Like the mighty Mississippi River that Mark Twain helped to immortalize, Hal Holbrook just keeps rolling along. Mark Twain Tonight! Holbrook's uncanny portrayal of the celebrated humorist, is that rare theater gift that keeps on giving. When the 87-year-old actor returns to St. Louis next week, a bona fide phenomenon will be standing onstage at the Touhill Performing Arts Center. Holbrook's decades-long commitment to this single portrayal is both unprecedented and humbling.
When the 22-year-old novice actor first donned the white wig in 1947, impersonating Twain was a kind of stunt, something to fill the time. But Holbrook stuck to it. He parlayed a fifteen-minute gig into a full evening, rich in both laughter and thought-provoking content. In 1967 Mark Twain Tonight! rewrote theater history by shattering the belief that one-man shows could not succeed on Broadway. Success breeds success, and that same year the television special Mark Twain Tonight! was acclaimed as event programming. Forty-five years and thousands of performances later, Mark Twain Tonight! remains a fresh and seemingly spontaneous event.
It might even be argued that seeing Holbrook's Twain is better than having seen the real thing. Legendary Kansas journalist William Allen White wrote in his 1946 autobiography about having heard his idol, Samuel Clemens, speak in person in 1907. Twain was 72; White was 39. "His hands were behind him as he walked, slightly stooped, and he droned on," the disillusioned White recalled. "My ideal, Mark Twain, had bored us." No one has ever described Hal Holbrook's Twain as boring.
Back in 1966 I booked Holbrook to appear at my college. The fee was $2,500, and his contract included a 30-day escape clause. For eleven months I sweated out that clause. Sure enough, 31 days before he was due to appear, Holbrook pulled out in order to replace Alan Alda in the Broadway musical The Apple Tree. But I was able to see Mark Twain Tonight! often through the years. I also worked with Holbrook in 1983 when I was the publicist for the CBS-TV miniseries George Washington, in which he played John Adams. As we sat in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he told me he was on his sixth Twain wig and had smoked more than five thousand cigars onstage.
We also talked about his portrayal of the Stage Manager in Our Town, which Holbrook described as "maybe the greatest American play ever written. It seems smaller than some of the other plays, but it's a tremendously powerful, beautiful thing. I felt it was actually a privilege to play that part." Surely he was referencing Twain when he said, "Sometimes I feel a sense of ownership when I play a role, but with the Stage Manager I felt that I was joining a huge fraternity of other actors who had played that part."
From Twain and Abraham Lincoln to Watergate's Deep Throat and USS Pueblo commander Lloyd Bucher, Holbrook has enjoyed a lifelong affinity for historical characters. "It is exciting to play these roles," he said. "When you play these people, you feel you're doing more than just acting. You're transmitting some message from afar."
But especially so with Twain. The meeting of minds between actor and role is symbiotic and unprecedented. After more than 60 years, Holbrook knows Twain so intimately that he no longer feels an obligation to quote the iconic author's exact verbiage. "I take out a lot of adjectives," Holbrook told an interviewer nearly ten years ago. "As an actor I am an adjective."
Here's one adjective that should not be omitted: To see Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain is to see greatness personified. Those who attend his performance at the Touhill next week will witness the purest form of theater. A lectern, an Oriental rug and a kind of genius that reveals a mind at work. Many have tried to copy the Holbrook formula; few have succeeded. See him now, for we shall not see his like again.