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First of all, Hal was the most authentic person I have ever worked with. You could not catch him acting. He literally vibrated with humanity and felt everything so deeply — which is what made him such a sublime comedian. My husband (director Harry Thomason) used to say, “Don’t ever tell Hal your dog died, or you’ll spend the rest of the day consoling him.”
Hal had a kind of raw elegance, classing up every room he entered. You could dress him in rags, and he would still appear to be an important person. His often harsh life and gratitude for all the in-between gifts were written on his face.
On Designing Women (playing, Dixie Carter’s romantic partner), he was our dazzling “artist in residence,” though he acted more like an audience member — perpetually awe-struck by that splendidly uncommon cast. On Evening Shade (where he played Burt Reynolds’ father-in-law and, I believe, helped him win a first-season Emmy), Hal was our North Star — the guy you could always check in with to see if you’re still on course.
His résumé has been widely recounted this week — the seminal film roles, all of his awards — including five Emmys and a Tony — along with his brilliant, 60-year inhabitance of Mark Twain (traveling all over the world, carrying his own suitcase) in what is surely the longest-running tribute from one artist to another. I will never forget Hal’s excitement upon learning that I was being inducted into the Missouri Hall of Fame, next to Twain. Or his righteous insistence that this happy bit of kismet was dictated by divine justice and not just alphabetical order. It was the only performance he ever gave that I didn’t believe.
Undoubtedly, for him, his marriage to Dixie Carter eclipsed all other enterprises. You could see the fire between them, onscreen and off. It was the real deal and it burned until the day she died. On show nights, especially if Dixie had a long Julia Sugarbaker rant, we had to make sure Hal was positioned far from audience mics, which would have picked up all his “atta-girl!” whooping and clapping.
She treated him like a national treasure, always calling him, “Mr. Holbrook.” He looked at her like a kid who asked a girl to the prom and still can’t believe she said yes.
Dixie loved to throw fancy dinner parties, often appearing late, at the top of the stairs — bejeweled and wearing a silk caftan. Inevitably, she would lean over the railing and, in that famous, flirty staccato, exclaim, “Oh, my goodness! What’s going on down there? Is there a party?” Then later in the evening she would drape herself across the grand piano (as she often did while performing at the Carlyle) and sing a bundle of Cole Porter lyrics while shooting her besotted husband just the right amount of finely honed, naughty looks. To most people, this all might seem a bit much. But Hal and Dixie pulled it off without a hitch. In fact, you got the feeling they did this even when we were not around.
Someone recently asked if I believed Hal would be meeting up with Mark Twain in heaven. I have no clue or theory regarding afterlife shenanigans. But if I know Hal, he would not be heading for Twain. I prefer conjuring up a whole different scenario. One that fades in with Hal arriving somewhere in the blue yonder, only to be greeted by a raven-haired beauty — with a silken, honey-dipped voice, “Oh, my goodness! I had no idea! Is that you Mr. Holbrook? Is there a party?” Leaving the rest of us to shake our heads and smile. There is now.
Linda Bloodworth Thomason is a writer, director and TV producer who created the series Designing Women and Evening Shade.
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