Hal Holbrook, the award-winning actor who channeled the irascible charm of a literary genius in his one-man show Mark Twain Tonight!, has died at 95. His assistant Joyce Cohen told the New York Times he passed away Monday evening in his home in Beverly Hills, California.
In a remarkable career spanning seven decades, Holbrook won five Emmy Awards and, at 82, became the oldest person ever nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of a lonely widower in 2007’s Into the Wild. But he will forever be associated with the white linen suit, walrus mustache, and unruly mop of hair of Mark Twain.
Born in Cleveland in 1925 as Harold Holbrook Jr., he began to develop his Twain impression while studying drama at Denison University. In 1947 his mentor Edward Wright took notice. Wright and his wife Ruby were preparing a touring sketch show called Great Personalities that would feature their own impressions of historical figures, and they invited Holbrook to join them. The young drama student felt reluctant. “Ed, I think this Mark Twain thing is pretty corny,” he remembered telling Wright. “I don’t think it’s funny.”
Audiences disagreed, and over the next four years Holbrook’s Twain became the highlight of Great Personalities. In 1952, Holbrook began writing his own one-man show Mark Twain Tonight!, and in 1954 he performed it for Ed Sullivan. His career entered a new phase when he booked a starring role on the soap opera The Brighter Day, and after charming national television audiences on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, he was never in want of work again.
After tiring of The Brighter Day, Holbrook left in 1959 to put his full energies into Mark Twain Tonight! The show became a hit wherever it was performed, and in 1966 it landed on Broadway and earned Holbrook a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play. He soon became an in-demand talent for prestige television shows, earning his first Emmy Award for a leading actor in The Bold Ones: The Senator (1970), in which he played a character loosely based on John F. Kennedy. He earned two more Emmy trophies for his portrayal of a captured commander of a Navy intelligence boat in Pueblo (1973), picked up his fourth portraying President Abraham Lincoln in the 1974 miniseries Lincoln, and his fifth in 1989 for the informational program Portrait of America.
Apart from his award-winning roles, Holbrook left an indelible mark on pop culture in nearly every decade of his career. He gave voice to the whistleblower Deep Throat in 1976’s All the President’s Men, played Father Malone in John Carpenter’s classic 1980 horror film The Fog, made regular appearances on the feminist sitcom Designing Women, while still finding time for the theatrical stage in Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, and playing iconic Shakespeare roles such as Hotspur and King Lear.
In recent years, he booked memorable guest parts on The West Wing and The Sopranos, received his first Oscar nod for Into the Wild, portrayed Republican Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), and had a recurring role on Sons of Anarchy. He retired from acting in 2017 after turning in performances on Bones, Grey’s Anatomy, and Hawaii Five-0.
Holbrook announced his retirement in a 2017 letter to an Oklahoma theater where Mark Twain Tonight! was scheduled to perform. He wrote, “I have thought about this quietly for a long time. I know it must end, this long effort to do a good job. I have served my trade, gave it my all, heart and soul, as a dedicated actor can. That’s about as much as people in my profession can hope.”