Hal Holbrook has played Mark Twain onstage for some 60 of his 91 years and if there are moments in an interview where the line between actor and subject seems blurred — if not wiped out — he’d consider that a compliment.
“I have not missed a single year of performing it. This is a lifetime. I’ve played every state of the United States and the one thing that keeps me going is he tells the truth. Very few people are telling the truth,” he said, speaking recently from his home in California. “It keeps me going. I’m not dying yet. Thank God Mark Twain keeps me alive.”
Holbrook brings his acclaimed one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight!” to Waco on Tuesday night in a performance at Waco Hall.
Twain, the pen name of Samuel Clemens, is considered one of America’s great writers, crafting such works as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” “Roughing It” and “The Innocents Abroad,” in the years before he died in 1910 at the age of 75. His clear eye for human nature, ear for language and sometimes biting wit has made his work endure and vital to this day.
That’s no surprise for Holbrook, who compiles his one-man show solely from Twain’s writings, updating it on a regular basis.
“Mark Twain has not changed and we have not changed,” he said. “I’m not a big liberal voicing my opinion. My show talks to the people. I can’t go out and give them liberal bulls--t. They have to make their own thoughts. I want the people to listen to hear what he had to say and make up (their) own mind.”
Holbrook’s role as Twain made him famous in the years after he debuted it as a solo act in 1954, winning him a Tony Award in 1966, and he went on to build an impressive career in film and television.
He won Emmys for his performances as Sen. Hays Stowe in 1970’s “The Bold Ones” and as Capt. Lloyd Bucher in 1973’s “Pueblo.” His long list of television credits includes a continuing role on the situation comedy “Designing Women,” which starred his third wife Dixie Carter as Julia Sugarbaker, plus parts in “Evening Shade,” the mini-series “Lincoln” and “North and South,” “The West Wing” and “Sons of Anarchy.”
He famously portrayed the anonymous source Deep Throat in the film adaptation of “All of the President’s Men” as well as roles in the Oscar-winning movies “Julia” and “Lincoln,” earning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination — at the age of 81 — for the 2007 film “Into The Wild.”
It’s Holbrook as Twain, however, that has served as a constant thread through his acting career.
Baylor professor of American literature Joe Fulton, a Mark Twain scholar with four books and several articles published on the American author, said it took nearly two years to secure Holbrook and his show due to scheduling and availability. He’s delighted that Waco audiences will get to see Holbrook’s performance and points out that it reveals Twain in the role in which he was best known during the late 19th century.
“Live performance was the heart of his identity. For Twain, writing was an attempt to capture the sound of the human voice,” he said. “We don’t have any films of Twain performing, but Hal Holbrook is the next best thing.”
Twain’s observations on race, business and religious hypocrisy still ring true, but tempered by an understanding of human nature. “There’s something eternally American about the stories that Twain tells,” Fulton said.
For Holbrook, Twain’s commentary is a necessary medicine for American society, particularly in this election year. “We are in a far more critical time than most anybody understands,” he said. “(People) don’t read much, they don’t think much. That’s what’s happening today. The Federalist Papers – the core of the philosophy that’s the basis of our country — nobody reads that. Everybody’s spending their time with those g--dam things in their pockets. What are they called?” A nearby assistant answered, then he continued. “Cell phones. ”
Holbrook often shifts his Twain material to suit the times and admitted he probably targets religious hypocrisy a little more these days.
“Before the Civil War, the country was absolutely in the total grip of the pulpit, the Presbyterian pulpit mostly,” Holbrook said. “The truth was there was a lot of hypocrisy in our use of the pulpit. (Twain) began to uncork that bottle . .. A lot of people think he didn’t believe in God. How dumb is that? He knew more about the Bible and God than 99 percent of the people in the United States. He saw the hypocrisy that we use to make ourselves look like good Christians when Jesus Christ never said anything like that.
“My wife Dixie was a very religious person and my family is a very religious one. They love me and I love them,” he continued. “But who Jesus was concerned about was the poor folks. The poor and the sick. Would you like to point out how many Christians in America care about the poor and the sick?”
Holbrook went on to talk about Twain’s masterpiece “Huckleberry Finn,” the story of an orphan named Huck who rafts down the Mississippi River with an escaped slave named Jim, who’s seeking freedom. Twain’s novel has drawn criticism in recent decades for his use of a then-common racial epithet, a criticism Holbrook says is misplaced and misses the ultimate point of Twain’s book.
“The way we talk now is not that much different,” he observed. “We have not progressed as much as we think we have. Real progress is not easy. Real progress comes from the heart.”
The actor recalled he and his first wife Ruby had toured Texas early in their career, doing educational theater, part of which evolved into his solo Twain show. He still views the state with a measure of appreciation. “I developed a respect for the people in Texas. No matter how much money they had, they made sure they put some of it into the arts,” he said.
Baylor’s Fulton noted Tuesday’s audience at Waco Hall will get a double portion from the arts, not only Holbrook’s performance as Twain, but Twain’s still timely legacy of words and observation. “It’s balm for your soul in troubled times,” he said.
“Mark Twain Tonight!”
With Hal Holbrook
Performance: 8 p.m. Tuesday at Waco Hall.
Tickets: $50 to $10, available online at www.baylor.edu.