Arts & Entertainment

50 years later, actor still in tune with Mark Twain

More than a half-century ago Hal Holbrook took on the persona of Mark Twain.

That college performance grew into an Emmy-winning stage show that Holbrook is still presenting to audiences 56 years later.

Earlier this week the Herald talked to this iconic actor, who turns 85 next month, about his Mark Twain Tonight! show Jan. 29 at the Windermere Theatre at the Toyota Center.

In that familiar voice that has graced the big and small screen for generations, Holbrook said he was relaxing for a couple of days on a friend's yacht somewhere along the Florida coast before heading to New York for another Twain engagement.

"I don't get to the Pacific Northwest often enough and have never been to (the Tri-Cities), so I'm looking forward to this visit," Holbrook said.

He's overjoyed about performing in the Windermere Theatre, the new intimate setting within the arena, where the show's poignant dialogue won't get lost in the rafters of the coliseum.

Holbrook knew since high school he wanted to make his living as an actor. His filmography includes key roles in The Firm, All the President's Men, Into the Wild, The Star Chamber, Men of Honor and his latest, That Evening Sun.

He has also appeared in a number of TV series including Designing Women, which starred his wife, Dixie Carter.

Holbrook earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Ron Franz, the old man in Into the Wild, which chronicles the true story of Christopher McCandless who rejected his inherited wealth and set out on a quest to break free from the shackles of society.

Holbrook discounts his acting in the film as the reason for the nomination.

"I really believe it was the editing of that film that got me the nomination," he said.

He referred to the scene where he gives McCandless a ride in his Jeep to the main road and dropped him off to continue his adventure. The editing turned that scene into a flashback as McCandless lay dying alone in the hinterlands of Alaska.

"It really was the editing that made that a much more powerful scene," Holbrook said.

Though Holbrook has been portraying Twain for decades, he never gets tired of turning a new generation onto the wit and wisdom of the legendary writer.

"I really had no idea this show would achieve such success," he said. "In fact, when I first started performing as Mark Twain I didn't know much about him."

The wisdom of Mark Twain is timeless and speaks to the failings of the human condition so well, he added.

"He addressed so many issues during his time that are still relevant today, which means the human race doesn't seem to learn from its mistakes," Holbrook said. "It was Twain's observation that people forget the lessons of history and have yet to learn how to fix the areas where we have continued to fail for centuries -- that vast power and wealth corrupt and crushes the people's voice, that the human race has never learned that war won't solve problems or mistakes."

Those observations, along with Twain's sharp sense of humor have kept Holbrook's show popular with audiences.

To get into the Twain character, he usually switches on the TV or electronic media before a show. "I turn on the news because it always gets me riled enough to suit the personality of Mark Twain," Holbrook said with a chuckle. "There are so many idiots out there, and I find the electronic media so destructive."

Holbrook's own philosophy of life pretty much mirrors Twain's. He's funny, articulate, has a strong and powerful voice, is a romantic as well as a realist, and he's crazy about his wife of 25 years.

The couple don't circulate in Hollywood much, he said, which could be one reason their marriage has lasted so long.

They both continue to be offered roles in film and on TV. And sometimes they work as a team, such as on the new film released last year, That Evening Sun.

The movie follows the life of an old man who escapes from a nursing home to spite his son who put him there. After he finds his way home, he finds out his son has leased his homestead to a poor couple and their daughter. A territorial battle soon evolves.

"It's a very interesting role, and I thoroughly enjoyed doing this film," Holbrook said. "It was important to me that I give an honest and accurate portrayal (of a Tennessean), especially since I married a Tennessee girl who would expect no less of me."

What: Mark Twain Tonight! Starring Hal Holbrook

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 29

Where: Windermere Theatre at the Toyota Center in Kennewick

Cost: $27 to $57

Tickets: or box office

-- Dori O'Neal: 582-1514;