people think you're talking about something that happened today or yesterday because it all happened the same way 100 years ago or 140 years ago.

Nothing has changed. The stuff we're going through now with the banks and with the economy and with the corporations and the whole debt has all been done before. Teddy Roosevelt put the restrictions on the banks because they did the same thing in 1907 that happened a couple of years ago.

And, you know, we took them off in the 1990s, and they got loose, and bang, bang, bang. So I mean everything, everything that has happened in the past is just revolving on a 360 degree circle.

CONAN: We're talking with Hal Halbrook, more in just a moment. His book is titled "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain." Actors, how did acting help you find yourself? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're talking with actor Hal Holbrook this hour. In addition to his lifetime role as Mark Twain, he's known for his parts in films like "Wall Street," "The Firm" and his famous portrayal of Deep Throat in "All the President's Men."


HOLBROOK: (as Deep Throat) The cover-up had little to do with Watergate. It was mainly to protect the covert operations. It leads everywhere.

CONAN: Hal Holbrook in "All The President's Men," 1976. His new memoir is called "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain." It recalls his life before his acting successes and a very tough childhood. You can read about his abuse at the hands of his headmaster as a young boy and the acts of kindness he remembered all his life in an excerpt at our website. That's at npr.org.

Hal Holbrook found himself through acting. Actors, how did you find yourself through acting? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Cynthia, Cynthia with us from Vernon in New York.

CYNTHIA: Hi, Neal, and hi, what an honor to get to talk to you, Hal Holbrook. I just want to say I was born in 1929. So I understand what the '30s were like. But I never had any indication of what a childhood that you had that was so awful because you always made us laugh and entertained us. Oh, just a minute. I'm getting too emotional.

But anyway, I want to tell you what a tribute, what a contribution you've given, and when you talk about Americans who tell the truth, oh, I'm so glad to hear that. And I just want to tell you because I'm a librarian. There's another wonderful book, and it's called "Americans Who Tell The Truth," and you might like - it just reminded me so much of you.

And I never knew that about you. And I don't know where I saw you in person because I'm so old I forget. But I think it might have been in Utica, New York. Did you ever give your show there?

HOLBROOK: Yeah, yeah, I did, long ago, long ago.

CYNTHIA: Yeah. Okay, well, listen, keep on giving that show. And I want to tell you, I never have gotten to Elmira yet, but I'm hoping to go someday.

HOLBROOK: Well, it's a very - they're developing a real literary heritage down there, too. You know, it's a funny story about Elmira, I think it's funny anyway. There was a man, his wife and his children were driving into Elmira, looking into Elmira, looking for the graveyard where Mark Twain's grave was. They wanted to visit it.

And they stopped and asked somebody on the street for directions to the cemetery. And he gave them directions, and then he said: Oh, by the way, you know that actor who portrays him? He's buried close by.


CYNTHIA: How wonderful. Listen, you just - just a national - that's a cliche, like, but you really are a national treasure.

HOLBROOK: Thank you very much.

CYNTHIA: So I forgot - I was going to say one more thing, but I forgot it. That's OK.

CONAN: Cynthia, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.

CYNTHIA: Okay, bye-bye.

CONAN: Is there a village or a hamlet in this country you have not played, Hal Holbrook?


CONAN: Is there any place in the country you have not played?

HOLBROOK: Well, it would be pretty hard to find it. I mean, I just played Opelika, Alabama. And I played Wahoo, Nebraska, many years ago, and Siegen, Texas, and all kinds of places that are kind of hard to find on the map sometime.

CONAN: Lets' see if we can get another caller in. This is Elizabeth, Elizabeth from Homewood, Alabama.

ELIZABETH: Hi, Neal, and hi, Mr. Holbrook. Thank you so much for your show. I am a solo performer also and wrote a one-woman play about Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

HOLBROOK: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.

CONAN: The great athlete, yeah.

ELIZABETH: And I just want to thank you because I read a book about solo performing and part of how you researched Mark Twain. I really borrowed - I have about three hours of material. So depending on my audience, I can pick when she was young, when she was near death, her cancer experience, her LPGA.

And I think you're coming to Birmingham soon, and I'm really looking forward to seeing you.

HOLBROOK: Thank you. Thank you. I am coming to Birmingham, yeah, yeah.

CONAN: Elizabeth, thanks very much for the call. Researching Mark Twain; there was a story in your book about the opportunity you seized to get aboard a paddleboat on the Mississippi River.

HOLBROOK: Yeah, well, I mean, there was one there. We were in Helena, Arkansas, and we had to cross over, and I forget whether we crossed over. Well, anyway, I said to my wife - we were doing our two-person show then early on, before I did the solo. I said let's go on the, you know, let's go on the steamboat, see what it's like.

