UPDATE February 2, 2021: Actor Hal Holbrook died on January 23, 2021 at the age of 95. Bill talked with Holbrook in 2004 on NOW with Bill Moyers. They spoke about Holbrook’s long-lived stage performance as Mark Twain.
— Hal Holbrook
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?
Then, Bill Moyers talks to Richard Rodgriguez, one of the country’s most intriguing and controversial writers on how the mixing of races and cultures has influenced his life, his work and American culture. “We have these categories: white, black, and now this new, ludicrous category that Richard Nixon invented for me, Hispanic. In 1972, I became Hispanic,” says Rodriguez. His books include HUNGER OF MEMORY: THE EDUCATION OF RICHARD RODRIGUEZ and the Pulitzer Prize Runner-up DAYS OF OBLIGATION: AN ARGUMENT WITH MY MEXICAN FATHER. He talks to Moyers about his book BROWN: THE LAST DISCOVERY OF AMERICA, where he argues that America has been brown since its inception and reflects that Hispanics are being Americanized at the same rate that America is being Latinized.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
I’m delighted you’ve joined us tonight, because you’re going to meet two of the most interesting Americans I’ve ever interviewed, Mark Twain and Hal Holbrook. Now it’s true that Mark Twain was born in 1835 and died in 1910, revered as one of America’s greatest and most popular writers and satirists. But Mark Twain lives on in his books and through the magic of channeling, otherwise known as acting.
For fifty years — ever since 1954 — Hal Holbrook has walked on stage alone to perform his one-man show, MARK TWAIN TONIGHT, over two thousand times in all, most recently in Washington, DC and then two weeks ago in Cleveland. Here’s the thing to keep in mind. It took courage to say what Mark Twain said about race, greed, class, and war back in the 19th century. That was the first Gilded Age, the origins of America’s empire. Guess what? It still takes courage today, which is why so many people in public life are tempted to fib a little.
HOLBROOK (as Twain): I don’t tell lies, I differ from George Washington. I have a higher and grander standard of principle. George could not tell a lie. I can, but I won’t.
Oh I used to tell lies, but I’ve given it up. The field is overrun with amateurs. Well when I look around me and contemplate the lumbering, slovenly lying of the present day, it grieves me to see a noble art so prostituted. In my day a liar was a liar. I don’t mean to suggest that the custom of lying has suffered any decay. It couldn’t for a lie is eternal. It is man’s best and surest friend and it can not perish from the earth while Congress remains in session.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
MOYERS: This is a brand new experience for me. I have never before interviewed a 169 year old man.
HOLBROOK: Sometimes I feel that way, you know? I have to keep working against it.
MOYERS: I’ve often wondered; what does it take for a man to go alone on stage.
HOLBROOK: It takes insanity.
MOYERS: Which what? Mark Twain said; Insanity is contagious. You get it by reading the newspapers.
HOLBROOK: Yeah, right. You know I have a phrase, I refer to myself sometimes I do this. I have a suicide impulse. Suicidal impulse. I mean I do that. I climb trees at my age. I’m 79. My wife… I love to prune trees. I love trees. As I’ve grown older, I’ve fallen in love with trees. I could stand and look at a tree for… sometimes I go out of a motel I’m in now on the road, and I walk around in the parking lot and look at the trees.
My wife says; get him out of the tree. So, and it’s the same in my acting. When I developed new material for Twain, for example, you know I don’t have a director. The audience directs me. I mean I tell you, I put it on a little sooner than I should.
But just because I just want to jump off the high board.
MOYERS: There’s only been one televised broadcast of your performance. That was back in 1967 on CBS. Thirty million people saw it. THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE said, quote, “The best 90 minutes ever on television.”
HOLBROOK (as Twain): You know when I talk about the decay, in the art of lying, I’m talking about the silent lie. It requires no art. You simply keep still and conceal the truth.
For example it would not be possible for a humane and intelligent person to invent a rational excuse for slavery and yet in those early days of the emancipation agitation in the North, those agitators got small help from anyone, argue and plead and pray as they might, they could not break the universal stillness that rain from pulpit and press all the way down to the bottom of society.
