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Actor Hal Holbrook

Celebrated actor Hal Holbrook on a lifetime of playing his iconic alter ego Mark Twain.

Hal Holbrook in his iconic role in "Mark Twain Tonight!" Holbrook has performed this one-man show since 1954. (AP)

Hal Holbrook in his iconic role in “Mark Twain Tonight!” Holbrook has performed this one-man show since 1954. (AP)

Mark Twain caught something essential about America, and for more than half a century the great actor Hal Holbrook has caught something essential about Mark Twain. In his white suit, wild hair, and big mustache, he first performed his “Mark Twain Tonight” one man show in 1954. And he performed it again last week, in Opelika, Alabama, at age 86.

He’s performed Mark Twain, at this point, longer than Sam Clemens did. He owns the part and, in some way, it owns him.

This hour On Point: being Mark Twain. A conversation with acclaimed actor Hal Holbrook.

-Tom Ashbrook


Hal Holbrook, acclaimed actor, known for his one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight! that he has performed since 1954. Winner of 5 prime-time Emmy Awards and nominated for an Oscar for his role in Into the Wild. Author of Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain.





I’m trying to remember being held by my mother. Those memories are all so dreamy now, as if none of them ever really happened. I could have dreamed my memories and they would be as real to me. I’m told she was just a young girl and that she left when I was two. I have a picture of her, a little brown-tinted photograph in a gold frame, and she is, indeed, a young girl with a shy smile. But there is some other message in her eyes. Something tired, the eyes of a girl who has had enough and wants it to be over.

All I have are two drifting memories of her. The first is on the enclosed porch in the big Cleveland house, green wicker furniture. A baby is stumbling around, knocking into the sharp stub ends of wicker and crying, and a young woman reaches for this baby, but Grandma moves in ahead of her and the baby never gets inside the young woman’s arms. That would be me.

The other memory is a few years later, in the cigar-scented den off Grandpa’s bedroom in the South Weymouth house when I was about six years old. My mother and father have come out of the blue to visit us. They are tap-dancing in the archway of Grandpa’s den and she is smiling, but there is no beginning or ending to this memory. It is just a vision, connected to nothing, two young people dancing in limbo. I revisited that house many years later because I was told the people who live there now had sometimes seen the ghost of a young woman with blond hair when they went down into the basement. They were very matter-of-fact about it. They told me I wouldn’t feel afraid of her, because she was not threatening. They had a young son, and he agreed. She was friendly, he said.

When I descended, I told myself that I would like to see her, that if I could believe in this apparition, I would know my mother. The basement was larger than I had remembered, much larger, so clean and dry, the paint so fresh and shiny after all these years. It stretched away around a corner to the right, where the laundry and shop tools were. To the left was the coal room for the furnace, with the coal chute slanting down into it. It gave me a shock of remembrance, the glistening chute. I remembered crouching there as a little boy. They said she would be in this part of the cellar. That I would probably see her here. I waited. I made myself still, my heart and my body. Did I feel a presence? Was someone there? I wanted her to appear.


In my heart I felt a tiny shock. Was it her I felt? Or was it the word I don’t remember ever saying that sent a thrill through me?

“Hello, Mother. It’s me, Harold.”

I hung on to the feeling as long as I could but finally had to let it go. I don’t believe in ghosts. Maybe that had something to do with it, maybe not. I don’t know.
I would never see her again after she and my father suddenly appeared and danced in the archway of Grandpa’s den. Nowadays, at night when I turn out the lights in the living room before going up to bed, I look at her little picture in the gold frame under the lamp where my dear wife has placed it, and I say, “Good night, little girl.” She was just a little girl, that’s all she was, those years ago when last I saw her.

My name is Harold. The year after my mother disappeared for good, they sent me away to boarding school to make a man of me. I was seven years old. The junior school was run by the Headmaster, a short, round man who told stories about a turtle that lived under a rock beside the path to the dining hall. That was his good side.
One afternoon I was playing halfback in football practice and I got a shoe full of cleats in the face. Baam! I started to cry. The coach banished me for not being tough enough. I was already in disgrace from the Saturday before, when I caught a pass and ran eighty-eight yards for a touchdown. I couldn’t understand why no one was chasing me, until they told me I’d gone the wrong way.

