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Remembering Hal Holbrook, Actor Who Famously Portrayed Mark Twain

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Hal Holbrook, the stage and screen actor most famous for portraying Deep Throat in the movie "All The President's Men" and for his Tony-winning one-man stage show as Mark Twain, died on January 23. He was 95 years old. In the movies and on television, Holbrook had a very impressive and very long resume. In the '70s alone, his landmark TV roles included playing an idealistic senator in "The Bold Ones" and a divorced father embarking on a gay relationship in "That Certain Summer." He won five Emmys in all, and he also earned an Oscar nomination for his supporting actor work in the 2007 film "Into The Wild."

Near the end of his career, Holbrook did memorable TV guest spots on such shows as "The West Wing," playing an assistant secretary of state, and in 2006, "The Sopranos." He played a scientist who was a patient in the same hospital ward as Tony Soprano, watching a boxing match on TV with Tony, Paulie Walnuts and some other patients and visitors. They're all watching the same fight, but Holbrook's character sees what's happening between the two boxers in his own unique way.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

JAMES GONDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) You were saying.

HAL HOLBROOK: (As John Schwinn) Well, think of the two boxers as ocean waves or currents of air - two tornadoes, say. They appear to be two things, right? Two separate things. But they're not. See - tornadoes is just wind, the wind stirred up in different directions. The fact is, nothing is separate. Everything is connected.

LORD JAMAR: (As Da Lux) Everything is everything. I'm down with that.

GONDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Get the [expletive] out of here.

(CROSSTALK)

HOLBROOK: (As John Schwinn) The universe is just a big soup of molecules bumping up against one another. The shapes we see exist only in our own consciousness.

JAMAR: (As Da Lux) Keshawn, don't make me come over there.

TONY SIRICO: (As Paulie Gualtieri) If you're so [expletive] smart, fix that TV.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Yet Hal Holbrook's most impressive achievement as an actor by far was portraying Mark Twain on stage. With a script based entirely on the letters of Samuel Clemens and the stories and essays published under his pen name of Mark Twain, Holbrook played Twain at age 70. Holbrook performed "Mark Twain Tonight!" more than 2,000 times before retiring in 2017, when he was 92. Holbrook kept changing the material and reshaping the show to fit the times as he traveled the country. He brought "Mark Twain Tonight!" to Broadway three times, winning a Tony Award for his portrayal in 1966. Here are some moments which capture Twain's wit.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MARK TWAIN TONIGHT!")

HOLBROOK: (As Mark Twain) I'm not lying to you. I don't tell lies. I differ from George Washington.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLBROOK: (As Mark Twain) I have a higher and grander standard of principle. George could not tell a lie. I can, but I won't.

(APPLAUSE)

HOLBROOK: (As Mark Twain) When I was a boy of 14, my father was so stupid, I could scarcely stand to have the old man around.

(LAUGHTER)

HOLBROOK: (As Mark Twain) And by the time I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in the last seven years.

(APPLAUSE)

BIANCULLI: I interviewed Hal Holbrook in 2009, when his movie "That Evening Sun" was in theaters. One of his co-stars in that film was his wife, Dixie Carter, who died the following year. In "That Evening Sun," Holbrook plays Abner Meecham, a crusty old Tennessee farmer who slips away from his nursing home and returns to the farm he used to run with his late wife. Abner's son has rented the farm to his father's old enemy, and Abner wants it back. In this scene, Abner's son - played by Walton Goggins from "Justified" - is basically telling Abner that his life is over and he should just give up the farm.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THAT EVENING SUN")

WALTON GOGGINS: (As Paul Meecham) There's nothing out there for you anymore, Dad. Things change. Life goes on, and you got to go on with it. There ain't any more to it than that.

HOLBROOK: (As Abner Meecham) Life goes on, huh?

GOGGINS: (As Paul) For those who let it.

HOLBROOK: (As Abner) I'm an 80-year-old man with a bum hip and a weak heart. How much life you think I got left to go on with? I'm no fool, Paul. The road ahead ain't long, and it ain't winding. It's short and straight as a goddamned poisoned arrow. But it's all I got, and I deserve to do with it as I please. And what makes me so angry is that I cut and scraped and did without so that you could go to an expensive school and learn a trade, which you now seem intent on using to do me out of what has taken me a lifetime to accumulate. This must be God's finest joke.

GOGGINS: (As Paul) So you're angry at me for getting an education.

HOLBROOK: (As Abner) I'm angry at you for not caring about the only thing left that matters to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BIANCULLI: Hal Holbrook, welcome to FRESH AIR.

HOLBROOK: Thank you. Thank you. Good to be with you, David.

BIANCULLI: I have to ask you about one sequence in "That Evening Sun." It's flashbacks of you with your late wife in the movie, who's played by your real-life wife, Dixie Carter. And it's just scenes of you two, you know, embracing each other, caressing each other, looking at each other.

