Hal Holbrook is an Emmy and Tony Award winning actor, best known for his portrayal of Mark Twain. After serving 3 years in World War II, Holbrook resumed his college education where the Mark Twain characterization grew out of an honors project at Denison University in Ohio. Holbrook’s first solo appearance as Mark Twain was at the Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania in 1954. By now he was pounding the pavements in New York searching for work as an actor and the Twain show was his desperate alternative to selling hats or running elevators to keep his family alive. But that same year, fortune struck by way of a job on a daytime radio and television soap opera, The Brighter Day. At night Holbrook pursued the Twain character in a Greenwich Village night club while doing the soap daytimes. He developed his original two hours of material in the curve of a baby grand piano and learned timing. Finally, Ed Sullivan saw him at the club and gave his Twain national television exposure.
In 1959, after five years of researching the character and honing his material in front of countless audiences in small towns all over America, he opened at a tiny theatre off-Broadway in New York. He was a stunning success, as stunning to Holbrook as anyone else. “The critics wentwild.” (Associated Press). “Mr. Holbrook’s material is uproarious, his ability to hold an audience by acting is brilliant.” (New York Times). “Uncanny. A dazzling display of virtuosity.” (The New Yorker). “One of the treasures of the American Theatre.” (Life Magazine).
Holbrook quit the soap opera. After a 22-week run in New York with Twain he toured the country again, performed for President Eisenhower and at the Edinburgh Festival. The State Dept. sent him on a tour of Europe where he was the first American dramatic attraction after World War II to appear behind the Iron Curtain.
Holbrook turned to Shakespeare at Stratford, Connecticut; then Lincoln in Abe Lincoln In Illinois off-Broadway. In 1963 he joined the original Lincoln Center Repertory Company in New York. Starring roles on Broadway came along. Meanwhile, he continued to do Mark Twain every year and in 1966, on Broadway, his second New York engagement won him a Tony Award and a Drama Critic’s Circle Award, followed in 1967 by a ninety-minute CBS television special of Mark Twain Tonight! which was nominated for an Emmy Award and seen by an audience of 30 million people.
Since then Mr. Holbrook has done over 50 television movies and mini-series, 2 sitcoms, been nominated for 12 Emmys and won 5. Moviegoers have seen Holbrook in more than 40 films, including Sean Penn’s Into the Wild for which he received an Academy Award nomination and That Evening Sun and yet to be released, Flying Lessons, Good Day for It and Water for Elephants. He has constantly returned to the stage in New York and at regional theatres in such demanding roles as King Lear, Shylock, Uncle Vanya and Willy Loman.
But Holbrook has never been able to quit Mark Twain and probably never will. He has toured the show in some part of every year since 1954, including a third New York engagement in 1977 and a fourth in 2005, and a world tour in 1986. The year 2011 is the 57th consecutive year for this remarkable one man show. On January 17, 2004 he marked his 2000th performance in Germantown, Tennessee. Mark Twain Tonight! has become perhaps the longest running show in theatre history. Holbrook adds to his Twain material every year, editing and changing it to fit the times and has mined over fifteen hours of Twain with more coming all the time. He has no set program – he chooses material as he goes along.
Mr. Holbrook has sailed extensively in the South Pacific in his 40-foot sailboat, Yankee Tar, including the 1980 Single-handed race to Hawaii. He lives in Los Angeles and Tennessee and with his late wife, actress/singer Dixie Carter, has five children