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Mark Twain
Arts and Culture:
Hal Holbrook
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The popularity of actor Hal Holbrook's long-running one man show about Mark Twain is sustained by the universal relevance of Twain's candid observations on politics, culture, race, and the world. After 50 years of getting inside the mind of this extraordinary humorist and social critic, what can Holbrook's experience tell us about the unique nature of the challenges facing America today such as war, religious fanaticism, race, and censorship? Bill Moyers interviews Holbrook, probing his experience with bigotry and censorship while playing Twain and examining why Twain's work is particularly relevant in a post-September 11th world. "We don't have truth delivered to us very often, especially in this very commercialized world we live in," says Holbrook. "Mark Twain cuts right straight through that with a knife."

Hal Holbrook
Hal Holbrook
Hal Holbrook was born in Cleveland in 1925, but raised mostly in South Weymouth, Massachusetts. In 1942 he entered Denison University in Ohio, majoring in Theatre under the tutelage of his lifelong mentor, Edward A. Wright. World War II pulled him out of there and put him into the Army Engineers for three years.

The Mark Twain characterization grew out of an honors project at Denison University after the War. Holbrook and his first wife, Ruby, had constructed a two-person show, playing characters from Shakespeare to Twain. After graduation they toured the school assembly circuit in the Southwest doing 307 shows in thirty weeks and traveling 30,000 miles by station wagon.

Holbrook's first solo performance as Mark Twain was at the Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania in 1954. The show was his desperate alternative to selling hats or running elevators to keep his family alive. That same year, fortune struck by way of a steady job on a daytime television soap opera, THE BRIGHTER DAY, but the following year Holbrook pursued the Twain character at night in a Greenwich Village night club while doing the soap daytimes. Finally, Ed Sullivan saw him and gave his Twain national television exposure.

In 1959, after five years of researching Mark Twain and honing his material in front of countless audiences in small towns all over America, he opened his one-man show on Twain at a tiny theater off-Broadway in New York.

After a twenty-two week run in New York he toured the country again, performed for President Eisenhower and at the Edinburgh Festival. The State Department sent him on a tour of Europe, during which he became the first American dramatic attraction to go behind the Iron Curtain following World War II.

Holbrook continued to do Mark Twain every year and in 1966 on Broadway, his second New York engagement won him a Tony Award, a Drama Critic's Circle Award and a ninety-minute CBS television special of MARK TWAIN TONIGHT! which was nominated for an Emmy Award and seen by an audience of 22 million.

Holbrook has had many other starring roles on Broadway: THE GLASS MENAGERIE, THE APPLE TREE, I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER, MAN OF LA MANCHA, DOES A TIGER WEAR A NECKTIE? with the young Al Pacino. Mr. Holbrook has done some 50 television movies and mini-series, been nominated for 12 Emmys and won 5 for THE SENATOR (1971), PUEBLO (1974), BEST ACTOR OF THE YEAR (1974), SANDBURG'S LINCOLN (1976), and as host and narrator of PORTRAIT OF AMERICA (1989). Holbrook's movie career began with THE GROUP in 1966 when he was 41 years old. Since then, moviegoers have seen him in over 35 films including MAGNUM FORCE, MIDWAY, ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, JULIA, CAPRICORN ONE, THE FOG, STAR CHAMBER, CREEPSHOW, WALL STREET, THE FIRM, THE BACHELOR, WAKING THE DEAD, MEN OF HONOR with Robert DeNiro and Cuba Gooding, Jr., THE MAJESTIC with Jim Carrey, and SHADE with Sylvester Stallone, soon to be released.

Throughout his long career, Holbrook has continued to perform Mark Twain every year, including his third New York engagement in 1977 at The Imperial Theatre and a world tour in 1985, the 150th anniversary of Mark Twain's birth, beginning in London and ending in New Delhi. He has toured the show in some part of every year since 1954, thus making 2004 the 50th consecutive year for this remarkable one-man show. MARK TWAIN TONIGHT! has become perhaps the longest running show in theater history. Holbrook adds to his Twain material nearly every year, editing and changing it to fit the times. He marked his 2000th performance this year on January 17th and has mined over fifteen hours of Twain with more coming all the time. He has no set program — he chooses the program as he goes along.

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