So we went on it, and I went up and put my nose in the pilothouse but not very far because they don't - they're don't welcome you, you know, go sitting in there. That's a private, princely place. And so anyway, I walked along the deck, and I knew that he had a kind of a strange walk...

CONAN: Shuffling gait, shuffling gait.

HOLBROOK: Yeah, some people thought he was drunk when he walked.


HOLBROOK: So I thought, well, he was on a steamboat, you know, for years, I mean about five years, I think, four or five years. And so I walked along the deck. And I thought, just let yourself go. Just let yourself go. And I noticed the outboard foot would throw out a bit, you know, because the deck is slanted to let the water go off.

So that gave me the idea of how I - how he did the walk as Twain. You know, there's an awful lot of talk here about Twain, but the book really is not just about doing Mark Twin.

CONAN: No, no.

HOLBROOK: The book is not that. It's about this young man, this young boy who became a man. It ends at the age of 34, and I'm writing the sequel, if you call it that, I'm writing about that now. It's about how to find yourself when you're inside of a disguise, whether it's me being made up as Mark Twain or whether you're disguising yourself from other people because you don't feel comfortable with yourself.

It's - I mean, a lot of mistake made with my children, particularly in the next book. There is a great cost that comes to you and to other people around you when you have a single-minded purpose, and you pursue it against all interference.

CONAN: Your single-minded purpose was to survive.

HOLBROOK: My single-minded purpose was to survive. I didn't think of it that way, but that was what was in me, and I couldn't - I couldn't do anything but just keep trying to go ahead and go ahead. And I've just always been that way. It's very difficult for me to refuse - for me to refuse a challenge now.

If somebody challenges me to do something, my impulse is to do it, and I usually do, and sometimes I get into horrible trouble because - maybe because physically I'm not really up to it. But I do it. And it's just my nature. And some people have that nature, you know.

They don't particularly stop and think and study back and forth, and it's just trying to - you know, the book ends, Neal, this first book ends the way the second book begins.

CONAN: With your great triumph in New York, when you first put on "Mark Twain Tonight."

HOLBROOK: Yeah, well, not just that, but it ends with after I opened in New York and became an overnight success, like they didn't know who I was. I was in a soap opera, which was the worst thing you could be in at the time. Nobody - I had never done a play. Nobody knew who this guy was, and I was only 34 years old.

I was made up as three-and-a-half-, four-hour makeup as Twain. Nobody knew what I looked like. And Maureen - Margaret Sullivan, a beautiful long-legged actress, I fell in love with her when I saw her in "Voice of the Turtle," she came backstage with a well-known playwright, Osborn, Paul Osborn, about the third night.

And she looked at me with these blue eyes, very candid, straight into me. And she said: What are you going to do now, Mr. Holbrook? And I said: What do you mean? Of course I knew what she meant. She said, how will you ever find another character as rich as this? How will you top this? Period. That's the end of the book.

And that's where the second book starts because the second book is about how I find out who I am. Nobody knew who I was. They - Mark Twain was the star. He was the one who had made the success. Nobody knew what I looked like. They didn't know what I was like as a person, nothing. I was behind this mask, this disguise. And I finally had to be brave enough to get out behind disguises, which I had always loved. I always wanted to get a limp or a hump on my back or an accent when I was a young actor. Get out behind the disguises and try to figure out who I was. And it took years and years and years.

CONAN: Thank you for that. Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Now, let's go to Jean(ph), Jean with us from Charlotte.

JEAN: Yes. Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Jean, you're on the air. Go ahead.

JEAN: Yes, it was my distinct pleasure many years ago in the mid-'60s to sit a few inches away from Mr. Holbrook and watch for - and it was four hours - him transform himself into Mark Twain and build the eyebrows hair by hair. My entire theater class - I was a theater major at the time - was invited, and I think they kind of got bored or something. But I remember, I stayed until the very last hair was in place. It was the most remarkable thing I had ever seen in my life.

And I was prepared for the fact that because I had seen how Holbrook turn into Mark Twain, that when I went out front to watch the performance that I would go, oh, you know, I know that this is a disguise. When he walked out on stage, it was like being put into a time capsule. It was like being catapulted back in history. And you would swear on your mother's life that this was, in fact, Mark Twain, and I have never forgotten that experience. It was the most amazing thing. And I followed your career, Mr. Holbrook. And you were an amazing man. You're an amazing actor.

HOLBROOK: Thank you.

JEAN: And I also admire and love your wife very much as well.

HOLBROOK: Well, you have - your accent is making me think you came from - you come from Tennessee.

JEAN: No. No. No, I was actually born in Mississippi, but raised in North Carolina.