I was ashamed. I decided to run a mile. I’d never done it before. Across from the football field was a cinder track–five times around for a mile. I hobbled over there, pulled off my helmet, and drew a line in the cinders. Five times around. No stopping. My football shoes and shoulder pads were pretty heavy, but I didn’t think about that right away. Soon I was gulping the fall air of Connecticut and it bit down into my lungs like slivers of ice. By the end of one lap the shoes felt like hunks of pig iron and the shoulder pads were flopping around, banging my ears.
“Please, God, don’t let me fail! Maybe the Headmaster is watching me up on the hill, from the window in his office, where he likes to punish us. Maybe he will be proud of me if I keep going all the way.”

Five laps. Now only three and a half. I was beginning to cough up stuff and my lungs were filling up with the ice slivers. Maybe the coach was watching me, too, and he would think, “That Harold has guts, after all. Look at him go.” I began to think I was going to make it. A sensation of air spread through my chest, and it seemed to me I could even breathe better. The far turn was coming up again, where those big fall leaves were letting go, and then came the homestretch and I had run four laps. Or was it three? Maybe it was only three. I didn’t want to cheat. I could say four, but if it was only three, that would be cheating. They’re probably watching me anyway. If I can really make it to a mile without stopping, that will be something big. Very big. My legs were beginning to feel as if they were attached to swivels, and I couldn’t see anything past the sweat in my eyes. There was no sound outside my head except the awful gasping that erupted from somewhere in my chest. I yearned to walk a few steps. Just a few. No cheating! Gotta keep moving or it’s not running the mile, it’s walking it. It’s being weak. There’s that far turn again, with the harsh smell of brittle autumn leaves. If I can just keep moving until I see that line in the cinders, I will have run the mile.

I stopped. There was a great thumping sound in my ears and my eyes were stung shut from the sweat, but I had done it. I had run the mile. It got quiet and I rubbed at my eyes, and when I looked around, I was alone. The football field was empty. Away up the hill I could see the last of the team rounding the corner of the white junior school building, and I could imagine them disappearing into the darkness of the basement, where the Headmaster would be waiting. I would be late.

The hill was going to be tough. In winter we built a ski jump on it out of wet snow, so it was steep. There were cement steps along the left side of the hill, under the three big maple trees we climbed when we were playing Tarzan of the Apes. I could go up the steps. But cutting across the slope of the hill was more direct, and that’s where I was already heading. Breathe! Lean forward into the hill so you don’t fall and roll down it. Maybe the Headmaster won’t be waiting in the basement today.

It must be adrenaline that keeps you going when you want to stop. Adrenaline or something. I made the hill, and I made the corner of the wooden building where we slept and went to school all year long except for vacations at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And there were the steps, three of them, down into the big, dark space you had to cross before you entered the locker room. And he was there in the dark. Coming out of sunlight into the darkness blinded me, so I couldn’t see him. All I heard was a voice.

“Holbrook, you’re late.” The Headmaster was using my last name, not Harold.

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry …”

“Come here.”

“Sir, I was running a mile …” Whack! Whack! His hand flew out like a whip and lashed the right side of my face and then the left in one smooth, beautiful move. Perfect aim. I tried to get by him toward the locker-room door, but he caught me and drove his knee between my legs. I saw stars. The blow pitched me toward the whitewashed wall of the locker room with all those black hooks on it, and I saw that my head was going to land right between two of them. Clunk!
“Get showered.”

I must have closed my eyes. When I opened them, he was gone. I heard a sob fly out of me and the tears came quick and hot. “If Grandpa knew what you did to me, he would come down from South Weymouth and kill you, kick you, murder you, beat you until the blood spurted out of your nose and ears. You would be dead!” Grandpa would be wearing his big overcoat with the smell of cigar smoke in it and he would pat me on the head and say, “Don’t cry, Buddy, we’re going home.” Then we would walk away and leave the Headmaster dead on the ground.

I was not going into that locker room with my eyes red. I was going to let the pink go away first and get my breathing right. Maybe I was only seven, but I was not a sissy. I was not going to walk into that locker room crying, even if my name was Harold.

The mind flows back. We enter memory, and events and people pour out like little swaying creatures, saying, “Here I am, here I am.” The plot is there, the road your life has taken, and those little creatures appear faint and whimsical because you’ve traveled so far from them. But some of these creatures–certain crippled ones–do not speak out to you. They limp gravely across the past with hard, dead eyes and they stare at you with a question: What do you think of me now?

The Headmaster is a crippled figure. After seventy-six years I cannot love him. Something having to do with the awful sorrow of life has helped me forgive other people, and that helps me to forgive myself. But I haven’t been able to forgive him.

