When Hal Holbrook was named "Man of the Year" in 1967, the spring issue of the Alumnus that year devoted its cover story to the man from the class of `42 who had gained so much noteriety for his stage and television performances. Since then, of course, Holbrook's reputation has only grown, and he was one of two Culver alums to receive the Academy award nod, for his performance in 2007's "Into the Wild." Here we re-present the Alumnus feature on Holbrook from 1967 as well as a review of his "Mark Twain: Tonight!" from the same issue, and then-superintendent Delmar T. Spivey's comments on the occasion. Click any image to enlarge.
The Problem Is To Get Out From Under The Wig
By Robert Reichley, Alumnus editor
IN New York in mid-April, there was a significant change in the cast of one of the season’s brightest Broadway shows. Alan Alda, playing one of the leads in The Apple Tree, was replaced by Hal Holbrook, ‘42. Alda’s part is a singing role. Holbrook is not a singer, or, at least he wasn’t until he began intensive rehearsals for the show in March.
It can be reasonably asked why Holbrook, non-singer, would take on a musical comedy. He has just won the greatest acclaim of his acting career portraying a 70-year-old American author. Holbrook himself hoped that 15 million television viewers would see him do his Mork Twoin Tonight! in March. The ratings said it was 30 million. And the critics called Mork Twoin Tonight!, a 90-minute CBS special, the best program of this, or perhaps any, television season.
Furthermore, Hal Holbrook, Culver Man of the Year, has already won the Antoinette Perry Award—the theater’s version of the movies’ “Oscar”—for Mark Twain. For this and many years to come, Holbrook has struck a vein of gold. Why isn’t he mining it? Says he:
“Because I’ll never be able to satisfy myself until I prove myself without that wig on.”
THE GLASS MENAGERIE featured Holbrook with Shirley Booth and Barbara Loden. Holbrook played the role of the gentleman caller. “Once, in the middle of the night,” says Holbrook, “it occurred to me this guy was my age — he could be me. The next rehearsal I played the role straight and I commented on the lines rather than build a new character. It was a new field — and, God, it was fun.”
For a man who has been inordinately successful in portraying old men, it is not easy to dispense with a good thing and learn to sing. Almost before the critics lavished praise on him for the Twain television special, Holbrook was offered a television series in which he would play an irascible old man who owns a television station in a small town in Maine. The old man would say witty things, just like Twain. Holbrook said no. He has said no before, and it is getting easier. When the decision was made to do the 90-minute TV special, the dialogue with some New York television people at one point went something like this:
“You see, it’s only one man, Hal-baby. And you got 90 minutes . . . and you know it’s different from the theater. I know you were big in Wahoo, Nebraska, but you got to understand this, Hal: on television, that knob is only inches away. And that hand will reach out and turn you off. Now what you need, Hal-baby, is steamboats going by in the background . . . see and I think we should take you outside on a bluff over-looking the Mississippi and, Hal, we’ll do some of the show from there.”
Hal said no.
Holbrook knew what he was doing with Mork Twoin Tonight! As he says, he has rehearsed it for 12 years. Not even he can say exactly how many times he’s played Twain, but it numbers in the Ihousands. He has brought the show to New York three times. This time he gave Broadway and television something he claims it doesn’t get often enough: a perfected, polished show. No steamboats or Mississippi River bluffs were needed, and Holbrook knew it.
While he claims he is not at ease in the New York rat race and is basically a shy and retiring person, Holbrook is very definite about his career. He is not going to bleed Mark Twain to death.
“As an actor, my problem is to put Mark Twain in the proper, personal perspective. I don’t want to devote myself year in and year out to doing Mark Twain. I’m happy about the show—I’d be an idiot not to be. But now I’ll be deluged with offers to squeeze everything I can out of the show. I’ve been through it before and I’m going to spend a great deal of time explaining to people why I don’t want to do a Twain television series or to do the show over and over again.
“My problem as an actor is to broaden myself, to get opportunities that will allow me to be what I started out to be—an actor. It’s taken me seven years since I first did Twain on Broadway to get out of those woods and to be thought of as more than just a guy who does Mark Twain.”
