Arts & Culture

Hal Holbrook Remembered

Hal Holbrook Remembered

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 famed stage performance as Mark Twain.


It’s one of the dimensions of Mark Twain … You can’t define 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?

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.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.