Why Hal Holbrook Wants to Keep Touring With 'Mark Twain Tonight'

Mark Twain Tonight! Production Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Hal Holbrook

Mark Twain Tonight! Production Still - H 2016

The 91-year-old spoke about the lifelong role that won him a Tony Award and the importance of maintaining the tradition of acting.

While still a student at Ohio's Denison University, Hal Holbrook was recommended for the part of Mark Twain by a drama professor. A stranger to the author’s work, he thought it sounded like the corniest idea in the world, so he politely passed. But a couple of years later in 1954, after becoming an out-of-work father, Holbrook revisited the idea.

Since then, he has toured with his iconic one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight, for 61 years. Sixty-two, if you count the Feb. 11 program at Santa Monica’s Broad Stage benefiting The Actors Fund, with a stellar honorary committee including Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Sean Penn, Oliver Stone and Louise Taper.

A 12-time Emmy nominee (with four wins), Holbrook has starred in more than 40 features and earned an Oscar nod for 2007’s Into the Wild. A week away from his 92nd birthday, the iconic actor spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the lifelong role that won him a Tony Award and the importance of maintaining the age-old tradition of acting.

At your age, you don’t need to keep touring. Why do it?

I just regard myself as a part of a long, historical tradition, a very fine tradition of actors. People today don’t give a goddamn about that, kid. They all want to be movie stars. I’m talking about the tradition of going out and working your ass off on the road, which is what actors have been doing for centuries.

How do you keep it fresh?

The world keeps it fresh. The human race keeps acting like a bunch of asses and fools, all you got to do is look at what’s going on. Mark Twain wrote about all this — you and me and our behavior and our misguided ideas about who we are, the lies we tell each other, the lies we tell ourselves, it’s a part of our history. And Mark Twain, people dismiss him cause they thought he was being funny. Yeah, it’s funny. It’s funny up to the point where it’s not funny.

Like when you played the University of Mississippi in 1962 when James Meredith was enrolled and 5,000 troops were sent to quell race riots.

By the time I got there, there were mortars at the entrance gates to Ole Miss and troops walking around with carbines. It was weird. I was scared. I had to bet on the fact that I had played through the South for several years and the silence in the audience meant to me that something was going on that people were not talking about. In those days, you didn’t open your mouth and say that you were against lynching Negroes, cause otherwise your drugstore would be set on fire that night. It was no joke.

So what did you do?

I had to decide — in the second act, the stuff about slavery and the cowardice of allowing slavery to exist — I had to be careful, I had to bet on the audience. So I did the whole nine yards and they took it. And after the show was over about 200 people came back. And this little old lady, she was with her preacher in the middle of the crowd, and she said to me, "Mr. Holbrook, I think you gave us a better sermon tonight than we had in church last Sunday."

Some of these tensions still persist, as with the Academy, which has come under fire for the lack of diversity in the acting categories.

I think they should be criticized. Have you seen Straight Outta Compton? Have you seen Beasts of No Nation? That little boy, if he didn’t get a nomination, there’s something wrong with them. I’m an actor, for chrissakes, I know what the hell acting’s about. The boy needs to be nominated.

Do you see a bias at work?

I do think, honestly, that there is some influence in us because we’re all racists. This is a racist country. This country is a racist country and has been since the first slaves came into this country. It’s taken a hell of a long time for us to get to the point where we start to treat black people the way they should be treated.

What would Twain make of our current campaign season?

He said there’s probably no distinguishing criminal class in America except Congress. He excoriated politicians because they are liars and have been liars for decades and decades. If they’re not liars, they must be idiots. Anyone listening to the people running for president, anyone listening to them right now has to wonder if he’s really hearing what he’s hearing.

And what do you think of Washington outsiders like Donald Trump?

Oh, for chrissakes, Donald Trump is an ass. He’s a jackass. The trouble with politicians, almost every single one of them, except Bernie Sanders, they always say what they think might get them elected. They’re not telling the truth. If they’re telling the truth, they must be the stupidest bunch of people ever born on the face of the earth, and should be put on a barge somewhere.