THOUGH he has never before done a 90-minute show before an audience of 30 million, Hal Holbrook already is more than just a guy who does Mark Twain. Between the time he slipped unnoticed into an off-Broadway theater as Twain eight years ago and his TV success in March, Holbrook has appeared in 10 plays, the motion picture The Group, and on television in The Gloss Menogerie.
He has won the Vernon Rice Memorial Award as the best actor off-Broadway and also the Outer Circle Critics Award for an outstanding contribution to the theater in 1958-59. By Holbrook’s own admission, the honor he feels closest to is his 1965-66 Tony award for Mark Twain. He regards it highly because, like the motion picture Oscar, the Tony was given to him by his own kind within the theater.
Holbrook had a long apprenticeship on the road doing scenes from plays after his graduation from college. He opened Mark Twain in New York in 1959, and his Broadway debut was in Do You Know The Milky Woy? in 1961. A year later he joined the American Shakespeare Company at Stratford, Conn., and appeared as Hotspur in Henry IV and John of Gaunt in Hichord II. He played the title role in the Phoenix Theatre’s 1963 revival of Sherwood’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois, then followed with a summer tryout for the Theater Guild of William McCleery’s comedy The Mockerol Plozo.
In the fall of 1963, Holbrook joined the Lincoln Center Repertory Company in New York. In the two yeas of its embattled existence, Holbrook played the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s Morco Millions, replaced Jason Robards in After the Foil and played it a year in repertory, created the role of the high-strung German major in Arthur Miller’s Incident At Vichy, and finished the season as the bailiff in Tortoffe.
Since the original opening of Mark Twain in New York Holbrook has played the role 600 times. In 1960 he was chosen by the State Department as the first non-musical theater attraction to be sent to Europe under the auspices of the cultural exchange. There the show also was a hit, though he received the only bad review in 12 years of doing Mark Twain. The drama critic of a Communist newspaper in Copenhagen said Holbrook told too many jokes and didn’t get “into the soul of Mark Twain.” Holbrook allowed that “maybe he had a point, though I think the language problems hampered his understanding.”
But criticism is a rarity in Holbrook’s career. The critics, like the audiences, have liked him, a point for which Holbrook is grateful but one he is never inclined to take too seriously.
“When you do a bad job in a play neither the public nor the critic knows enough about the theater to be able to separate a performance from the play itself,” says Holbrook. “They are seldom wise enough to say: ‘This play is not as bad as it looks. This play was not given a good enough production. The actors were not good enough in their roles. The director had the wrong conception.”
“What they usually do is to leave the actors alone and say it’s a lousy play. When we did Morco Millions at Lincoln Center, we did not give it a good production. The point of view of the director—and therefore the actors—was wrong. It missed the point of the play, so it seemed heavy and monotonous. We should have given it a better production, and then the critics would have said: ‘O’Neill has written this obscure play and it’s not bad at all.'
And it is here—when Holbrook begins to criticize himself—that you begin to understand a little more about the actor and why his success as Mark Twain has not brought him, in his own mind, to the pinnacle of success. When Holbrook was a student at Culver, he admits he was not strong academically and neither was he ecstatic about the military program. He “found” the theater in his senior year, and like Broadway director Joshua Logan, ‘27, novelist Ernest Gann, ‘30, and some others, he credits the late Charles Mather, then director of theater at Culver, for his introduction to the performing arts.
“I went to those cultural programs with a chip on my shoulder,” recalls Holbrook. “It wasn’t manly among our generation to show a sensitivity to music or drama. But I needed an extra hour of credit toward graduation and I found it in the theater. I was told Colonel Mather was a great guy. He was. He had a talent for just being human. He opened me up.
“I remember my first role as a 70-year-old caretaker in a play by George M. Cohan called Seven Keys to Boldpote. I was playing old men even then. I was pretty bad, but I thought I was a great hit. When I went off the stage that night I knew I had found something I could do, that I could get to people and maybe get them to listen to me.
“It was a combination of suddenly finding something you felt you could succeed at and at the same time finding a society of one person or a small group of people with whom you had some connection. I didn’t even mind having a minor role, because no one expected me to climb Mt. Everest to be associated with them.”
