Hal Holbrook, Known for His Legendary Portrayal of American Author Mark Twain, Dies at 95

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Hal Holbrook, Known for His Legendary Portrayal of American Author Mark Twain, Dies at 95

By Movieguide® Staff

Hal Holbrook, an award-winning actor, acclaimed for his one-man stage performance American literary icon Mark Twain and career in movies and television, died at the age of 95, on Jan 23.  

Holbrook’s assistant, Joyce Cohen, confirmed with the New York Times that the actor died in his home in Beverly Hills, California.

Holbrook had significant success in Television and movies. Holbrook is known for his movie roles ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN in 1976 and Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN in 2012—which Movieguide® nominated for an Epiphany Prize at the Movieguide® Awards Gala. 

On the small-screen, Holbrook portrayed the 16th U.S. president himself in Carl Sandburg’s 1974 mini-series, LINCOLN, which won him one of his five Emmy awards.   

However, Holbrook’s claim to fame was his portrayal of Mark Twain in his solo stage show, “Mark Twain Tonight.” Holbrook, who starred in and directed the play, won the Tony for best actor in 1966. Holbrook appeared in his legendary role more than 2,200 times, and the show returned to Broadway in 1977 and 2005.   

The New York Times reported

He had more or less perfected the role by 1954… Two years later he took his Twain to television, performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show.”

By then the metamorphosis was complete. With his shambling gait, Missouri drawl, sly glances and exquisite timing, Hal Holbrook had, for all intents and purposes, become Mark Twain.

‘After watching and listening to him for five minutes,’ Arthur Gelb wrote in The New York Times, ‘it is impossible to doubt that he is Mark Twain, or that Twain must have been one of the most enchanting men ever to go on a lecture tour.’

But for Mr. Holbrook, the Mark Twain guise he put on every night was a mask; behind it, he wrote in his memoir, was a lonesomeness that had plagued his early life, beginning when his parents abandoned him as a small child. As an adult he found his marriage, his fatherhood and even his stage life caught in an existential deadlock, with “survival and suicide impulses working in tandem.” His escape, he said, was punishing amounts of work, not to mention the company of friends like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

In his memoir, Mr. Holbrook described an emotional low point in the early 1950s. He was sitting in a hotel room at the end of a long day, still undecided about doing an all-Mark Twain show and feeling lost, when he began rereading “Tom Sawyer” for the first time since high school.

‘You heard the voices coming right off the page,’ he wrote. ‘This was a surprise, and after a while I began to feel pleasant with myself and that was a surprise, too. Bitterness receded and in its place a boy came crowding in, his friends came in and his family, and it wasn’t very long before I did not feel so lonely anymore. Mark Twain had cheered me up.’

Holbrook is survived by his three children, two stepdaughters, along with two grandchildren and two step-grandchildren.