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Hal Holbrook was born in Cleveland in 1925, but raised mostly in South Weymouth, Massachusetts. When he was 12, he was sent to Culver Military Academy, where he discovered acting as an escape from his disenchantment with authority. He was not the model cadet, but he believes the discipline he learned at Culver saved his life.
In the summer of 1942, he got his first paid professional engagement, playing in The Man Who Came to Dinner at the Cain Park Theatre in Cleveland. That fall, he entered Denison University in Ohio, majoring in Theatre under the tutelage of his lifelong mentor, Edward A. Wright. World War II put him into the Army Engineers for three years.
Mr. Holbrook’s signature Mark Twain characterization grew out of an honors project at Denison after WWII. He and his first wife, Ruby, constructed a two-person show, playing characters from Shakespeare to Twain. After graduation, they toured the school assembly circuit in the Southwest, doing 307 shows in 30 weeks. His first solo performance as Mark Twain was at the Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania in 1954.
That same year, he booked steady work on a daytime television soap opera, The Brighter Day. Mr. Holbrook refined the Twain characterization at a Greenwich Village night club while doing the soap daily. In seven months at the club, he developed his original two hours of material and learned timing. He memorized lines for the soap on the 7th Avenue subway. Ed Sullivan saw him and gave his Twain national television exposure.
In 1959, after five years of researching Mark Twain and honing his material in front of audiences in small towns all over America, he opened at a tiny theatre off-Broadway in New York. Overnight success came as the critics raved. After a 22-week run in New York he toured the country again, performing for President Eisenhower and at the Edinburgh Festival. The State Department sent him to tour Europe, and he became the first American dramatic attraction to go behind the Iron Curtain following World War II.
Word got out that Mr. Holbrook could act his own age. He played Hotspur in Henry IV, Part I at the Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, and Lincoln in Abe Lincoln in Illinois off-Broadway. In 1963, he joined the original Lincoln Center Repertory Company in New York, appearing in Marco Millions, After the Fall, Incident at Vichy, and Tartuffe. His Broadway shows included The Glass Menagerie, The Apple Tree, I Never Sang for My Father, Man of La Mancha, and Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?
In 1966, his second New York stand as Mark Twain (this time on Broadway) won him a Tony Award and a Drama Critics Circle Award. A 1967 CBS television special of Mark Twain Tonight! was watched by 30 million people and nominated for an Emmy Award.
In 1970, he starred in a controversial television series, The Senator, which won five Emmy Awards and was cancelled after one year. He has been nominated for 12 Emmys and won 5, including for The Senator, the telefilm Pueblo (directed by Anthony Page), the miniseries Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln (directed by George Schaefer), and for hosting/narrating Portrait of America. He starred on the series Evening Shade; and guest-starred on shows such as The West Wing, ER, Sons of Anarchy, and Designing Women.
His movie career began with The Group, directed by Sidney Lumet, in 1966. Since then, moviegoers have seen Mr. Holbrook in more than 40 films including Martin Ritt’s The Great White Hope, Ted Post’s Magnum Force,Jack Smight’s Midway,Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men,Fred Zinnemann’s Julia, Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One,John Carpenter’s The Fog,George A. Romero’s Creepshow,Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, Sydney Pollack’s The Firm, George Tillman Jr.’s Men of Honor, Frank Darabont’s The Majestic, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (for which he received Academy Award and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations), Scott Teems’ That Evening Sun, Francis Lawrence’s Water for Elephants, and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.
He has starred on-stage in New York (Buried Inside Extra, The Country Girl, King Lear, An American Daughter) and at regional theatres (Our Town, Uncle Vanya, King Lear, The Merchant of Venice, A Life in the Theatre, and Be My Baby and Southern Comforts, the last two with his wife Dixie Carter). He also played in Death of a Salesman on a national tour.
He has continued to perform Mark Twain every year, including three return New York engagements and a world tour in 1985, the 150th anniversary of Mr. Twain’s birth. As 2012 marked the 59th consecutive year for the remarkable one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight! has become perhaps the longest-running show in theatre history. Mr. Holbrook adds to his Twain material every year, editing and shaping it to seem a commentary on our times. He has no set program; he chooses what he will perform as he goes along.
In June 1980, he competed in the single-handed Transpac Race from San Francisco to Hawaii in his 40-foot sailboat, Yankee Tar, sailing 2,400 miles alone. He has sailed through the South Pacific to Tahiti, New Zealand, the Fiji Islands, and more destinations sometimes with his late wife, Dixie Carter to whom he was married for 26 years before she passed away in 2010.
He has received Honorary Doctor of Humanities Degrees from Ohio State and the University of Hartford; an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Ursinus College; an Honorary Doctor of Letters from Elmira College; and Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts Degrees from Kenyon College and his alma mater, Denison University. In 1996, he received the Edwin Booth Award, and in 1998 he received the William Shakespeare Award from The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC. In 2000, he was inducted into the New York Theatre Hall of Fame; in 2003, he received the National Humanities Medal from the U.S. President; and in 2010, he received a medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Harold, the first of two volumes of his memoirs, was published in 2011. Living in Los Angeles and Tennessee, Mr. Holbrook continues to work on the second volume.