In today’s Wall Street Journal I pay tribute to Hal Holbrook. Here’s an excerpt.
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Hal Holbrook, who died on Jan. 23 at age 95—his death was announced this week—spent most of his long career working in television, first as a soap-opera lead, then in series, miniseries and made-for-TV movies that are almost entirely forgotten today (who now remembers “The Bold Ones: The Senator”?) save by wizened couch potatoes. He was rarely seen on Broadway, and on the big screen he generally appeared in choice but small character roles…
Yet Mr. Holbrook is remembered to this day for his two greatest stage roles, both of which he also had the uncommon good luck to perform in very fine TV versions that remain in circulation. (They can be viewed on YouTube.)
Not surprisingly, they were character roles, but of a kind that most actors would kill to play, and one of them was in a show of his own meticulous and imaginative devising. In 1948, Mr. Holbrook began performing a monologue in which he portrayed Mark Twain, eventually doing it in New York nightclubs, on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and on Broadway, where it had three separate runs, in 1966, 1977 and 2005. In addition, “Mark Twain Tonight!”(as the full-evening version was called) was telecast in prime time on CBS in 1967, and that oft-repeated TV version made him a star.
Ten years later, Mr. Holbrook played the Stage Manager in a made-for-TV version of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” directed in the studio by George Schaefer. Though he never appeared in the role in New York, he played it more than once in regional-theater productions, most recently at Hartford Stage in a 2007 revival directed by Gregory Boyd that I called “the finest ‘Our Town’ I have ever seen or hope to see.”
What was it about Mr. Holbrook that made it possible for him to give unforgettable performances of two such different roles?…
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