I can see him sitting behind the yellow oak desk in the large classroom after the last class of the day, sitting on a platform slightly above us. It gave his dwarfed height a stature in front of the room full of young boys who waited. We assembled in that classroom before going out to the playing fields, and we waited for our name to be called out. It meant we were going to be punished. The Headmaster enjoyed this ritual. He played his role like a cat, staring at us for the longest time without blinking. His pale blue eyes and round face were almost expressionless, but not quite. Something was there, a faint emotion. Sometimes it suggested a hint of friendship. Maybe today he wouldn’t call out names, he’d tell a little story and we would laugh and feel relief and gratitude. He liked telling little stories. Then he called out a name.”Holbrook.”

He didn’t say the name harshly. It was more like the sound of someone who wanted to share something nice with you. A friendly thing. It meant you had to line up outside his office and be punished. He never told you why.

When you entered his office, he would move about quietly in a familiar way. He was not an imposing figure. He was short and rotund and balding, and perhaps he thought of himself as benevolent, a twin version of the mother and father you didn’t have.

“You know what to do, Harold. Take down your pants.” You unbuckled your pants and let them fall.

“Both of them.” You pulled down your underpants.
“Assume the position.”

You took hold of the arms of a chair that had been neatly placed for you and bent over. Meanwhile, he would be searching in the closet for something. It was a one-by-three flat stick from a packing crate, about three feet long. Probably pine. You waited while he got this stick and then you held your breath while he moved across the room toward you. Whack! Whack! Whack! Three. Whack! Four. Whack! Five. You tried not to cry out, because the boys waiting outside would hear that. Whack! Six. If you cried, he’d stop, but–Whack ! Seven. Am I bleeding? Maybe he’ll stop if I cry–Whack! Eight. A sob. Whack! Nine. Tears. Tears. Crying. It’s over. He just wanted the sound of crying.

“All right, Harold. You can go now. Pull up your pants.”

Once, when I came out of the room, humiliation blinding me, the piano teacher was waiting down the hall past the line of boys. I’d forgotten about our lesson, and there she was in a doorway, searching my face with her eyes as I got close. Brown eyes, pools of softness. I could tell she had listened to my punishment. She held the door for me, and while I walked over to the piano and sat on the bench, she closed it. Then she sat beside me on a chair pulled up close. There was a pause, an emotional one, while she waited for me to balance myself on the brink of breaking down. I had been learning to play “America” two-handed, and I placed my hands on the keys and tried to remember the first note. Then I started to cry. The piano teacher put her arms around me and held me to her. It was an act of kindness I have remembered all of my life.

Excerpted from HAROLD: THE BOY WHO BECAME MARK TWAIN by Hal Holbrook, published in September, 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2011 by Hal Holbrook. All rights reserved.

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  • LB

    I thought yesterdays program with Jane Lynch couldn’t have been anymore irrelevant.  I was wrong.

    • LinP

      Did you listen? Outstanding and incredibly relevant.

      • The man from UNKLE

        excellent show. Timely and educational. I find Twain difficult to get into…… but definitely worth the wait and effort. Halbrook is a great actor. I loved him as the physicist who teaches Tony a little morality in The Sopranos…..  it was a small part but great!

    • Brett

      I thought some of yesterday’s comment posts couldn’t have been any more irrelevant; but, after reading your post, I was wrong! 

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Hal Holbrook is a national treasure. I look forward to this hour which I’ll have to listen to time-shifted since I’m traveling.

  • Charles A. Bowsher

    Saw Mr. Holbrook in Richmond, KY about 30 years ago, he was awesome then, I am sure he will be awesome now. Thank you Sam, I mean Mr. Holbrook.

  • Rex

    What’s Hal’s take on Alec Baldwin’s portrayal of Mark Twain during Tina Fey’s award presentation?

  • Anonymous

    He isn’t delaying the publishing of his memoir until 100 years after his death?

  • http://gregorycamp.wordpress.com/ Greg Camp

    May Hal Holbrook live at least until the next coming of Halley’s Comet.

  • Ren Knopf

    I have read Twain for a long time – acerbic and insightful to a degree that delighted me. Hear Mr Holbrook just now tho’ just frightened me with how wired into the here and now Twain continues to be. How on earth – or perhaps not. Ren Knopf

  • Roger

    Holbrook made an explicit point about the pacing in his rendition of Twain’s speech. You just played a clip from his act in former years, about morally brave men standing up against mobs. Did you SHORTEN THE PAUSES in that clip? I hope not; but my memory and my ears say you did. If so, what a pity. It’s an offensive practice.

  • Aranphor

    You’re a true American Treasure Hal. :)

  • John in Needham

    Really enjoyed Hal Holbrook in Evening Shade.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I heard Hal Holbrook about 1960 in Connecticut, with my mother.  I think I’ll like the book even better.  Thanks.

