He Thought Playing Twain Was 'Corny.' Then He Couldn't Stop

Stage, film, and TV actor Hal Holbrook, 'Deep Throat' in 'All the President's Men,' dies at 95
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 2, 2021 8:36 AM CST
Hal Holbrook, America's Stand-In Mark Twain, Dies
Hal Holbrook arrives at the Beverly Hilton on March 16, 2015, in Beverly Hills, Calif.   (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

He played Mark Twain for 60-plus years, was "Deep Throat" in All the President's Men, and won an Emmy for playing Lincoln. Now, a goodbye to Hal Holbrook, who died Jan. 23 at the age of 95, the actor's assistant told the New York Times on Monday. Born Harold Rowe Holbrook Jr. on Feb. 17, 1925, in Cleveland, Holbrook's parents deserted him when he was a toddler, leaving him with his grandparents in Massachusetts. After a stint in the Army in WWII, he took to acting, appearing in mostly small film roles, with exceptions such as All the President's Men and The Firm. In 2008, at age 82, he became the oldest actor ever to get nominated for an Oscar for his role in Into the Wild, per NBC News. Holbrook won five Emmys for his TV and mini-series roles, including in 1976 for the NBC mini-series Lincoln. He also had a recurring part in the CBS sitcom Designing Women.

But it was his turn as Mark Twain—complete with "wig to match Twain's unruly mop, a walrus mustache, and a rumpled white linen suit," per the Times—that ended up becoming his life's passion. The idea to play the American writer and humorist started with Ed Wright, his theater professor at Denison University. "Ed, I think this Mark Twain thing is pretty corny," Holbrook said he told Wright after his first crack at it. "I don't think it's funny." But he kept up the role, kicking off a one-man show in 1952 and taking it on tour in the US and Europe. Holbrook wasn't even 30 when he started playing a 70-year-old Twain—much makeup was involved, though he eventually aged into the role. He won a Tony in 1966 for his Broadway run and ended up with more than 2,200 performances, per Variety. His last Twain performance was in 2017. Holbrook is survived by a son and two daughters, as well as two stepdaughters, and four grandkids. His third wife, actor Dixie Carter, died in 2010 of cancer. (More Hal Holbrook stories.)

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