When Holbrook graduated from Culver, his grades made his entrance to college doubtful. But the president of Ohio’s Denison University had visited Culver and heard Holbrook read the Scriptures in chapel. He told Denison’s professor of theater Edward A. Wright about Holbrook, cautioning that he doubted Holbrook’s marks were good enough to be admitted to the university. Denison accepted him, and though he limped along for the first two years, he achieved what Professor Wright called “Phi Beta Kappa grades” the last two. When Holbrook graduated after the war, Denison President K. I. Brown gave him a special citation for his academic record. Recalls Professor Wright:
“Very soon he was recognized by students and faculty as a young man with much promise in the field of acting. His science teacher complained to me of his ‘Cavalierian attitude’ toward his work. This impressed me at the time and it has many times since. Hal did attack everything in this way: ‘I can and I will—and if it is something I like to do, I’ll do it as it has never been done before.’”
Holbrook was drafted during World War II. He was singled out as an outstanding soldier and given the chance to attend West Point. An uncle wrote Professor Wright and urged him to convince Holbrook to accept. Wright knew that it would mean an additional four years in the Army after the war. He wrote Holbrook, pointing out the pros and cons, and concluded by advising him not to accept.
“During the war, his uncle never forgave me,” says Professor Wright. “I wonder now, in the light of what has happened, if he has.”
After the war Holbrook returned to Denison to finish his academic work in what Wright considered a blaze of glory. He also began a life-long friendship with Professor Wright, and it was Wright who introduced him to the idea of playing Mark Twain (see Pages 6-7). Holbrook was beginning a 12-year road to success, though it was not an easy one.
“No one who has ever known Hal well has envied a moment of his success,” says Wright. “He has drive, an insistence on perfection that absolutely ignores the clock. I have known him to work 20 hours a day, even making his own costumes, experimenting with makeup, and traveling long distances to research a role. When he played Abe Lincoln in New York, he went to Kentucky to the area where Lincoln lived just to catch something of the inflection in the voices of the people who live there.
“There is no monkey-business in the dressing room. It is dead seriousness in the theater and on the stage. Hal can be the merriest, the happiest, the most witty—after the show.”
Holbrook has been criticized for this sense of perfection. He is too particular about lights, his costumes, the makeup (which, for Mark Twain, takes five hours preparation). There are those, says Wright, who complain that with Holbrook, there is never a point where it is “good-enough.”
Surprisingly, Holbrook sees this in himself. He pleads guilty to the charge and says that an actor can become too perfect.
“You can be too much of a perfectionist at being a plumber. Because the society we live in does not allow people to take too much time to complete a job. The danger of being a perfectionist is that you will work too long at something to perfect it, perfect it, and perfect it. You’ve got to know when it’s good enough, and then keep your hands off it.”
Yet it is questionable whether or not Holbrook really believes what he says about becoming too perfect. Knowing ,when something is good enough and then keeping hands-off is on a collision course with his views of the theater and much of the entertainment business today. Holbrook says the same thing about the theater, television, the movies, and other forms of entertainment: too much of what is done is done in haste.
“All of the entertainment media today is in the same sick condition for the same reason. The material one is given to deal with is material done in haste because of the public’s tremendous appetite for entertainment. It is material put together without enough thought and enough time to mature.
“The actor’s job,” says Holbrook, “frequently is not one to discover real truth in dramatic material. An actor’s job is one in which he often uses his craft to cover up or to compensate for the shortages of the material he must deal with. You have ‘to use your talents and techniques to make it look better than it really is. And this can be very discouraging.”
As Holbrook moves into the musical The Apple Tree, a role he will play only until July, he forecasts an uncertain future though it is one for which he has set a definite goal. He wants to do roles he can bring “a special kind of juice to,” and this can be in almost any part of the entertainment media.
He will not discard Mark Twain. He claims he won’t give it up until he dies. But he adds he doesn’t know a crueler way for an actor to die, professionally speaking, than to let his acting muscles atrophy. He wants to do a movie, but not just any movie. He is pleased with the overwhelming success of Mark Twain because he says television has discovered there is a new vista for shows of this type. But he is committed to being part of the new vista, not a situation comedy series set in Maine.
