He was known – and always will be known – for bringing Mark Twain back to life.
But indeed, Hal Holbrook might well have become a star of Broadway musicals had he got the chance.
When I heard of his death on Jan. 23rd, I recalled our conversation of nineteen years ago.
It began with a call from his publicist. “Hal Holbrook’s MARK TWAIN TONIGHT! is coming to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center,” she said. “We’re arranging ten-minute interviews with a number of journalists. Would you be available for a phone call on Wednesday at 11:10 to 11:20?”
Sure, I said, only to be cautioned: “Remember: TEN minutes and no more. We have a number of interviews scheduled and he can’t give any more time than that.”
I agreed, although I hated to be so limited as I had so many questions to ask – especially one that had nothing to do with MARK TWAIN TONIGHT!
Still, I looked forward to talking to the man I’d heard impersonate Twain on the (still-available) recording. I’d often replayed the album before I’d read his explanation of how he structured the show in William Goldman’s THE SEASON:
“People are bound to come with the creeping feeling that they’ll be bored to death,” Holbrook said. “Who wants to see an evening about a literary figure? I knew that in the first act I had to overcome that natural reluctance, so my biggest desire was to make them laugh their asses off at the start, so they’d go out at intermission and say ‘Hey, this guy’s funny.’ The second act became the social comment act. I’d start with some funny material to get them again but not too much of it, or they’d never stop laughing and take the show right away from you. In the last act, I gave them the Twain they’d been expecting all along: warm, whimsical, memories of childhood. I think if I’d done the acts the other way around, the third act first, it would have killed it.”
Truth to tell, I hadn’t inferred this when I first heard MARK TWAIN TONIGHT! but after reading that, I understood why I had responded so fervently to the recording.
Holbrook called precisely at 11:10, so I kept an eye on the clock as I asked standard questions that got standard answers: Did he originally write this with an eye to his old age? (Yes). How many cigars had he smoked? (4,000-plus.)
After a few more, I saw that I was at the nine-minute mark, so I asked the question that I really wanted to ask: “Were you sorry that you didn’t do 110 IN THE SHADE?”
Then came a pause – a very l-o-n-g pause – that made me question my asking the question. But I knew that in the spring of 1963, Holbrook was announced to star as Starbuck in David Merrick’s production of RAINBOW, then the title of what would be renamed 110 IN THE SHADE, N. Richard Nash’s musicalization of his own play, THE RAINMAKER, set to music by Harvey Schmidt and lyrics by Tom Jones.
Finally, Holbrook said in a most sincere voice, “Yes, I certainly was sorry” before adding a sentence of surprise that I knew about it. “That was a big opportunity and a real setback,” he admitted. “My career could have gone in a different direction.”
Suddenly the ten-minute limit was forgotten, as Holbrook unleashed the story.
He’d auditioned with “Soliloquy” from CAROUSEL. Already don’t you respect him? Anyone who’d take on that eight-minute behemoth merely to audition, well, attention must be paid.
And, he said, they indeed paid attention: “(Director) Joe Anthony, Nash, Jones and Schmidt, Biff Liff, too,” he said, citing Merrick’s then-associate. “My agent and I left the theater, and before we even got back to the office, she called in and we’d heard they’d phoned and had offered me the part. We immediately went to Sardi’s to celebrate.”
(Auditions are infamous for having a director hear eight to twelve bars before saying “Thank you!” and not meaning it. That Anthony had allowed Holbrook to do the entire “Soliloquy” tells you that he indeed WAS interested.)
“I got the music, taped it, and studied it during my off hours from MARK TWAIN TONIGHT!” he recalled. “I even saw the poster they’d sent me with my name on it. But on the first of August – only days before rehearsals were to begin – my agent called me. ‘Are you sitting down? You should be. You’re out of the play.’”
“‘What do you mean?!’ I said. ‘I can’t be! I’ve seen my name on the poster!”
His agent told him that Merrick – the only person on the staff who had NOT seen him audition – wanted Robert Horton.
“I didn’t even know who he was,” Holbrook said. “I had to ask to find out he was on a TV series.”
In fact, it was WAGON TRAIN, a ‘50s western that was one of NBC’s highest-rated shows, often reaching Number One. That afforded the handsome, charismatic Horton to become a household name. He played a butch frontier scout from 1957 to 1962, then quit because he wanted to do musicals.
Horton was immediately signed for one, the most anticipated musical of 1963: I PICKED A DAISY, with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner and music by Richard Rodgers.
Quite a pairing, no? No, in fact. That musical never happened – not quite. Lerner would eventually rework it as ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER with Burton Lane. But I PICKED A DAISY wilted.
Many have suspected that the reason Merrick wanted Horton was to rub theatrical salt in Rodgers’ wound, because the composer (and Hammerstein) wouldn’t write FANNY for Merrick, partly because they wanted control, partly because they saw him as an upstart.
Back to Holbrook: “‘This can’t be,’ I told my agent, and while she was saying, ‘I’m afraid it is,’ I said, ‘But I have a contract!’”
Holbrook’s voice got noticeably heavier at this point. “The next day, I called my lawyer – the same day that Kermit Bloomgarden asked me to audition for SIDE SHOW, which wound up as ANYONE CAN WHISTLE. I got the script as well as a telegram from Merrick: ‘I understand that you’re considering SIDE SHOW. Don’t forget that you’re under contract to me.’ What the hell was going on?!”
Here’s what: Holbrook learned that at the time Equity contracts didn’t specify what part the actor would play. Thus Merrick could even put Holbrook into the ensemble. Actually, he planned to make Holbrook Horton’s standby, which was certainly not what Holbrook wanted at this stage of his career.
“Thanks to my wonderful lawyer,” said Holbrook, “Equity then changed their contracts so that the part the person has been signed for is now specifically stated. Such a situation could never happen again.” Holbrook got a settlement, the amount of which he chose not to disclose.
“Three years after that, in 1966,” he recalled, “I was doing MARK TWAIN TONIGHT! on Broadway and nominated for a Best Actor Tony, while David Merrick was nominated for every show in town.”
Well, of course, not quite. But three of Holbrook’s four competitors were in Merrick productions: Nicol Williamson in INADMISSIBLE EVIDENCE as well as Donal Donnelly and Patrick Bedford, both in PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME!
“So we’re in the Rainbow Room,” Holbrook said, referring to the final year that the Tonys were neither in a theater nor a nationally televised event. “All I’m hearing is about this and that production sponsored by ‘The David Merrick Arts Foundation.’”
(It was Merrick’s non-profit foundation that would sponsor shows that he wanted to do and felt they had worth, but didn’t think would be commercial bonanzas.)
“So,” said Holbrook, “when they finally called my name as the winner, I got up and looked right at David and said that I didn’t have a foundation, but I did have the Tony. I gotta a helluva laugh,” he said, a bit brightly, before adding, “But I would have rather had the part.”
(And I’m sure that the journalist anxiously awaiting Holbrook’s 11:20 call would have rather I hadn’t asked the question.)
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.