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Awards & Honors: 2003 National Humanities Medalist

Hal Holbrook

For nearly fifty years Hal Holbrook has been charming audiences with the wit and wisdom of Mark Twain. Twain's outlook never fails to give Holbrook a good show to put on. At seventy-eight, he is eight years past Twain's age as he portrays him in Mark Twain Tonight!

"I chose to do him at seventy because he would have written everything we know," says Holbrook. "It's the image people have of him--the shock of white hair, the white suit, the look of the prow of a ship heading into a storm."

Holbrook was twenty-nine when he first performed as the writer. His original version of Twain sprang from an honors project at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, where he majored in theater. World War II had interrupted his college career while he served in the Army Corps of Engineers.

"This is a relationship that developed as my life developed," says Holbrook. "This voice that I have been given is so powerful I can express my deepest convictions in his words and thoughts, far ahead of anything I could come up with."

Holbrook and his first wife, Ruby Johnson, created a two-person show, playing characters from Shakespeare to Twain. After graduation they toured the school assembly circuit in the Southwest, doing more than three hundred shows in thirty weeks and traveling thirty thousand miles by station wagon. After their daughter Victoria was born, Holbrook used the solo version of Twain to support his family.

In 1954 Holbrook landed a steady job on a television soap opera called The Brighter Day. He pursued his Twain character at night in a Greenwich Village night club. In between learning and performing Twain, he memorized his lines for the soap opera. Then one night, Ed Sullivan saw his Twain performance and invited him on his television show, giving him national exposure.

In 1959, after honing the performance in front of audiences in small towns across the country, Holbrook opened at a small theater off-Broadway. His show got rave reviews. "Mr. Holbrook's material is uproarious, his ability to hold an audience by acting is brilliant," wrote a critic for the New York Times.

Although he is continually changing the show to keep up with the times, Holbrook, who does the research and arranging himself, never updates Twain's original material. "He knew this country," says Holbrook. "The audience will first laugh, then many will think about it--he said that a hundred years ago?"

If Holbrook wants to take on media coverage of current events he need only look at a Twain essay that excoriated the "talkers" in the newspapers. If he wants to comment on corporate greed he is ready with a Twain quote: "We should change the motto of our country from 'In God we trust' to 'In money we trust.'"

Holbrook's reverence for Twain's words has not diminished. "He said things that were smart, wise, and incomparably well put," says Holbrook. He quotes Shelley Fisher Fishkin, a Twain scholar, who wrote in the foreword to the Oxford edition of Twain's speeches, "He defined the rhythms of our prose and the contours of our moral map."

Holbrook has kept up an active career performing in movies, on television, and on stage. He remains a member of the original Lincoln Center Repertory Company, while continuing to do Twain every year. In 1966 he performed Mark Twain Tonight! on Broadway and won a Tony Award and a Drama Critic's Circle Award. He also did the show as a ninety-minute CBS special and won an Emmy.

In 1970, after a dozen plays in New York, he went to Hollywood to star in the series The Senator. In the years since, Holbrook has done fifty television movies and mini-series, been nominated for twelve Emmys, and won five. His movie career began with The Group in 1966. Since then he has appeared in more than thirty films, including Midway, All the President's Men, Julia, Wall Street, and Men of Honor. Since 1984 he has been married to actress and singer Dixie Carter.

Throughout his career, Holbrook has taken time every year to perform his Twain show. He has seen audiences come and go, but they continue to develop a passion for Twain and Holbrook's characterization. "Mark Twain speaks to people," he says, "and they continue to find insights today."

By MR