  • Ellen Dibble

    I wonder if the dark past wasn’t necessary to the kind of connectedness to an ever-changing audience.  I’m thinking of Karen Abbott’s book about Gypsy Rose Lee, where we had an hour with the author replayed lately, and I bought the book.  That entertainer was from the generation of Holbrook’s mother, apparently.  And wow with that.  Cross that with a very dour New England heritage..

  • Idkreutzer

    Met Mr. Holbrook at Robert Dilday’s houseonthemorning of his marriage to Dixie Carter. What a great day that was. A stunningly beautiful and graceful woman.

  • Wilcowest2

    My 10 year old son is a voracious reader, having consumed each Harry Potter episode within a day or 2 of aquiring it, and always with his nose in a book. I wanted to insure he gets a dose of the classics, so I began reading Tom Sawyer with him. I would read aloud a few paragraphs, and he would struggle through the sometimes archaic phraseology of a few paragraphs. I was initially dissappointed, thinking that he was bored, but we read a chapter or 2 each night. Last night, I realized that he does most of the reading now, at a much quicker pace, and he paused after a section and said, “Wow, this Mark Twain can really write!”

    • Brett

      Thanks for sharing this story…One of those delightful moments of parenthood!  

  • Ray

    There was one quote that Mr. Holbrook made that was interrupted by a “station identification break” and was resumed afterwards.  I tried finding this quote on the Intenet at the various “Mark Twain Quotes” web sites that are out there – to no avail.  I was wondering if I could ask you to could possibly email me the quote, post it on your web site, or refer me to a URL which contains this quote.

    • Friendsofjanis

      I immediately rushed to the computer to look it up too… but can’t find it.  Help!  I am addicted to truth and that was some of the most powerful stuff I’ve heard in a long time

    • Sfwmson

      I have been seraching here: http://www.twainquotes.com/Money.html
      If anyone finds it, please post it!

    • NCBurtch

      I also searched for that particular quote, to no avail.  Any luck?  It was moving.  I found part of it in a quote on “monarchy”, but not the whole quote.  The commercial break in the middle was awkward, but the point was still made.

    • Michael Corbett

      I found the quote here - http://theoriginalnebris.blogspot.com/2010/09/quote-of-day_20.html

      “Great republics do not last. Vast wealth and power corrupt. It incites dangerous ambitions and will bring the republic down. It will run down the Congress and crush the people’s voice. This has been a strange panic. It’s like a blight, a paralysis, in which a mighty machine has slipped its belt, and is still running and accomplishing nothing. A creepy and awful stillness has given us an atmosphere of apprehension. The phrase ‘lay-off’ has become common. The laying off of two and three thousand men has has become familiar. But there’s a far greater and disastrous laying off all over this land – the discharging of one out of three employees in all the humble and small shops and industries across America. A blight has fallen upon us. And the monarchy of the rich and the powerful is author of it.” ~Mark Twain

      I have not been able to find the original source of the quote.

      • OldQuote

        artistic license!  Hal re-framed it to recent times!

  • http://www.dogoodgauge.org The Do Good Gauge

    It would be interesting to hear Hal Holbrook comparison of Mark Twain and George Carlin.    Cut out George’s foul language, how would he compare to Twain on social/political thought.

    Sense Mr. Holbrook is unlikely to answer, anyone else have a response?

  • richhenz

    Mr. Holbrook is an amazing person as well as an exquisite actor. While I have only met with him four times since I first met him in 1978, when we were introduced by our mutual Mark Twain Jedi Master, Caroline Thomas Harnsberger . There was a ten year lapse between the last two visits, from 1998 til 2009. He remembered our previous conversation like it had been the day before, and picked right up where we had left off. Amazing. I was inspired by him when I saw his 1967 airing of “Mark Twain Tonight!” and when I told my drama teacher about it, he told me to “put your own material together and do a show of your own–you might make some money by it.” I first performed “Mark Twain In Person” in November 1967. Since then I’ve done it over a thousand times in 40 states and three countries. A pittance compared with HH’s remarkable resume. My next Mark Twain In Person show is at Stormfield Theatre in Lansing MI in December. Hal has my word that I won’t use his material, and I have honored that trust.

  • nj

    National Treasure!

  • Slater Torret

    Wow!  Great show.  Not only a great actor, with an inspirational history, but a man who sees the times for what they are, and who in his life work, actted as a kind of surrogate of another man, who’s wisdom and keen eye has stood the test of time.  For some, it is to create.  For others, to emulate.  Mr. Holbrook is a sterling example of an endurer.  I’ll never have his kind of acclaim, but he’s the rare example of someone with celebrity who bucks the system and speaks their mind.  He gives me courage to endure, to see the tall tales for what they are and go on. 
    Thank you, sir! 