HOLBROOK: OK. Well, pretty close.


JEAN: But you are a delightful person, and I will definitely get your book.

HOLBROOK: Oh, thank you, ma'am. Thank you very much. And I'm glad you were sitting there, watching all that years ago.

JEAN: Yes indeed, I...

HOLBROOK: I don't have to do much anymore, you know?


JEAN: But it was a fascinating experience.

HOLBROOK: Thank you. I was doing a play in New York about 15 years ago, "An American Daughter," a Wendy Wasserstein play, and I was playing the father of the leading lady. And I didn't have any makeup or anything, but when my run was coming to the end, I was thinking in my dressing room, in between appearance, you know, entrances, I think, well, I got to go back and do Mark Twain again so I going to have to put that makeup on again.

And I looked at the mirror and then I thought, wait a minute, wait a minute, hold on. And I took the little hand mirror so I could look at myself sideways, you know, and see the side of my face. And I said to myself, Holbrook, are you out of your mind? Why are you standing three hours making up? Your neck and your jaw line is a disaster area. You don't need to put any makeup on anymore.


JEAN: And am I mistaken? Didn't I see you do "Lincoln" at one time?

HOLBROOK: Yeah, I did "Lincoln" several times. But probably, you saw it on television when I did...

JEAN: Right.

HOLBROOK: ..."Sandburg's Lincoln." We did six one-hour "Lincolns," yeah.

JEAN: Oh, I didn't get to see you make up for that, but it was, you know, again, truly remarkable. You have a - you have that wonderful actor's knack of really becoming the person that you're portraying.

HOLBROOK: Yeah. Well, that's what I always loved to do. And then late in my life, I decided I wanted to be me. And Sean Penn gave me a good, wonderful chance to do it in a film called "Into the Wild."

CONAN: Got a Oscar nomination for that.

HOLBROOK: Yeah. And I just - it was a gift from Sean that he me gave that. And I just played myself, totally myself.

JEAN: Right. Well, thank you for that wonderful, unforgettable experience. I told - I tell everybody that I saw, when I would see you in a movie - I sat just inches away from him many years ago and watched him become Mark Twain. It's amazing.

CONAN: Jean, thanks very much for the call.

HOLBROOK: Thank you, ma'am.

JEAN: You're welcome.

HOLBROOK: Thank you very much.

CONAN: We're talking with Hal Halbrook about his new autobiography, "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go to Jude, and Jude's with us from Olympia, Washington.

JUDE: Yes, thank you. Hal Holbrook, thank you so much for playing the part in a movie called "That Certain Summer" with Martin Sheen.

HOLBROOK: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That was an unusual film in those days.

JUDE: That was.

HOLBROOK: You're out on the Olympic peninsula.

JUDE: Yes. Yeah, it's beautiful out here.

HOLBROOK: My son went to Evergreen.

JUDE: Yes. I went to - I graduated there too. Beautiful.

HOLBROOK: Oh, did you? Right.

CONAN: For those who don't remember, "That Certain Summer," that was the first man kissing another man on TV.

HOLBROOK: No, there was no kissing at all. It's - you've made that up. There was no kissing at all. It was about two homosexual men and the problem this guy had with trying to tell is, you know, own up to it and tell his son. And it was very early on in the public dealing with that subject. It was actually the first time homosexuality was ever dealt with in a serious matter on television.

JUDE: I thought that was extremely bold movie to be made at that time, and I was in my early teens and struggling with my sexuality. And that movie really helped me with my life.

HOLBROOK: I'm glad to hear it.

JUDE: Yes, I had to watch it in secret from my family. But I was so moved by it, and I just wanted to let you know that, that helped me with my struggles. And I'm in my 50s now and I've since moved on from that and very happy with my gay lifestyle. But that was just really special and wonderful. I just wanted to tell you that.

HOLBROOK: Thank you very much. You know, I've had - over the years, I've had people stop me on the street when I used to live in New York. I was stopped on Fifth Avenue a couple of times by gentlemen, and they just stopped and said, you know, that I saw "That Certain Summer." I just want to thank you for it, and I know what they're telling me, and it's very lovely, very lovely.

CONAN: Jude...

JUDE: Very special movie.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Jude.

JUDE: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Hal Holbrook, we're moving on, but we wanted to thank you both for your time today. And thank you for the book.

HOLBROOK: Thank you. Thank you very much. Thanks for having me on the radio here.

CONAN: We appreciate it. Hal Holbrook joined us from our bureau in New York. The Book is "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain." Coming up, on the opinion page, Rashid Khalidi will join us. And we're talking about the upcoming vote on Palestine at the United Nations Security Council, the United States and Israel. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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