Professor Wright says he’ll accomplish it:
“There is no doubt in my mind that Hal was given a certain talent for acting at birth. Nevertheless, I have had many students with greater native talent. I have never had one with a greater determination to succeed, a greater capacity for work, and a greater passion for perfection, as long a~ what he is trying to do is in the theater.
“The theater is his religion and his life. As such, it deserves only the best he can do. This was evident since my first meeting with him in 1942. The world has recognized it only in Mark Twain. They have accepted it because they have recognized sincerity, truth, imagination, and originality in action. They would find the same ingredients in any role that Hal Holbrook attempted, to do.”
Cover pictures of Hal Holbrook, Man of the Year, are by Buddy Bolton, ‘63
Mark Twain Tonight!
Written for The Alumnus by Norman Nadel, Drama Critic, New York World Journal Tribune
If Hal Holbrook were a one-role actor — which he certainly isn’t — that one role still would be enough to earn him a stature which few actors ever achieve in the American theater. His portrayal of Mark Twain has no counterpart on the stage today, either in thoroughness of preparation, insight or detail. Even those of us who have seen it not once but several times are astonished anew at each exposure to this virtuoso piece of characterization.
It was just 20 years ago that Edward A. Wright, professor of theater at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, assigned Holbrook a Mark Twain scene. The student actor wasn’t enthusiastic about the project, possibly because he underestimated his own ability to play it.
Wright, however, knew his pupil’s potential and kept at him about it. So Holbrook worked up the episode and the character, played Mark Twain at a few gatherings in Central Ohio, and discovered, to his own surprise, that audiences were not only attentive but enthusiastic.
Following graduation he toured the country for a few years doing an amiable pnd informal evening of theater, which included Twain being interviewed by a girl reporter (Ruby Holbrook). It was inevitable that the Holbrooks would settle eventually in New York, and that “Mark Twain Tonight” would find its way to a local stage and into the glad hearts of Holbrook’s audience.
This happened at a little off-Broadway theater several years ago, and by that time, Twain had been enriched, as a characterization, to what seemed the ultimate point. But Hal wasn’t finished. He continued to research the American humorist’s life, to assemble new details, and to work them into his presentation, even if they were as unimportant, seemingly, as the way Twain tugged at his sleeve while talking.
When Holbrook’s Mark Twain finally arrived at a Broadway theater — the Longacre — in March of last year, the actor had more than six hours of material prepared, though he used only a third of it. It was immediately evident that through two decades he has refined and enriched his portrayal of Twain beyond anything we ordinarily encounter in the theater. As Holbrook’s acting instinct has sharpened with experience and maturity, he has, I think, simplified the role more than he has added to it.
Whatever the process, it has become pure Twain, totally free of any inappropriate gesture, any vocal inflection not native to the man, or any embellishment the least hit theatrical, not that these were problems in the past.
Actually, none of us knows as much about Twain as Holbrook does, so we’d have to accept his interpretation out of deference to the thoroughness of his research. But our appreciation of the man on stage is far more than intellectual; it is instinctive. We can neither deny nor resist his exuberant humor, his priceless timing of a line, or the Satanic benevolence of his smile. This is the real Mark Twain; we are convinced that anything else would not do.
There are many small wonders to Holbrook’s portrayal — such as his use of silence. His Twain can lose, temporarily, the thread of a story, forget about a lighted match in his hand, and even fall almost asleep with such serene naturalness and charm that audience interest never flags. Watch the way he places one foot ahead of the other, as he walks about the stage, as if he hadn’t decided whether to trust the floor.
You wonder that such an old voice could be spoken by a relatively young man, or that the physical transformation could be so complete. Actually, however, it is hard to listen to or look at details, because the interpretation is so exquisitely integrated. Actors and critics tend to scrutinize the technique; audiences generally take their pleasure from the overall result.
