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Hal Holbrook - An Obituary

Hal Holbrook – Actor

Born February 17, 1925; died January 23, 2021 


 Hal Holbrook, who has died aged 95, was a Tony and Emmy award winning actor, who carried a quiet authority in everything he appeared in. This came with added menaces for his iconic cameo in All the President’s Men, Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 film about the Watergate scandal that brought down Richard Nixon’s American presidency. 


Holbrook played Deep Throat, the shadowy informant who meets investigative journalist Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, in an underground car park. With Holbrook’s face barely visible in the three brief but intense scenes shared by the pair, Deep Throat teases out his secrets in a cigarette charged rasp that changes the course of American history. 


It was a role Holbrook initially turned down. Only when Redford suggested it would be the thing about Pakula’s film that would be remembered most did he accept. With the pair’s noirish exchanges breaking up the film’s newsroom whirl, Redford was proved right.


Holbrook had already made his mark in films such as Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s novel, The Group (1963), and was Emmy nominated for That Certain Summer (1972), a taboo busting TV film penned by Columbo creators Richard Levinson and William Link. Holbrook starred opposite Martin Sheen as the gay father of a teenage son.


Holbrook won Emmys for his performance as Senator Hays Stowe in TV series The Bold Ones: The Senator (1971), and two for World War Two drama, Pueblo (1973), as well as one for his eponymous turn in Lincoln (1976). Latterly he was Oscar nominated for his role in Sean Penn’s film, Into the Wild (2008).


On stage, among a plethora of classical roles, Holbrook was Don Quixote in the original production of Man of La Mancha (1968), and alternated the role of Quentin with his friend Jason Robards in Arthur Miller’s All that Fall (1964-1965). 


Holbrook’s greatest and certainly his longest standing work, however, was Mark Twain Tonight! This long running one-man stage show saw him inhabit the great American author of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer with increasing gravitas. 


Holbrook first played Twain aged nineteen, developed it over several years until first performing it as Mark Twain Tonight! in 1954. He played it off-Broadway, released a record of his performance, took it to the New York World’s Fair and appeared on Ed Sullivan’s TV show. He eventually performed it on Broadway in 1966, where it won him his Tony. The following year, Holbrook presented Mark Twain Tonight! on national American television. 


Holbrook continued performing Mark Twain Tonight! for more than half a century, right up until he was in his early 90s. He eventually retired in 2017 after more than 2,000 performances of the show across six decades.


Beyond Mark Twain, American presidents and politicians became something of a speciality for Holbrook. He played Abraham Lincoln a second time in 1985 mini series, North and South, and John Adams in another mini series, George Washington (1984). He played fictional heads of state too in The Kidnapping of the President (1980) and in Under Siege (1986). In real life, Holbrook was presented with a National Humanities Medal in 2003 by George W. Bush for “charming audiences with the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain.” 


Harold Rowe Holbrook Jr. was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the last of three children to Aileen (nee Davenport), a vaudeville dancer, and Harold Holbrook Sr. He and his two elder sisters were raised by their paternal grandparents in Massachusetts after his mother joined the chorus of a revue and his father went to California, abandoning their children when Holbrook was two-years-old.


Holbrook went to Culver Military Academy in Indiana, before majoring in drama at Denison University, in Granville, Ohio. His studies were interrupted by military service during World War Two, when he joined an amateur theatre group while stationed in St. John’s, Newfoundland. It was here he met his first wife, Ruby Johnston, and together they toured schools across America for five years, with Holbrook creating the earliest incarnations of his Mark Twain show en route. Holbrook hadn’t read much of Twain before it was suggested he do a show about him, but  recognised something within his work that ultimately changed his life.


Holbrook performed Shakespeare, Moliere and contemporary American greats, including Tennessee Williams and Thornton Wilder. He became a regular on TV in The Brighter Day (1954-1959), and played the Gentleman Caller in Williams’ The Glass Menagerie on both stage and TV before moving into film in The Group. Others included Magnum Force (1973), Wall Street (1987) and The Firm (1993). These brought out an edge to Holbrook’s acting that simmered beyond his characters’ respectable front.


In 2011, Holbrook published a memoir, Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain. The book documented a life that overcame early personal hardships to find salvation and a commanding sense of authority in every role he played.


He is survived by his three children; Victoria and David, from his first marriage to Johnston; and his daughter Eve, from his second marriage to Carol Rossen. He is also survived by two stepdaughters, Ginna and Mary, from his third marriage, to actress Dixie Carter, who pre-deceased him in 2010. Also surviving him are two grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.

The Herald, February 9th, 2021




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