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A man with character: celebrating the life and work of Hal Holbrook

“Man looks in the abyss, there’s nothing staring back at him. At that moment, man finds his character. And that is what keeps him out of the abyss.”
– Hal Holbrook as Lou Mannheim in the 1987 film Wall Street

Hal Holbrook was an actor, director, and writer who found his character throughout his decades-long career in TV, movies, and on the stage.

Hal Holbrook is most known for playing Mark Twain in Mark Twain Tonight! His role as the classic American writer, which he performed on-stage and on-screen, earned him a Tony Award in 1966 for Best Actor and a Primetime Emmy.

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Before its Broadway and primetime TV debut, Mark Twain Tonight! had humble beginnings in school auditoriums across the country.

Hal Holbrook’s spouse Ruby Johnson Holbrook collaborated with him on a two-person show where they played Mark Twain and other historical figures including Shakespeare. For several years after their college graduation, Hal Holbrook and his first spouse traveled thousands of miles by station wagon to perform in school assemblies across the Southwest.

After the birth of their first daughter, Holbrook created the one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! and continued to travel to perform. In the 1950s, during a stint at a New York City nightclub, Ed Sullivan discovered Holbrook, bringing him onto his show where he gained national exposure.

Holbrook ended up embodying Mark Twain for 63 years, taking his one-man show on the road until 2017. Upon the announcement of his retirement from the show, HuffPost wrote that Holbrook “has done more to keep Mark Twain on people’s minds than anyone else.”

In 2003, former President George W. Bush awarded Holbrook with the National Humanities Medal for his role as Mark Twain. The annual award honors those whose work “deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects.”

In the award announcement, Holbrook was quoted to say:

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“This is a relationship that developed as my life developed…This voice that I have been given is so powerful I can express my deepest convictions in his words and thoughts, far ahead of anything I could come up with.”

Despite the depth of his performance as Mark Twain, Holbrook played many notable characters throughout his acting career, starring in hundreds of movies and TV show episodes.

A few of his most notable roles include Abe Lincoln in the 1976 TV miniseries Lincoln, Commander Joseph Rochefort in the 1976 film Midway, Deep Throat in the 1976 film All The President’s Men, Lou Mannheim in the 1987 movie Wall Street, and Father Malone in The Fog. Holbrook didn’t always keep it serious––in 1997, he voiced Amphitryon, Hercules’ adoptive father, in the Disney movie Hercules.

In 2007, Holbrook received an Academy Award nomination for his role as Ron Franz in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (one of 20 road trip movies to quench your wanderlust).

Hal Holbrook is a truly unforgettable Hollywood actor. His work touched many, including Hollywood celebs who worked with him and fans who experienced his performances:

Actress Goldie Hawn, who starred alongside Hal Holbrook in The Girl from Petrovka:

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Horror film director John Carpenter:

Writer and director Edgar Wright:

CNN anchor Jake Tapper:

Actress and writer Yvette Nicole Brown:

Feature film editor Vashi Nedomansky:

Michael McKean, a fan who witnessed him perform Mark Twain Tonight!:

Lucky for us, his work lives on through the movies and TV shows that you can watch now online. Celebrate the life of Hal Holbrook by watching All The President’s Men on HBO Max, Hercules on Disney+, or Into the Wild on Netflix.

Hal Holbrook The 60th Annual DGA Awards held at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel

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