Through these 20 years, Hal Holbrook has played many other characters beside Mark Twaif~. He has a reputation as a versatile and dependable actor, with the voice, the technique and the stage presence to command respect in an exacting profession. But I think his appearance will continue to generate the greatest excitement when the theater marquee reads: “Mark Twain Tonight.”
Twain on Congress:
“WHEN I WAS PUTTING together my first book I did a stretch in Washington as a newspaper correspondent. And every day I went over to the Congress—that grand, old, benevolent national asylum for the helpless—and I reported on the inmates there. Well, it was very entertaining; and I had never seen a body of men with tongues so handy . . . and information so uncertain. They could talk for a week without ever getting rid of an idea. If one of those men had been President when the diety was at the point of saying ‘let there be light’—we never would have had it.”
Twain on brotherhood:
“OH, MAN IS A MARVEL, he is. He’s invented himself a heaven and emptied into it all of the nations of the earth in one common jumble—and all of them on an equality absolute. They have to be brothers! They have to mix together and pray together and harp and Hosanna together—whites, Negroes, Jews . . . everybody. There’s no distinction. And yet down here on earth all the nations hate each other. Everyone of them persecutes the Jew. And yet every pious person adores that heaven and wants to get into it . . . I wonder if God invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey.”
Selection of Hal Holbrook as Man of the Year Marks the Beginning of New Alumni Awards
I am pleased to announce in this issue of The Alumnus the selection of distinguished actor Hal Holbrook, ‘42, as the first recipient of the Academy’s new Man of the Year Award.
Mr. Holbrook’s nation-wide fame for his recent portrayal of Mark Twain before an audience of 30 million television viewers makes him familiar to all of you, but his selection as Man of the Year — and especially the first one in Culver’s history — is for more than his success in this role. It reflects, I think, the Academy’s long and deep interest in the cultural aspects of life, and this interest has resulted in many other distinguished actors, writers, and musicians, within our alumni organizations.
I must confess that I am particularly delighted with Mr. Holbrook’s selection. We are going through an era in which many of the performing arts seem to be led by writers, musicians, and artists who do their best ‘to be unnecessarily vague, ponderous, and, in some cases, in questionable taste. At a time when we are deluged with the “far-out” school of theater, I believe it is a tribute to Mr. Holbrook’s ability as an actor that with material written at the turn of the century, he can in this age captivate a nation for 90 minutes.
It is also a tribute to the television that it pre-empted this prime time for a cultural program of this type.
The committee under Dean Ernest B. Benson went to great pains to make the right choice in this first year of the Man of the Year Award. The committee worked with presidents of the alumni associations to pick an alumnus, who, according to the Man of the Year criterion, “through personal achievement has brought honor to himself and to Culver.”
Because of its distinguished alumni in many fields, I know Culver will make varied selections in future years. To provide us with the names of distinguished alumni, we asked for nominations from alumni and parents. We will ask again. You can help make this a tradition by sending to the Academy your’ nomination in future years. Also, I hope those of you living near the Academy can be with us when Mr. Holbrook receives his award at 2 p.m. Sunday, May 21.
The Man of the Year Award is one of a new series of awards in which the Academy is honoring alumni and parents. During June Week, we will pay tribute to a group of up to 10 alumni and parents who will receive Culver Service Awards for outstanding service rendered the school. These will be announced also in the June issue of the publication Culver . . . In Brief. Here again, there is a wide field to choose from because of the many who have helped us.
All of these awards — the Man of the Year and the Culver Service Awards — are part of our program to create closer ties between the Academy and its alumni and parents. They are one way of expressing our appreciation for the continuing and invaluable contributions of time and effort made in behalf of Culver.
I have recently returned from many months of traveling to many cities in the nation on what is my last round of Culver Club meetings as your Superintendent. As I near retirement in August, I am certain that my evaluation of our alumni and parents made 11 years ago was a correct one. Everywhere I’ve traveled this fall and winter, I sense an increased interest and pride in what the Academy is accomplishing.
Culver needs this sense of interest and pride in the Academy. In a small way, our new awards are an expression of the Academy’s interest and pride in a distinguished and intensely dedicated group of alumni and parents.
-Delmar T. Spivey, Superintendent
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