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Hal Holbrook (1925–2021), actor known for “All the President’s Men,” “Into the Wild”

by Linnea Crowther

Hal Holbrook was an actor known for his one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight!” as well as for roles in movies including “All the President’s Men” and “Into the Wild” and in the TV show “Evening Shade.”

Broadway success

Holbrook developed the one-man play “Mark Twain Tonight!” as a young man, first performing it in 1954. The show starred Holbrook as Twain (1835–1910) reading from his writings, including “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Dangers of Abstinence.” The production made its way to Broadway, where Holbrook won a Tony Award in 1966, and it toured extensively and appeared on TV as an Emmy Award-winning 1967 special.

Holbrook continued to inhabit his greatest character for decades, performing as Twain in thousands of engagements until 2017, when he was 92.

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“Mark Twain is something precious to me,” he told NPR in a 2008 interview, having then portrayed the writer for more than 50 years. “It’s my side arm through life.”

When the Houston Chronicle asked him how his approach had changed over the years, he answered irreverently: “I sure don’t have to draw in all the wrinkles as I used to.” But Holbrook’s portrayal of Twain was born of a deep respect for the man of letters, and he put great thought into which pieces would be included in his show, memorizing many hours’ worth of Twain’s material and altering the lineup from night to night.

“I watch the different networks,” he revealed in an interview with On Point, “from MSNBC way over on the left to Fox News way over on the right, and try to figure out what’s really happening, and pick material from Twain that will speak to what people must be really worried about and thinking about, or need to be thinking about, in my own opinion.”

Struggling with whether to include readings from “Huckleberry Finn” in later years, with its inclusion of now-taboo racial slurs, Holbrook decided that the story’s commentary on the horrors of slavery was too important to ignore. The piece remained in his repertoire.

All the President’s Men

Though thousands watched Holbrook become Twain onstage for decades, perhaps even more saw one of his most recognizable movie roles. In 1976’s Oscar-winning “All the President’s Men,” he played Deep Throat, the then-anonymous tipster who revealed the secrets of the Watergate scandal to reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. When Deep Throat was revealed in 2005 to be FBI Associate Director Mark Felt (1913–2008), news outlets across the nation turned to an iconic scene between Holbrook and Robert Redford, playing Woodward, in a shadowy, cryptic meeting in a parking garage. Holbrook’s performance won no awards but was critically acclaimed.

Into the Wild

The movie role that did win Holbrook major awards – a Screen Actors Guild Award and a Golden Globe, as well as his first Oscar nomination at age 82, setting a record for the oldest actor to be nominated – was another one drawn from real life. In the 2007 biopic “Into the Wild,” Holbrook played Ron Franz, who befriended the movie’s subject, Christopher McCandless, as he traveled through California’s wilderness. Holbrook brought realism to his performance, even to the point of performing his own stunts, such as climbing a rocky slope. “They asked me if I wanted to have a stand-in,” he later related on an NPR segment. The octogenarian declined: “I said, ‘No, of course I don’t. My lord, I want to do it myself.'”

Other roles

Holbrook appeared in dozens of films and TV shows in his decades-long career. He played Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) in the 1974 miniseries “Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln” and again in the 1985 miniseries “North and South,” and decades later, he appeared in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 biopic, “Lincoln,” playing politician Francis Preston Blair. In the groundbreaking 1972 TV movie “That Certain Summer,” he played a gay father coming out to his son. Of his Emmy-nominated role, Holbrook reminisced, “I was an actor clearly not afraid of controversy. … Anything that would make the audience think was worthwhile.” He later starred as the small-town newspaper publisher Evan Evans in the early-1990s TV series “Evening Shade,” and he took recurring roles in “Sons of Anarchy” and “The Event.”

Personal life

Born Feb. 17, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio, Holbrook was a U.S. Army veteran of World War II. He was married three times, the third to actress Dixie Carter (1939–2010). The couple appeared together in the 2009 movie “That Evening Sun,” and Holbrook had a recurring role on Carter’s sitcom, “Designing Women,” playing her character’s boyfriend.

Tributes to Hal Holbrook

Full obituary: The New York Times

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