The clammy stillness created and maintained by the lie of silent assertion, the silent assertion that there wasn’t anything going on in which humane and intelligent people ought to be interested. Well when whole nations of people conspire to propagate gigantic mute lies like that one in the interest of tyrannies and shams, why should we care anything about the trifling ones told by individuals? Why make them undesirable? Why not be honest and honorable and lie every chance we get? Why should we help the nation lie the whole day long and then object to telling one little, insignificant private lie in our own interest? Just for the refreshment of it and to take the rancid taste out of our mouth. No there is no art to this silent lying, it is timid and shabby.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
MOYERS: The silent lie.
HOLBROOK: Yeah. It’s interesting. You have chosen a moment that has quite an interesting history in the show. Of course doing that in the Civil Rights period in the heat of it all was quite something. I was the guinea pig at Oxford, Mississippi back in 1962—
MOYERS: After they integrated the university with James Meredith as the first black—
HOLBROOK: Yeah. James Meredith. The first black. And I was on my way there, from out on the west coast. And I called from Chicago to my manager. I says, “What am I supposed to do? I mean, you know they’re having riots there. And I’m supposed to go down there tomorrow, you know?” And he said, “Well they haven’t said ‘don’t go,’ Hal.” So we go down, my stage manager and I. We find— to make a long story short, that I am the guinea pig. I am the first thing the school is going to be allowed to assemble for.
They’ve canceled a football game. Big deal at Old Miss, and everything. And I am the guinea pig. And they’ve got federal men in the audience, and you know, they’ve got the NEW YORK TIMES, the HERALD TRIB, THE WASHINGTON POST. Everybody’s in the motel. What are you doing to do, Hal? What are you doing to do?
To make a long story short, I was scared. They had federal men backstage. They gave me a fire extinguisher and showed me how to defend myself. They had an escape route, out the stage door to the girl’s dorm. They didn’t know what would happen. If Meredith was there, etcetera.
And I was going on. And just before I went on, some stagehand hoping to be funny maybe, I don’t know, he says, “Hal—” ‘Cause there was big windows in the thing. It was like an old church, you know that was now the auditorium. They said, “Watch out for the guys with squirrel rifles in the trees.” Well you know, before I went on, it— they really scared me.
MOYERS: And you had this part in the piece about— in the performance about the silent lie of slavery.
HOLBROOK: Yeah. And that was— so when we got to this point, I decided to go for the heavy stuff. And give the audience the toughest stuff I could. And this was the beginning of the second act before Huckleberry. And I did it. And I take that long walk at the end of it. “It is timid, and shabby.”
HOLBROOK (as Twain): It is timid, and shabby.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
And I take the long walk to the lector, and I let them sit with that hot potato. Whether it’s today’s audience or any. You know, let them sit with that hot potato in their hand.
And the audience applauded. Three times in 50 years an audience has applauded at that moment. Three times. The first time was in Hamburg, Germany in 1961. The second time was in Oxford, Mississippi in 1962, I think it was. And the third time was in Prague behind the Iron Curtain in 1986.
MOYERS: Three different people growing up and living under the tyranny of a lie. A great lie.
MOYERS: Mark Twain never shied from the truth about racism. He wrote as Americans really talked and modern audiences can be shocked by the stark, crude ways whites addressed blacks in such famous works as HUCKLEBERRY FINN. This brought a challenge to Holbrook in that 1967 broadcast when he insisted on being true to Twain’s depiction of Huck’s drunken, bigoted father.
HOLBROOK (as Twain): Well lookie here, there’s a free nigger over there from Ohio, mulatto most as white as a white man. He had on the whitest shirt you ever seen and the shiniest hat. He had a gold watch and a chain. What do you think? Well, they said he was a professor in a college and could talk all kind of languages and knowed everthing. That ain’t the worst. They said he could vote when he was at home. Well that left me out. Thinks I, what’s this country is coming to? Oh it was election day and I was just about to go and vote myself if I weren’t too drunk to get there. When they told me they was a state in this country where they let that nigger vote, I drawed out.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
MOYERS: Before CBS aired it, didn’t they try to get you to censor it?
