Veteran actor Hal Holbrook has been performing his one-man Mark Twain show for 58 years and he's bringing the latest incarnation in his ever-changing production back to the Gallo CenterEven though Hal Holbrook has been performing his one-man show "Mark Twain Tonight!" for 58 years, he is still amazed at how relevant Twain's words remain.
Though the humorist died in 1910, his commentary on politics and social issues of the day still hit the mark.
Holbrook recently added a Twain quote to his show referring to lobbyists as the "invisible government" in Washington with headquarters on Wall Street that could have been written today.
"What was going on in the 1870s-1890s is the whole map of what is going on now," Holbrook said in a recent interview. "It is the germination, it is the beginning of the great corporations in this country producing multi-millionaires who then exert their influence on Washington through the lobbyists, where they end up running the country."
Holbrook, 87, returns to the Gallo Center for the Arts in Modesto on Oct. 5 to perform "Mark Twain Tonight!" He last performed the show at the venue in 2009, but audiences shouldn't expect an identical experience this time. Holbrook constantly changes his material, adding and deleting commentary to fit current events.
Holbrook's interpretation of Twain grew out of an honors project he completed at Denison University after World War II. Twain wrote the novels "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and was praised for his public speaking. He was admired by everyone from presidents and European royalty to everyday people.
Holbrook and his first wife Ruby began performing a show featuring characters ranging from Shakespeare to Twain. By 1954, Holbrook began performing the solo show just focusing on Twain. The show gained national fame when Ed Sullivan invited Holbrook to perform on his television program. The show ultimately moved to Broadway in 1966, which led to his Tony Award for best actor.
Holbrook since has performed the production all over the world, while continuing a vibrant acting career with performances in movies and TV shows. He was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Ron Franz in the 2007 movie "Into the Wild" directed by Sean Penn. He recently appeared in the film "Water for Elephants" starring Reese Witherspoon.
He plays journalist Francis Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg's movie "Lincoln," which comes out Nov. 16 and stars Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role.
Holbrook has only seen the trailer and is looking forward to seeing the full movie.
"It was very impressive to work on the set because for one thing, the authenticity everywhere you look was absolutely extraordinary," Holbrook said. "The authenticity from the hair to the costumes to the scenery we shot in Richmond those buildings are all built way back then during the Civil War and before."
Day-Lewis was always in character and was made up to look strikingly like Lincoln.
Lincoln film next big role
The movie deals with the last three or four months of Lincoln's life when he was working to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution to abolish slavery.
"If you go anywhere in this world, Kenya or Siberia, and you ask who is the greatest American who ever lived the answer will be Lincoln," Holbrook said. "He was an extraordinary man and he was from the common folks, he taught himelf to be a lawyer. His mind was embraced in the legal thought processes. His whole approach to the matter of slavery was right down a legal road."
Holbrook also is featured in the Matt Damon movie "Promised Land" about a salesman for a natural gas company. The film is due to come out in January.
Over the last couple of years, he has performed in the TV shows "Sons of Anarchy," "The Event" and "Rectify."
Written his memoirs
Since that didn't keep him busy enough, Holbrook also wrote a 468-page memoir, "Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain," which was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux last year. He's working on a second memoir which picks up after the debut of "Mark Twain Tonight!" where the last book leaves off.
The touching first book talks about his parents abandoning him when he was age 2, his tough experiences in harsh boarding schools and his struggles to build an acting career.
"Was it worth it, this awful struggle to keep going, to survive, no matter what the cost to others, especially my children?" he writes in the epilogue. "I am much older now and I see the full span of that life I started out with and I feel the pain of it in me and the loss to others, and the desperation and the shame. And I am left standing here with one answer: you go down the road your gut tells you to travel. To ignore it is suicide. But you have to try much, much harder not to harm people, not to forget them, and not to let those loved ones drift away."
Holbrook said he wrote the book in response to frequent requests from friends and family members who loved hearing the stories about his life. He also was inspired by an old picture he had displayed in his home of when he was about 10 years old.
"I stopped and looked at that picture one night and saw that this boy was smiling," Holbrook said. "I thought to myself why is that boy smiling? Because I knew what he had gone through and I knew that he was at this New England school that had this weirdo headmaster beating people ... I got a legal tablet and I started writing the book. That's what started it and once I started it, I kept going. It took several years."
Holbrook is almost through writing the first draft of his second memoir but he is having trouble ending it.
"The most awful thing that happened in my life for many many years is when my wife Dixie Carter died two years ago," he said. "That was a big thing to write about."
He has written some 860 pages but he's going to cut it in half. He is able to write in detail about many events of his life because he always has kept journals and extensive files.
Still inspired by Twain
Twain continues to keep Holbrook inspired with his writings about the contrast between the American ideal and the American reality.
Holbrook was struck one day by a quote from Twain from his novel "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" "A privileged class, an aristocracy is merely a band of slave holders under another name."
Today, corporations have so much power, it's scary, Holbrook said.
"I'm not a socialist person but I find myself thinking more that way," he said. "My wife was a Republican. I've voted Republican off and on a few times. I've got nothing against the Republican party, but I just can't forget that Abraham Lincoln said of the people, by the people, for the people. Something has gone."
Twain spurred people to think about who the country is for.
"What is this country supposed to be?" Holbrook said. "Is it a country that is just for rich people to do real well and the other people who are not doing well just have to struggle all the time? Or is this a country where everybody is supposed to have a decent life and we're not supposed to get so greedy that we think we're so special that we have to be rich as Croesus and everybody else go to hell. There's something that is at odds in that philosophy that is at odds with the concept of how this country was put together."
WHAT: Hal Holbrook: "Mark Twain Tonight!"
WHEN: 8 p.m. Oct. 5; 6:30 p.m. pre-show lecture by UC Merced literature professor Gregg Camfield
WHERE: Rogers Theater, Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto. Pre-show lecture is in neighboring Foster Theater.
TICKETS: $19-$69 show; $10 for pre-show lecture
CALL: (209) 338-2100