If any actor is universally associated with Mark Twain, it’s Hal Holbrook. From 1954 to 2005, Holbrook has portrayed the great American writer in a one-man show some 2,000 times. But there’s much more to Holbrook’s career than Mark Twain.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1925, Holbrook grew up in South Weymouth, Massachusetts. Already at Denison University in Ohio, he worked on what must have been one of the most fruitful student projects in history – a study of Mark Twain that would eventually take shape as Holbrook’s hugely successful one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight.
While serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, he was sent to Newfoundland. In 1954, at Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania, Holbrook presented the first of his many portrayals of Twain. The show caught the attention of Ed Sullivan, who brought Holbrook onto his television show in 1956. In the late 1950s, Holbrook took his show to Europe, under the aegis of the State Department, and even played beyond the Iron Curtain. A recording of highlights from his show was issued by Columbia Records, and in 1967 Holbrook also performed Mark Twain Tonight on television, winning an Emmy. Holbrook has brought his one-man show to Broadway three times: in 1966 (Tony Award for Best Actor in Play), 1977, and 2005.
His actual Broadway debut, however, took place in 1961, when he played alongside George Voskovec in the two-person play Do You Know the Milky Way? He was a replacement in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1964) and played the Major in Miller’s Incident at Vichy (1964). In the original Broadway production of Richard Wilbur’s translation of Molière’s Tartuffe (1965), Holbrook played M. Loyal. That same year, he was A Gentleman Caller in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.
Though not associated with musical theater, Hobrook also stepped in to play Don Quixote in the original Broadway production of Man of La Mancha. He would also serve as a replacement in Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s three-part musical The Apple Tree, taking the leading roles of Adam/Captain Sanjar/Flip (1966).
Later Broadway appearances include roles in I Never Sang for My Father, Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, and An American Daughter.
He has appeared in numerous movies, including The Group, Magnum Force, All the President’s Men (playing Deep Throat), Julia, The Kidnapping of the President, Creepshow, The Star Chamber, Wall Street, The Unholy, Fletch Lives, The Firm, Innocent Victims, Men of Honor, The Majestic, The Seventh Day, and Into the Wild (for which he was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award and an Academy Award).
Holbrook won the Emmy for Lead Actor in a Dramatic Series for his performance as Senator Hays Stowe in the television series The Bold Ones: The Senator (1970). Later in the 1970s, he portrayed Abraham Lincoln in the six-part television series Sandburg’s Lincoln (1973–76). Other television credits include When Hell Was in Session, North and South, Evening Shade, The West Wing, The Sopranos, NCIS, and ER.