HOLBROOK: Yeah. They did.
MOYERS: What did they want you to take out?
HOLBROOK: The word nigger. I never had any objection to the use of the word. You can’t talk about racism in the slave period without using the word.
MOYERS: The word appears, what, several times in Mark Twain’s HUCK FINN.
HOLBROOK: It is used more than several times. It is used over and over again, until you hardly can’t stand it.
But the fact is, facts are facts. This was the word that was used in slave— that was, it was used when I was growing up in the 30’s. By, you know, I come from middle class white people. You know, they use that word all the time.
Not necessarily in a derogatory manner, like intentionally. They just used it from habit. Now I had sat down and reread HUCKLEBERRY FINN, you know, which I hadn’t done for years.
Some years. And that word kept coming, bang. Bang. Bang. And after halfway through the book, I put the book down and I thought, this is so hard to take. I put the book down and said, “Wait a minute. Let’s use my common sense.”
Let me ask myself some questions. Was Mark Twain a good writer? Yes. If he was a good writer, did he know what he wrote? Yes. Well if he knew what he wrote, then why did he use the word nigger over and over so often?
Did he realize when he used this word over and over that it was going to be abrasive and offensive to me? Well yeah, he must have. Well then, did he realize he was making me feel this way? And I said, well sure. That’s what he wanted you to feel. He wants you to feel this.
MOYERS: He wants you to feel disgust.
HOLBROOK: He wants you to feel disgusted or, you know, distraught—
MOYERS: To see racism—
HOLBROOK: —by the repetition of this word. And you have to realize, you’ve got to put yourself back when you’re talking about something out of history.
When he wrote this, 130 years ago or whatever it was, people used that word a lot. Lots of people used it. And in order for him to speak to the people of his time, and make them understand the offensiveness of this word, he had to hit them with a sledgehammer, over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again!
MOYERS: So that they could feel the power—
HOLBROOK: Absolutely. That’s why. It’s perfectly obvious. Because here was a man who married the daughter of one of the major abolitionists in the state of New York.
I mean, that’s where the Underground Railway went through there. I mean, here was a man who wrote his first editorial on the Buffalo Express was called, quote, sorry to use the word, quote, “Only a nigger” unquote, about a lynching in Memphis in which he excoriated people. He wrote one of the most horrifying diatribes about lynching, called “The United States of Lyncherdom.” You can’t even do it. I mean, it’s almost out of control he was so angry.
MOYERS: You certainly understand, ’cause I know you talked about this, how in the 1960’s when you went on the air with HUCKLEBERRY FINN, that blacks fighting against segregation in the south, trying to remove the last vestiges of Jim Crow, would feel the word resurrected in Mark Twain, would be used again in that old way.
HOLBROOK: Yeah, I’ve been doing this thing 50 years. I’ve never had any problem with this. Because when people listen to what I’m doing, when they listen to the rendition of whatever HUCK FINN number I’m doing, if the word is used in it, they understand why it’s used.
MOYERS: Yeah, well—
HOLBROOK: They get the point.
MOYERS: Of course Americans have had this tendency to want to clean up the past. Romanticize it. Sometimes I think we have— our expectations of the past are too great, don’t you? That we think the past, our ancestors were better than they actually were.
HOLBROOK: Well, sometimes I think they were. But I think that what’s important is you have to understand what human beings really were. And I think that’s what you’re trying to say. You cannot understand the past without really getting to the humanity and acknowledging the humanity of people who lived 100, 150 years ago.
In other words, one of the problems with putting HUCK FINN into a movie or on the stage is, you always make the white people, you know like the aunt this and Aunt Polly or whatever, or these people down south when Jim is captured. They make them stupid, and racist.
The point of the book is they don’t know they’re racist. Any more than you know you’re a racist. Or I know I’m a racist. Or you know you’re a racist. The point is, we don’t know we’re racist. That’s the point of the book. There’s no good guys and bad guys, except creeps like the King and the Duke and people like that. And Pap.
They’re human beings. And in order to understand people and to make them understandable on the stage or in a motion picture, you have to have human beings. You can’t have cardboard people.