HOLBROOK: Dancing. Dancing, yeah.

BIANCULLI: And dancing. And it just seems so tender and so intimate. What was the camera actually capturing there?

HOLBROOK: They were just capturing me and Dixie (laughter). We weren't acting. We weren't acting at all. We were just enjoying - we were just loving each other's presence and face and eyes and everything. That's all.

BIANCULLI: Your most famous film role, I think, is a very small one, but so indelible and so iconic. I'm talking about your playing Deep Throat in the 1976 movie version of "All The President's Men." You're only in a few scenes, but boy, you know, what scenes. I'm going to play one. Here you are meeting Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, played by Robert Redford, in an underground parking garage.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN")

HOLBROOK: (As Deep Throat) Forget the myths the media's created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.

ROBERT REDFORD: (As Bob Woodward) Hunt's come in from the cold. Supposedly, he's got a lawyer with $25,000 in a brown paper bag.

HOLBROOK: (As Deep Throat) Follow the money.

REDFORD: (As Bob Woodward) What do you mean? Where?

HOLBROOK: (As Deep Throat) Oh, I can't tell you that.

REDFORD: (As Bob Woodward) But you could tell me that.

HOLBROOK: (As Deep Throat) No, I have to do this my way. You tell me what you know, and I'll confirm. I'll keep you in the right direction if I can. But that's all. Just follow the money.

BIANCULLI: That's Hal Holbrook and Robert Redford in "All The President's Men." Now, what are your memories, first of all, of filming that?

HOLBROOK: Well, I'll tell you a story that - before the filming started up, I was offered this role, and I turned it down because it was so small.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

HOLBROOK: I thought, oh, this is nothing. It's nothing. And the guy's in the dark. I mean, what the heck? So I turned it down. And I knew Bob Redford very well. We were good friends. And so Bob come over to the house. And he said, Hal, I want to promise you that this role will be remembered more than anything in the film. And I said, come on; you got to be - are you kidding? (Laughter) There's nothing to it. He said Hal, believe me. Believe me. So I said, well, OK, Bob. If you feel that way, OK. OK, I'll do it. So that was another gift (laughter) from a friend of mine because he was right.

BIANCULLI: Now, did either Robert Redford or Bob Woodward, who was visiting the set from time to time, give you any clues about how to play Deep Throat?

HOLBROOK: What was important about this character to me - I visualized somebody different from Mr. Felt, who turned out to be the man later.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, Mark Felt, the former FBI deputy director.

HOLBROOK: Yeah, I visualized - yeah, Mark Felt. I visualized someone more like of a sophisticated type of - you know, like Clark Clifford, an elder statesman who had served several presidents of either party. In other words, he was not tied down to serving a president of the Republican Party. He had an experience in government. And now he was faced with an extraordinary choice between his allegiance to his president and his allegiance to his country.

BIANCULLI: My favorite thing that I think you have done in your career is playing Mark Twain for more than 50 years onstage and once, quite memorably, on television. Next year, 2010, is the 100th anniversary of Twain's death. What does that say to you that you can still find so much about Mark Twain to say about today's times?

HOLBROOK: He never has ceased to astound me. And astound is the only word I can come up with. He had a bead on the corruption that went on late in his lifetime in this country. I mean, the corruption is so similar to what's going on today.

You know, I'll give you an - see if I can remember it. It's been - I'm just trying to learn it. But it's from "What Is Man? And Other Essays." And he says, it's a strange panic we're in. It's like a blight that has fallen upon us, as if a mighty machine had slipped its belt and was still running and accomplishing nothing. An atmosphere of fear has spread around the land. The phrase laying off has become common. The laying off of a thousand, two and 3,000 men has become familiar. But there is a more disastrous laying off going on all over America - the discharging of one out of every three employee in every humble small shop and industry from one end of the United States to the other.

BIANCULLI: Hal, there's two things that stunned me about that. One is that - just it's so fresh after so many years that it's so vital to today. The other one, I imagine how much work it takes for you as the shaper and the actor in "Mark Twain Tonight" to constantly go back to his material, constantly revise what you're presenting onstage and to memorize it. How do you do all that?

HOLBROOK: (Laughter) I stay up late. I am driven to do it. I enjoy it. It's hard work. I have to lose a lot of sleep. I cannot give up. I cannot stop worrying about what's going on with our country and the world because I think that this country we live in is now at a far more crucial and critical moment in its history than it has ever been in.

BIANCULLI: Hal Holbrook, I just want to thank you so much for being on FRESH AIR today. Thank you.

HOLBROOK: Thank you, David. I really enjoyed talking with you.

BIANCULLI: Actor Hal Holbrook, recorded in 2009. The Emmy and Tony-winning actor died January 23 at the age of 95. After a break, our film critic Justin Chang reviews two new European movies competing for best international film at this year's Oscars. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUIS SCLAVIS' "DANS LA NUIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.