  • Ron

    Gee.  I was thinking reading this that I cant relate because the burning memories of my childhood have to do with sexual abuse and not sports.  And then suddenly you have the same abuse stories I have!!  Alas I don’t remember a piano teacher who comforted me.  But grand storytelling Harold.  Thank you.  

  • John Wright, Jr.

    I hope to see Mr. Holbrook Friday night perform Mark Twain
    here in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. I saw him
    perform Mr. Twain here years ago and have looked forward
    to seeing it again. He has been one of my favorite actors
    for many years. 

  • Shag_Wevera

    I guess the guest host called in sick!

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    80 MPH and trying not to run into the oncoming semis?

    Seems like there should be a disclaimer that “distracted driving” is dangerous.

  • Natalie Ferguson

    Am listening to the program with Hal Holbrook this moment. Holy cow, this is Good Stuff. Like Life on the Missippippi and Tom Sawyer come alive and living right now.

    Thank you kindly, Mr. Holbrook, for today’s marvel,


  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1676672880 Rhea Borzak

    Dear Mr. Holbrook, did you ever perform in “passion plays” in the south in the early 60′s?  I was selected as a child extra in one; my grandmother wrote to me later that it was you who played Christ.  I enjoy watching my family roll their eyes when I declare that “Ive acted with Hal Holbrook”.  I saw you as Mark Twain in Nashville and didn’t have the nerve to try to approach you and ask; of course, I enjoyed that performance immensely.  If you were in that passion play, you were very kind to me. – Rhea Borzak

  • http://www.facebook.com/ren.knopf.9 Ren Knopf

    A shrewd observer and pithy commentator was, no, is, Twain. And so worth the time to read and reread. I can only wonder how he would play on today’s news cycles.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.emerson.7543 David Emerson

    Holbrook is timeless just like Twain

  • jim_thompson

    Mr. Holbrook, thanks so much for all these years of bringing Mark twain on stage, thanks for your groundbreaking work in “that Certain Summer”…thanks for the merriment.

    Jim in Fort Mill,sc

  • awdnana

    Mr. Hobrook, my recently deceased husband was an avid reader of Mark Twain. We were privileged and delighted to see you perform some years ago and never forgot it. My husband suffered from dementia and lost most of his memory, but Mark Twain’s stories and comments never completely left him. I know he is thoroughly enjoying listening to you today. Thank you.

  • awdnana

    Mr. Holbrook, my recently deceased husband was an avid reader and collector of Mark Twain books. We saw you perform years ago and never forgot it. My husband suffered from dementia and lost most of his memories, but Mark Twain stayed with him. I know he is enjoying listening to you today.l Thank you!

  • Dee

    Re: Hal Holbrook wonders ….was it all worth the cost? 
    I feel people must do what they feel is right within them…Otherwise, they may be miserable to live with…and in the process deny themselves and the world the special mess-age & gift they carry within them and pass onto others….Although, I don’t know this man- yet from the comments of others who heard him and called into the show and from just listening to the truth he uttered today from the lips of Mark Twain today, I am so glad he listened to himself despite the short comings it may have brought to his family. Those things and events may have occurred one way or another anyhow…And to the 27 year old female who called in and is just start-ing out as an actress…if she was my daughter I would say…Bless your spirit and do what you feel is right for you! Dee 

  • DrewInGeorgia

    I wonder why the original air date for Hour 1 and Hour 2 of On Point today wasn’t displayed? I have no complaint that the shows are rebroadcasts but it only fosters confusion if this is not clearly stated. A perfect example is the previous comments posing questions to Mr. Holbrook whose appearance on the show was over a year ago.

  • Nancy Arnfield

    Does anyone know the source of the quote from Twain regarding politics and the gullible public?

  • waybac

    This was a great show. I heard almost every word. I’ve been a big fan of Hal Holbrook and Mark Twain since the 1960′s. “Mark Twain Tonight!” has brought Twain closer, made him seem more real, made me feel like I was there, in the room with Twain, and has revealed more of the man behind the printed words. I used to listen to my LP record of one of these performances over and over, “If you are finished with your prayers, will you mind telling me what you are doing in my room?” It’s a glimpse into 19th century life in America. During the interview one of the quotes by Tom really hit home with me, but Hal said he had found better material since using those lines. I forget the exact words. Some of the old stuff is still very pertinent, Hal!

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