MOYERS: So when CBS came to you and said, Holbrook you’ve got to take out—
HOLBROOK: David. Yeah, David came to the rehearsal we were doing— the rehearsal.
MOYERS: David Susskind.
HOLBROOK: Yeah, a big producer. Big producer. One of the biggest at that time in New York.
Comes to rehearsal hall and says, “Hal, just talked to the—” I forget what they call the censor at CBS. “And they want you to make some cuts.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He says, “Okay. You have to cut the word nigger. You have to cut references to anti-war stuff.” This is in the Vietnam War time.
HOLBROOK (as Twain): Man is the only animal that deals in the atrocity of war. He is the only one that for sordid wages goes forth in cold blood to exterminate his own kind. He has a motto for this, ‘our country right or wrong’. Any man who fails to shout it is a traitor. Only the others are patriots. Say, who is the country? Is it the government? In the republic the government is merely a servant, a temporary one. Its function is to obey orders not originate them. Only when the republic’s life is in danger should a man uphold his government when it’s wrong. Otherwise the nation has sold its honor for a phrase.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
HOLBROOK: I said, “David, I’m not cutting anything.” He said, “Well you know they insist—” I said, “Listen. Go back to them now and tell them that it’s over. I’m leaving. We’re going to stop rehearsal. And this show is over. We’re not going to do it.” And he said, “Oh, come on, Hal.”
I said, “No, I’m serious. We’re not going to do it. It’s over. I’m changing nothing.” He said, “Well I don’t know. I’ll go tell them.” So he went back. Told me— came back an hour and a half later. Everybody’s kind of holding their breath. And he said, “Okay. They said go ahead.”
Incidentally I just want to say, because that was CBS. I just want to say there was a man named Mike Dann who was the head.
MOYERS: Yeah. I knew—
HOLBROOK: Of news programming.
MOYERS: I knew Mike Dann.
HOLBROOK: Yeah. This man was the one who wanted to put this show on television. He fought to get this show on television. He put a 90 minute show, one man in prime time at eight o’clock to nine thirty the first time out. He put this on television. He was a courageous, wonderful man. Mike Dann. Mike Dann. Remember. They don’t make them like that every year folks.
MOYERS: Since you did, the CBS Hour 90 minutes on Mark Twain and it was repeated, as you say, no one, not even public television has put the performance on the air. A long, dry spell. Even as your popularity out in the country has grown with this performance. What do you make of that?
HOLBROOK: Well, I’m pretty philosophic about all these things. To begin with, your network—
MOYERS: Public television.
HOLBROOK: —public television, almost made a deal a couple of years ago to put a one hour version, a new version, a new show of Mark Twain on the air. We had a deal almost made. Then the word comes down from somewhere up here that they’d have to cut HUCKLEBERRY FINN.
And of course, I knew why. I said, “I can’t do that. I can’t cut HUCKLEBERRY FINN.” I mean, that’s Mark Twain’s ultimate masterpiece. How can I cut that? Plus, what he has to say is important. But they wouldn’t budge. So I said, “Forget it. We’re not doing it.” And walked away.
MOYERS: There was just the other day, Hal, a confession by a former executive of public television who admitted that he made that decision. That he turned the show down because he deemed it, quote, “too risky and too controversial.” Here’s what he said.
He wrote this in print: “It was some of the most gripping television one can imagine. It stirred emotions. It made you laugh out loud. It was simply stunning and on all levels a fascinating television experience. Twain’s humor and social commentary possessed an uncanny relevance to current events even though all the material had been written in the 1870s.”
Now he said this was riveting. This was powerful. And he regrets it now. But he said, “I turned it down.”
HOLBROOK: Well, when you get into corporate decision-making, especially in these days of political correctness, you are in jail.
MOYERS: But where is the political correctness today? ‘Cause even when this little broadcast creates a small controversy there’s a tremor. Oh, yeah.
HOLBROOK: You see, I got a feeling about political correctness. I hate it. You know the “Silent Lie” that he’s talking about that you played here earlier on this show? That’s what political correctness does. It causes us to lie silently instead of saying what we think.
