Hal Holbrook: Twain and Deep Throat — decades of movies, TV and theater, dies at 95

director Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild.” (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Just go to this link and check out the man’s filmography. Hal Holbrook had a very long, deep and interesting career. Like others we’ve spent this winter of 2021 mourning, he was active a very long time, made many memorable roles his own and became famous — late in life — for just being a grand voice of age in movies and on TV.

I interviewed him a few times over the years, the last time when he was up for an Oscar for “Into the Wild,” which wasn’t even close to his last performance, even if it was one of his twinkling finest.

“Lincoln” for Spielberg after playing “Lincoln” on TV, a Dirty Harry movie villain, “The Fog” and of course, “All the President’s Men.” “That Evening Sun,” “Capricorn One,” the list is endless. Or nearly endless.

He was the first guy ever to use “I’d tellya, but I might have to killya if I did” when I jokingly asked him about who the man later ID’d as FBI Agent Mark Felts was. Holbrook’s “Deep Throat” in “All the President’s Men” enter myth, a Harry Lime shadow, lit by a cigarette in a DC parking garage, saving democracy by verifying one Republican misdeed at a time for The Washingon Post.

That interview was back in the ’90s, when he stopped off on one of his many tours as “Mark Twain Tonight!” to speak to students at a conservatory I used to cover in Winston-Salem, NC.

He was just hilarious on the phone years later when I interviewed his wife Dixie Carter about her cabaret show, which she toured the country (Florida included) with. A “Designing Woman” with an authentic “Evening Shade” drawl, she gave Holbrook added Southern bonafides, as he was told me while he called her to the phone and filled the time as we both waited for The Lady. Delightful.

Our last chat, for “Into the Wild,” was a phoner that took place as he waited for her tro finish an appointment at a Houston hospital. Dixie was sick with the cancer that killed her shortly afterwards, but he put on a brave face.

A grand old man who will be remembered for a LOT of films, fondly remembered. Rest in Peace, Mr. Twain.

Here’s that 2010 interview, timed to the release of “That Evening Sun,” a phrase I can hear him drawling through still — “I hate to see that evenin’ sun go down.”

Hal Holbrook isn’t a Southerner. He was born in Ohio. But he has spent much of his life impersonating a famous Southerner — Mark Twain, on the stage. He has spent time in the South. Lots of it, from the 1940s onward.

“And I married into it,” he cracks. He has been married to singer and actress Dixie Carter since 1984.

The marriage was the most helpful of all when it came time to play Abner Meacham, the cantankerous Tennessee farmer and store owner who busts out of a retirement home determined to reclaim his farm from the new tenants in the indie film That Evening Sun , now showing in some cities. It wasn’t Twain that Holbrook channeled to play Abner. It was his late father-in-law.

“[Halbert] ‘Cart’ Carter was a short man brought up in a small town — Republican,” Holbrook says in storytelling cadences polished by decades of one-man shows. “I learned to avoid certain subjects, especially with a man who loved to talk about his prowess with a knife. And about the fights he’d won, and how he could punch somebody out. He was full of advice about that sort of thing.

” ‘Cart, why is it you had to fight so much when you were young?’

” ‘Hal,’ he says, ‘there weren’t any policemen around to settle things.’ This was in McLemoresville, Tennessee, where they lived. He says, ‘The closest police were in Milan, 12-15 miles away. If you got into something, you had to settle it yourself.’

“That was integral to my approach to Abner Meacham. Even at his age, he had to settle this dispute himself. He wasn’t going to go call on anybody.”

Because of that father-in-law connection, Holbrook took extra care to be very specific about the accent in That Evening Sun, which was shot in Tennessee. “My wife, Dixie [of TV’s Designing Women], went over every syllable with me!”

Reviews for the film have been glowing, with The New York Daily News noting that “a twitch of his jowl is all Holbrook needs to convey hard-earned experience.”

We were reminded of Holbrook’s folksy charms by the Oscar nomination he landed for Into the Wild a couple of years ago. But the upshot of that acclaim is “I’m working harder than I ever have in my life. I don’t understand what in hell is going on. I am going to be 85 in February. I had to give up sailing. Not just because I’m not strong enough to take a boat across the ocean. I don’t have time.

“I did two small films in September and November. And I’m still doing Twain, 20 or so times this year. I like to do him 30 times a year, but in this economy…”

With Holbrook, it always comes back to Twain, the writer/humorist/philosopher whom he studies constantly, updating his Mark Twain Tonight act with Twain’s timeless riffs on Americans and the American condition.

“There isn’t anybody that I know who put it down more clearly and more accurately, what we are as people, than Mark Twain. I cannot get over the miracle of what this man had to say about our lives, our civilization.

“Nobody tells the truth any more. That’s one of the chief reasons my show works. People are surprised at hearing the truth spoken. And because they’re surprised, they laugh. Because it’s funny.”

He recites a bit from the “Money is God” portion of the act, a section added to include Twain’s thoughts on recessions and “panics,” of which he lived through a few.

“‘A blight has fallen upon us. And the monarchy of the rich and the powerful are the authors.'”

Holbrook pauses and chuckles.

“That’s the double whammy. You watch the show and you think ‘This guy’s alive and he’s talking about this scoundrel or that one.’ Then five seconds later you remember, ‘Wait a minute. He died 100 years ago.’ “

His old friend and sometime collaborator, stage director Gerald Freedman, says that after doing the act and polishing his Twain for 50 years, “Now, when he is on stage it is hard to remember that he is acting Mark Twain.” Holbrook has become his character. Freedman marvels that well into his 80s Holbrook still totally commits to a part and seems “to be truly living in the moment.”

Holbrook has a biography coming out later this year, and he’s working on another volume of that, too. When you’re about to hit 85, you’ve been acting since the 1940s, and have covered as much theatrical, TV and cinematic ground as he has, one book wouldn’t cover everything.

There are more films, he hopes. And more shots at Twain. He’s about to hang up the phone to reread some more of Bernard DeVoto’s book, Mark Twain in Eruption. “Homework,” he says.

“Why quit? The man’s got as much to say to us as he ever did. And people still want to listen.”

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Hal Holbrook: Twain and Deep Throat — decades of movies, TV and theater, dies at 95

  1. Mo says:

    Loved his appearance on The Sopranos as well. One of the best one-episode performances in a show full of great ones.

    For those wondering, he played John Schwinn, the physicist who befriended Tony in the hospital in Season 6A

Comments are closed.