In Depth

People In Film | Hal Holbrook

Hal Holbrook | The Wise Man of the PROMISED LAND

When producer Chris Moore was looking for the right actor to play the elderly science teacher Frank Yates in PROMISED LAND, he knew there was only one man for the role: Hal Holbrook. “We had to work Hal’s shooting dates around his Mark Twain [one-man show] performance schedule, but there was no question that we were going to,” says Moore. “We knew Hal would just embody Frank as the conscience of the community.” Yates is the man who seeks to question the deal that Steve Butler (Matt Damon) – a representative from the large energy corporation seeking to drill for natural gas in a small Pennsylvania farming community – is offering to his friends and neighbors, and the actor playing him had to have a special gravitas and the wisdom of his years. Holbrook has those qualities in spades, but was particularly drawn to PROMISED LAND because he immediately saw that it had an urgent story to tell, calling it “a movie which had some meaning to it beyond just pure entertainment. The material, the script, is what’s important. That Matt was going to be in it was a big plus, because I admire him; he’s maturing as an actor, and he’s not a showy actor.” While Holbrook enjoyed being part of such an established and talented cast, his fellow actors were awed to be working with someone who, at the age of 87, continues to perform at such an incredibly high level. “As an actor, Hal Holbrook embodies this incredible sturdiness and vulnerability at exactly the same time, which is perfect for this story,” says Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays fellow schoolteacher Alice in the film. “I would get goosebumps watching him. Also, he never blows a line –– we all would, but he’d be letter-perfect every time!”

Hal Holbrook | Making His Mark as an Actor

In the late 1940s, during his time as a young man at Denison University, Hal Holbrook did an honors project on Mark Twain, and so began a lifelong association with the great American writer. Holbrook's project evolved into the one-man show Mark Twain Tonight, which he performed for the first time in 1954. The role of Twain has become the backbone of Holbrook's career: he performed his Twain show off-Broadway in 1959, winning a Drama desk Award; he took it to Broadway in 1966, winning a Tony; and he then adapted Mark Twain Tonight for TV in 1967 and was nominated for an Emmy. Holbrook also recorded an LP of excepts from the show, had the book Mark Twain Tonight: An Actor's Portrait published, and even took to the show to Communist Russia during the Cold War. He has been playing Twain for over 50 years, given over 2000 performances, and indeed was doing Mark Twain Tonight at the same time as making PROMISED LAND. Remarkably, he has performed the show every year for 58 years: Holbrook keeps it fresh by deciding ad hoc each night what he will perform of the 15 hours of Twain material he has memorized. Since the show's inception, the playbill has included a note that reads: “While Mr. Twain’s sections will come from the list below, we have been unable to pin him down as to which of them he will do. He claims this would cripple his inspiration. However, he has generously conceded to a printed program for those who are in distress and wish to fan themselves.” Asked in 2012 by PBS' Bill Moyers why Twain remains so relevant and compelling even today, Holbrook said, "We don't have truth delivered to us very often, especially in this very commercialized world we live in. Mark Twain cuts right straight through that with a knife."

Hal Holbrook | A Political Player

There is a certain quality to Hal Holbrook as an actor – a solidity, a quiet assurance – that has lead to him playing numerous authority figures during his long and illustrious career, many of them politicians. Though Mark Twain is the man he has devoted much of his life to portraying, Holbrook has also spent his fair share of time playing Abraham Lincoln: in 1960s, he played him on stage in Robert Sherwood's Abe Lincoln in Illinois; he won an Emmy for his performance as the Great Emancipator in the mid-1970s TV mini-series Lincoln, based on Carl Sandburg’s biography; and then played Lincoln again a decade later in two further mini-series, North and South and North and South Book II. (Fittingly, he also has a supporting role in Steven Spielberg's biopic Lincoln as the Republican Senator Preston Blair.) As with Twain, playing Lincoln multiple times gave him a profound insight into the man. “When you read books about Lincoln, you find descriptions of all sorts of moods and mannerisms," Holbrook told People in 1974. "He rarely wore a coat at the dinner table. He took his shoes off in his office. When he would tell a story, he would be hunched up in his chair and then he would slap his feet on the floor and laugh. He simply exploded." Holbrook also played a politician (Sen. Johnny Fergus) in Wild in the Streets (1968), one of his first notable movies, and won the first of his five Emmys playing the title role of Senator Hays Stowe in the TV series The Bold Ones: The Senator in 1971. Holbrook also played John Adams in the 1980s miniseries George Washington, the fictional Senator Rupert Hornbeck in the late 1990s film Judas Kiss and, of course, had one of his most famous roles in the political procedural about Watergate, All the President's Men – playing Deep Throat! Continuing the theme of men of position or responsibility, Holbrook's also played doctors (Carried Away), judges (The Star Chamber), lawyers (The Firm), priests (The Fog), cops (Magnum Force), NASA scientists (Capricorn One), and naval captains (Pueblo, for which he won another of his Emmys).

Hal Holbrook | Busy and Busier

In 1990, Hal Holbrook turned 65, an age when most people have already retired and are slowing down. Instead, Holbrook nabbed the principal role of Evan Evans in the TV sitcom Evening Shade, which ran from 1990 to 1994. When that show finished, he took over (albeit briefly) from the late Raymond Burr, playing legal sleuth Will Bill McKenzie in a series of Perry Mason TV movie mysteries. In the early 2000s, he won acclaim for his performances in Men of Honor and The Majestic (playing, of course, more authority figures – a naval officer and a politician, respectively), and his career enjoyed a genuine renaissance in 2007, when he played Ron Franz, a former leather worker who takes Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) under his wing, in Sean Penn's cinematic take on Jon Krakauer's non-fiction bestseller Into the Wild. Holbrook was nominated for numerous awards for his performance, including Best Supporting Actor at the Oscars, and said in an interview that it was “a great moment in my life—it’s a pinnacle!” Javier Bardem, who beat Holbrook to the Oscar that year (for his turn in No Country for Old Men), said that in Into the Wild Holbrook gave “one of the best performances I've ever seen. It broke me into pieces. ...With a mature actor, you see a face totally naked, someone who is just speaking and being in front of the camera, and that is so powerful. That explains why performing is an art, when somebody shows us the sculpture of the human soul. It hits you and makes you wonder what you are." Subsequently, Holbrook received a rare leading role in the 2009 indie That Evening Sun, and won rave reviews for his poignant portrayal of an aging Southern farmer returning to his old abode after spending time in a retirement home. (Variety critic Joe Leydon said that Holbrook gave a "career-highlight star turn as an irascible octogenarian farmer who will not go gentle into that good night.") Holbrook has been constantly busy since then, taking recurring roles in the TV series The Event, Sons of Anarchy and Rectify, as well as film roles in Water for Elephants, Lincoln and, of course, PROMISED LAND. On top of all that, Holbrook recently published the first part of his memoirs, Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain, and is currently writing the second. Asked a few years ago in an interview with IFC about whether he plans to retire, he said, "No, I wouldn’t know how. ...I’m old now, and we can’t figure out yet how I seem to have gotten busier."

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