We live in a democracy. We have this extraordinary opportunity to use our mind and say what we think, to speak as we think. Sometimes what we say is objectionable to other people. Sometimes words we use are objectionable to other people. But that is part of a free society.
And in order to communicate with each other, we got to get mad at each other sometimes.
MOYERS: What is it about Mark Twain that frightens people, even as he makes us laugh?
HOLBROOK: Because he is riding so sharply on the edge of truth. He is balancing right on the edge of truth. And we don’t have truth delivered to us very often. Especially in this very commercialized world we live in. Where half-truths are commercialized into truth. And half-lies, which is the other side of half-truth, is commercialized into truth. We live with this, day and day, every day, every time we turn the TV set on. Every time we pass a billboard.
And Mark Twain cuts right straight through that with a knife. And people recognize it. And it scares you a little bit, but there’s something exhilarating about it and daring and funny.
HOLBROOK (as Twain): Though I would like to see my old ancestor, Satan. I have no special regard for Satan, but I think I can claim to have no prejudice against him. May even be that I lean a little his way on account of his not having a fair show. All religions issue bibles against him and say the most injurious things about him. But we never hear his side. We have only the evidence for the prosecution. And yet, we have rendered the verdict. Now to my mind this is irregular. It is un-English. It is un-American. It is French.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
MOYERS: When we come back, Mark Twain on religion and Hal Holbrook on 9-11 and being alone at sea.
But first, the public television station you’re watching needs your support.
As Mark Twain said, “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” Well, here’s your chance.
If Mark Twain were alive today, he would be talking about how the face of America is changing. The census bureau predicts a quarter of the population will be Hispanic American by 2050.
Richard Rodriguez argues we are no longer a nation of black and white. We’re a nation of “Brown.” Here is an excerpt from a conversation I had with Rodriguez about his book BROWN: THE LAST DISCOVERY OF AMERICA.
So, what is brown?
RODRIGUEZ: Brown is the color of our mixture. It’s the color, ultimately of our American identity. It is the color we have resisted. It is not blue, the most erotic color in our imagination.
MOYERS: You say brown is the color produced by careless desire
RODRIGUEZ: Yes careless desire and curiosity, too. The child who wants to know what’s on the other side of town. I remember there’s always— in so many stories that people tell me about their childhood, that moment of wanting to know what those people were eating over there.
I remember when I told you this story, I think 12 years ago, when we first talked that when my best friend — a good Irish kid named Tom Keeting — used to come over and pick me up for Cub Scouts on Monday nights, my mother, like other immigrant mothers, would run to the kitchen. Would put lids on everything.
So, she was embarrassed by our ethnicity by how Mexican our food was every night. And now, some day between that moment and today, America started eating Mexican food. And suddenly, there is this interest in other people’s food.
Now we are eating the escheated (SIC) food. We go to restaurants where it’s Vietnamese and Italian on the same plate. And we are swallowing it.
When the two of us meet, when you become my best friend in Sacramento, when I go into your house, and I suddenly realize that you are not foreign to me, when I begin to borrow your language and your humor, when your mother invites me to dinner, and I begin to eat your food, when I begin to walk like you down the street, which is what Americans do, we all walk like each other, then I become brown.
MOYERS: What does brown mean for affirmative action?
RODRIGUEZ: Brown means this difference between, say, the blond Cuban and the Black Puerto Rican, and the brown Mexican in Los Angeles, this makes our racial variety so embarrassing for those of us who claim that Hispanics are discriminated group. My first book, HUNGER OF MEMORY is the story of a scholarship boy. I wrote that book against politicians who were describing me ethically or racially in those years, who were describing me as a minority. At a point in which I had become middle class, and I was telling them the politicians in this first book, that you know, I’m not a minority. There are people who are minorities, including a lot of white kids who live in Appalachia, who are truly minorities.
MOYERS: You resented that didn’t you?
RODRIGUEZ: Oh yes, the way the liberal agenda has written out the white poor in this country for the last 30 years is an outrage.
MOYERS: Yes, there’s this troubled me—
RODRIGUEZ: And the way it has allowed those of us who are middle class, to advance on the backs of the poor, by playing with that word minority, which is used as a numerical label. I am in this room with you, a minority. But I’m not culturally a minority.
