The other night Elaine and I got a rare treat – to see Hal Holbrook perform his incomparable one-man show as Mark Twain at the Thousand Oaks Civic Center.
We were third-row center and it was a phenomenal performance, with Twain as timely as ever, speaking out against corporations, bank fraud, unemployment and war.
Twain has long been one of my favorite writers and I actually own both the American and British first editions of HUCKLEBERRY FINN from 1885.
I’ve loved Hal Holbrook’s performance as Twain since I first saw it on TV when I was a kid in 1967. Elaine saw him onstage in the role around then, during the Vietnam War. It was such a blistering and controversial performance that one man in the audience stood up and yelled, “Piss on you, Mark!” and stormed out of the theater. Holbrook said nothing until the man departed, then – still in character – made a rejoinder about some people getting too hot in the kitchen, a quote directly from Twain.
Holbrook started performing as Twain when he was in his twenties, and it took three hours to apply the makeup to transform him into the seventy-year-old writer (who died in 1910 at age 75, one hundred years ago).
Now Holbrook is 85, actually ten years older than Twain, so no age makeup is needed (just a prosthetic nose, eyebrows and a moustache).
During the 1967 CBS telecast, Holbrook was made up by the legendary makeup genius Dick Smith, who also made up Dustin Hoffman as a centenarian for LITTLE BIG MAN (I guess with my friend Norman Corwin’s 100th birthday this past Monday it’s my week for writing about centenarians).
Incredibly, the man sitting next to me the other evening at MARK TWAIN TONIGHT was Dick Smith himself, now 88 and still fascinating and utterly charming. He told me he took up makeup because he had an unhappy, friendless childhood and figured makeup would help win him friends – which it did, in spades.
After the show, we went backstage to talk with Hal Holbrook. I was so impressed with him and moved by the fact that he’d just lost his beloved wife Dixie Carter. Many of his dear friends were backstage to congratulate and comfort him, including Delta Burke, with whom he and his wife had acted on DESIGNING WOMEN.
Even after hours on stage, Holbrook was courtly and clear-minded as ever, taking time to speak to the many well-wishers. I told him that when I was researching THE TWILIGHT ZONE COMPANION years ago, the show’s brilliant cinematographer George Clemens told me he was a relative of Mark Twain (whose real name was Samuel Clemens) and that he recalled when he was a boy meeting Twain, who gave him a signed complete edition of his works.
What an honor and a pleasure to witness one of the greatest actors of our time bringing alive one of the greatest writers who ever lived.
And Holbrook’s no slouch as a writer, either. Check out his book MARK TWAIN TONIGHT! AN ACTOR’S PORTRAIT, first published in 1959. I brought my copy along with me and got both Holbrook and Dick Smith to sign it. What a wonderful time!
To read more about Holbrook and his performance, log onto http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/culturemonster/2010/05/hal-holbrook-speaks-out-against-republican-party-leaders.html
And to watch Holbrook perform Twain from the landmark 1967 broadcast check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F_rTMNnxwSE
All good thoughts your way,