When Mark Twain wrote that “we can't reach old age by another man's road,” he must not have known Hal Holbrook was coming.
Seventy years ago Holbrook began performing a one-man act that reanimated Twain through an encyclopedic knowledge of the author’s oeuvre. It’s not merely in his mustachioed, white-suited, cigar-sucking likeness that Holbrook continues to conjure Twain; nor is it through his polished mimicking of the author’s wry, socially insightful oratory.
At 90, Holbrook remains a living testament to the evolving ideals of American humanism over the past few centuries. His channeling of Twain is as reflective of his own morals—and the times we live in—as it is of Twain’s musings on centuries-old corruption and injustice.
In advance of a performance at Popejoy Hall (203 Cornell NE) and a documentary screening at the Guild (3405 Central NE), the Alibi caught up with the outspoken actor about the road Twain forged and the road Holbrook continues to extend.
You’ve talked about Twain being a conduit for your own political views. Is there a particular message of timelessness from Twain’s work that sticks with you most today?
There sure as hell is a timeless message in Twain’s work that sticks with me today. Nothing has changed. We are still parading the same foolish indifference to other people’s suffering, not to mention the criminal activities of our politicians, as people did in his day. Read his stuff. Read The Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin. And you will find out that the great Republican hero Teddy Roosevelt was really a communist. He established federal regulation on Wall Street, the railroads, the meat industry and Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.
Describe your lifelong fascination with Mark Twain, and if it was informed by working as a young actor in San Francisco, where Samuel Clemens worked as a young writer.
I did Twain there many times and had some taste of its creative life, especially in the early cabaret scene on the North Beach. I was actually asked to play The Purple Onion there after I began performing Mark Twain in the New York cabaret of the same name. Never did, but that cabaret experience, working a small room in the curve of a baby grand behind me taught me how to take my time and find material that meant something to people. Mark Twain got hold of my entire imagination, and I couldn’t stop pursuing him because the more I read what he had to say about all of us, the more I saw the truth emerging from behind the closet door where everybody keeps it.
In recent years you’ve played characters who carry a sage-like wisdom that seems to come from being as familiar with life as with death. What part of yourself do characters like those in Into the Wild and “Sons of Anarchy” come from?
Into the Wild was a very personal job for me. My son David had traveled the road on his thumb for several years, looking for a life he could believe in, and he had gone to the lower part of Alaska. All I had to do sitting in that jeep with Emile Hirsch, waiting for Sean Penn to give us the go-ahead, was to think about my son David. “Sons of Anarchy” came about 10 days after [my wife] Dixie died. All I could really think of is what she meant to me.
What would Samuel Clemens the journalist—a man who loathed the technology of phones—say about an interview conducted via email?
Wouldn’t it be rich to hear him go on about that? Here we are, dropping our little toadstool of wisdom on this airborne invention which has so captured the activity and imagination (what’s left of it) of the human race that everybody has an opinion now, and not one in a thousand is worth the time it takes to read it. We are assaulted by a barrage of opinions these days, so overwhelming that nothing is getting done, especially in Washington. People are sounding out their precious opinions, and few of them are worth spit in the ocean. Why? Because no one reads history. They just make it up. They have no idea we’ve done all this before.