We belong to the same world. But the assumption is that by advancing me, that I change the condition of those people in this country, who are culturally minorities. That is, those people who are outside, who do not speak this public language. Those Mexicans who work in east LA, my tie with them is very vague indeed.
But the notion that I’m a numeric minority allows me to advance on the basis of their exclusion. Do you know what I mean?
But I will never forget that that class barrier separates me. And I will never let you or anyone in America call me a minority because that trivializes their situation.
MOYERS: So in the end, it is class that wins?
RODRIGUEZ: Well, it will be class except at some level, all of us play parts in each others’ lives. And I said, you know, I’ve been— not so much an admirer of the illegal immigrant but an awed witness to their journey. The poor are in movement all over the world. And they are forcing us to change the way we see the world.
MOYERS: But the facts, the data show that inequality is great and growing.
RODRIGUEZ: Exactly. Exactly. What—
RODRIGUEZ: Join me then in my criticism of affirmative action this movement that essentially has created a black and brown bourgeoisie in the name of the poor. Start social revolutions from the bottom and go up. Don’t start it at the top and expect the bourgeoisie to improve the condition of those at the bottom. You know, California right now has the highest — except for Hawaii — has the highest rate of interracial marriages. But they also have the– the largest number of per capita of gated communities in the country. This is happening simultaneously. We are marrying each other. We are violating borders. And we are also pulling back.
MOYERS: In his long career, Hal Holbrook has been Willie Loman, King Lear, and Abraham Lincoln. Also the voice of Deep Throat in ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. He’s won five Emmys, a Tony, and he’s received the National Humanities Medal. But when all is said and done, he is forever captured in our hearts and minds as the iconoclast Mark Twain.
HOLBROOK (as Twain): I experimented with a cat and a dog, taught them to be friends and then I put them in a cage. I introduced a rabbit and in an hour, they were friends. Then I added a fox, a goose, a squirrel, some doves, a kangaroo and finally a monkey. They lived together in peace.
Well, next I caught an Irish Catholic and put him in a cage. And as soon as he seemed tame, I added a Presbyterian and then a Turk from Constantinople, a Methodist from the wilds of Arkansas, a Buddhist from China and finally a Salvation Army colonel.
Why when I come back there wasn’t a specimen left alive. These reasoning animals had disagreed on a theological details and carried the matter to a higher court because, because you see man is also the religious animal. He is the only one that’s got the true religion, several of them. He loves his neighbor as himself and cuts his throat if his theology isn’t straight. Why he has made a graveyard of the globe and trying his honest best to smooth his brother’s path to happiness and heaven. The other animals have no religion you know, gonna’ be left out in the—
[END VIDEO CLIP]
MOYERS: To some of us, especially of my generation, you and Twain are inseparable. When we—
HOLBROOK: Don’t tell him that.
MOYERS: Wish I could!
HOLBROOK: I can imagine what he’s thinking up there, you know?
MOYERS: Up there?
MOYERS: Well I would—
HOLBROOK: He would be very surprised—
MOYERS: But you know, when you look at these photographs, it’s hard to see where Twain ends and Holbrook begins. In our minds, the two are really one. Does that offend you? Does it drive you nuts?
HOLBROOK: No. But it’s a slow no. I like to be who I am. And I learned long, long ago that the most dangerous thing I could do was begin to think of myself as being as Mark Twain. You know? Once you think you’re Lincoln, you know, you’re dead. I’m an actor. Basically I’m an actor. And I’ll always think of myself as an actor doing Twain.
But I must say as I’ve gotten older and more irritable, and more irritated by what I see going on in this society in which I live, the world in which I live, and the more I see the changes taking place, the more personal this whole character becomes.
MOYERS: How’s that? Because he too in age changed.
HOLBROOK: Well I guess that’s a mark of age then. Because it wasn’t anything I tried to do. It’s just that fate somehow has kept me doing this thing year after year, without any year going by when I didn’t do Twain. As I’ve gotten older and seen what’s going on in the world, I get more catharsis out of doing the show. It’s very easy for me to get pumped up for this show.
It’s very hard for me to get bored with it. I’m not bored with it. I don’t get bored. I get angry and want to get out there and talk about things. And I have this magnificent voice to talk with. I mean, I could never come up with the remarks that he makes, or the oblique points of view that he takes.
HOLBROOK (as Twain): I’ve heard a good deal all my life about heaven and hell. And as near as I can figure it, if a man goes to heaven he will put in all his time improving himself. He will study and study and study and progress and progress and progress and if that isn’t hell I don’t know what is.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
MOYERS: When you create new material, you’re not making it up. You’re picking something from this—
HOLBROOK: Yeah. I’m glad you picked up on that.
MOYERS: Yes. Yes.
HOLBROOK: No, I do not write Mark Twain. That’s impossible.
MOYERS: You may be courageous, but you’re not foolish.
HOLBROOK: Yeah. I may be suicidal but I’m not, well, okay. That’s beyond suicidal. But, no. I research the material all myself. You know I go through books and I edit it down. You know when you put literary material on the stage, and Mark Twain found this out himself, and wrote about it. You have to slim it down. So you slim it.
And there are other numbers that I may do on the show where I watch what’s going on in the world. And I like 9-11. And I want to construct something that seems, and the word seems is very important, because I don’t update the material. Much more powerful if you don’t update it. Just leave the name of the war out, leave the name of the President out, you leave the name of the politician out of, the corporate president, whatever.
And I construct the material which seems to talk about the results of 9-11. Crazy terrorism by religious fanatics. Which Mark Twain called the wildcat religious tribes. You know it’s wonderful. I don’t have to identify these poor misguided people who blew up the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon. I don’t have to name them. I just have to refer to them as disciples from the wildcat religious asylum.
MOYERS: As you talk, I cannot help but think about, what, to me, is one of the most mournful, haunting, eloquent and melancholy passages of despair in all of literature. It’s Mark Twain when he writes: ‘There is nothing. There is no God and no Universe. There is only empty space. And in it a lost and homeless and wandering and companionless and indestructible thought.’ ‘And I,’ he says, ‘am that thought.’
HOLBROOK: Is that MYSTERIOUS STRANGER?
HOLBROOK: Gosh, I haven’t— that’s very moving.
MOYERS: Well, some people say that it was because of the death of his wife and his three children that he turned against religion. Hated it.
HOLBROOK: Nah, that’s—
MOYERS: You don’t think so?
HOLBROOK: I think that’s ridiculous. That’s a simplistic evaluation of Mark Twain. This kind of black vision was in his head from when he was a young, reasonably young man. It was carried forward. He had hidden a lot. By circumstance or whatever he was with. His wife was certainly probably not enamored of this kind of thinking. But it was there and it haunted him all the time.
It’s one of the dimensions of Mark Twain. Mark Twain cannot be defined. You can’t define Mark Twain.
MOYERS: Someone said, “He’s the mirror of us all.”
HOLBROOK: Yeah. He’s like— you can go into Mark Twain’s material and prove anything you want.
HOLBROOK: I mean you can prove he was against war. He was for war. You can prove anything you want. You can prove he was against rich people and he was for them. I mean you could prove he was against materialism or for it. You can prove anything you want. He was a kaleidoscope of the human person and—
MOYERS: And what was it he said? I am not an American. I am the American.
HOLBROOK: I am the American. He also said; the human race is a race of cowards. And I am not only marching in that procession, I am carrying a banner. I try to remember that.
HOLBROOK (as Twain): Well that California get-rich-quick disease of my youth spread like wildfire. It produced a civilization which has destroyed the simplicity and repose of life, its poetry, its soft, romantic dreams and visions and replaced them with a money fever, sordid ideals, vulgar ambitions and a sleep which does not refresh. It has created a thousand useless luxuries and turned them into necessities and satisfied nothing. It has dethroned God and set up a shekel in His place. Oh the dreams of our youth, how beautiful they are and how perishable.
[END VIDEO CLIP]
MOYERS: You have always been willing to rock the boat. Where did that come from?
HOLBROOK: Oh, it’s an interesting question. Well, I didn’t have much of a family. My mother and father left when I was two and disappeared. And my two sisters and I were raised by my grandfather back in New England, in South Weymouth. I was brought up there. And I was sent away to school when I was seven, to another state. And I was beat up a lot by a pretty strange teacher, when I was a little kid.
And I had to learn to survive. I learned to survive in boy’s schools. I didn’t have much home. Because I was four years there, and then I had gone to military school. I think I developed a resistance to authority. Not to discipline. I learned that. But to authority. I like to think for myself. And I just like to cause trouble.
MOYERS: Well, is it true that you once sailed 2,400 miles across the Pacific in a 40 foot—
HOLBROOK: Forty foot boat. I still have the boat.
HOLBROOK: Yeah. Alone.
MOYERS: Why did you do that?
HOLBROOK: Once again, the suicidal impulse. I became— To make a long story short, I bought a little 9 1/2 foot boat and it was fiberglass tub, and I taught myself to sail with a little book. And I would go around in this thing, I thought I was Magellan. You know I actually went a mile offshore once, tipped over. I thought the sharks were going to get me.
But you know I just— I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the— I don’t know. And I wanted to go long distances. I wanted so much to go around the Horn. I wanted to go around the world. And I started but we got about as far as New Zealand. And because of work and all, I decided to go back. Cause by then you either have to go all the way or come back.
MOYERS: What do you think about when you’re out there on a long trip like that and you’re alone? What do you think about night in and night out? Day in and day out?
HOLBROOK: You think about getting somewhere. Getting— hoping you get to where you’re going. You think about that a lot. You think about; is the boat okay? Is everything working right? Could there be a leak somewhere I don’t know about? You double check, you triple check.
We have a rule on the boat; you always know where the knife is. You never put anything back in a different place. You have to be able to know, in an instant, where that knife is to save your life or something else. A plug for a hole to save your life. And basically you’re out there in the embrace, and not tender either, of this great world. This huge, not empty, great silent force. And you’re in that embrace and you have to survive in it.
You have to know how to keep yourself from going down. And you can’t fight it. You have to learn not to fight nature. You have to learn to give to nature just enough to stay alive and stay upright.
MOYERS: A final, personal question. Mark Twain wrote about the woman who boasted she didn’t drink, smoke, or curse. He said, she was a sinking ship which had no freight to throw over.
HOLBROOK: I love that.
MOYERS: What freight would you like to throw over?
HOLBROOK: I’d like to throw overboard all my past mistakes, of which I have made a multitude. I wish I could wipe out the hurt that I’ve caused other people in my life. I wish I could have been a better father when my children were growing up, and less frightened about my own future, and how I was going to make a living, so I could have spent more real attention on them, and been more honest with them. It would be a great opportunity, but—
MOYERS: You were really nervous about your future? You were really scared?
HOLBROOK: Oh, I was frightened to death. I was scared to death all the time. I was scared to death all the time at about– to maybe about 10 or 12 or 14 years ago, when I finally said, “The hell with it,” and stopped being scared.
I was scared all the time when I was acting. I never realized— sometimes, you know, when I see a young actor today doing a good job, I make it my business to go back and tell him. You know why? Because when I look at some of the things, like on tape or whatever, that I did years ago when I was young, that I didn’t think were very good, and I look at it now, and I think, “You know, you were good. You were really talented.” But nobody told me.
Nobody tells you. And I didn’t know. And when I think what I could have accomplished, maybe, if I’d known.
MOYERS: Do you still see yourself as a very young man, walking the streets in New York, looking for a job? A long time ago.
HOLBROOK: It could happen.
MOYERS: Again. Hal Holbrook, thank you very much for joining us on NOW.
HOLBROOK: You’re welcome.
ANNOUNCER: And connect to NOW online at pbs.org.
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MOYERS: I’m pleased to report that Hal Holbrook’s 1967 television performance is now being offered to public television stations around the country. So any station can acquire and air it. Check it out on pbs.org. Thanks for your support of this station during these past three pledge weeks. Next week, David Brancaccio and I will return to our regular coverage of politics. That’s it for NOW. I’m Bill Moyers.
This transcript was entered on August 19, 2015.