Skip to main content

“With Mark Twain You Can Get Away With Murder”

May 2024
15min read

The man who has lived with him nearly as long as Samuel Clemens did tells why Twain still has the power to delight—and to disturb

Beginning with a lecture in St. Louis in 1867, Mark Twain’s famous career as a public speaker spanned about 40 years. But thanks to his avatar Hal Holbrook, he has gone on amusing and instructing and scolding us for another half-century on stages all over the world. Though Holbrook has now lived longer than Twain did, he continues to portray the old man with undiminishcd vitality and even eerier authenticity in his one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight!

A recipient of five Emmys, twelve Emmy nominations, a Tony, an Obie, a Peabody, and assorted other awards, Holbrook makes his home atop one of the Beverly Hills in the Rrst house that has ever induced in me a desire to live in Los Angeles. He greeted me there on a windy afternoon last December. In my estimation, he is one of the two or three finest actors in America, and in the field of historical portrayal there is no one who can touch him. Though I had been inspired to interview him after recently catching his act in Nashville, Tennessee, my admiration has been almost lifelong.

I had seen Mark Twain Tonight! on CBS back in the sixties, and I had heard it later on tape. But it was wonderful to sec how much further Holhrook has taken his portrayal of Twain and to watch how he worked an audience. We all squirmed as we laughed at Twain’s pungent commentaries on issues every bit as urgent and complex and fundamental as anything we face today.

I wanted to know what it meant to Hal Holbrook to dig so far under the skin of Mark Twain and the other historical characters he portrayed. So I began by asking when he first found out that Mark Twain still had so much to say.

Well, in the early 1960s I came to realize that Twain was, as George Bernard Shaw said, America’s Voltaire and that there probably hadn’t been another one to equal him as a voice. The depth of his commentary and its long life are almost mindblowing. You figure there must be an end to it somewhere. I do all my own research, my own editing and writing, and everything I pick from Twain’s work depends on what my view of the world happens to be and how I convey what he might want to say about it. Oftentimes I’ve thought I’ve got it all, but then the world changes in the next decade, and things happen, and there’s suddenly material that I’d overlooked 10 years before.

That’s how I developed that new number where Twain says the character of the human race never changes; only its circumstances do. We think we know more than our forefathers, but is our intellect any better? “We’re richer, but”—beautiful line—“does our character show improvement?”


Your parents absconded when you were quite small, and you were raised by your grandfather in Massachusetts. I wonder if he influenced a very young man to take on the role of an elderly Mark Twain.

I think he probably did. When I started acting, my first role was as an old man. I seemed to be able to portray one with a good deal of accuracy and believability, even when I was 18. I’m sure it was from observing my grandfather.

My grandfather had a store in Cleveland, one in Boston, and several others, but he was a tough man who had come up the hard way. He started helping support the family when he was about 11 years old, making 50 cents a week cleaning spittoons.

Why did your parents run off?

They were just a couple of kids. My father couldn’t hold down a job. There was something a little off about him.

He became a hobo. Literally. He was a jungle cat. I used to get calls from the police in Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, Alaska. “Hello, are you the son of Harold R. Holbrook? We have him in custody for vagrancy.” [He points to a picture of an abashed elderly man slouched in a sun chair.] That was taken in 1975 or ’76, when we finally got him down here and I put him in a nursing home. I had found him in a flophouse on Mission Street in San Francisco, after not seeing him for 18 years.


So your grandfather raised you?

Actually, Dickensian teachers in a New England school raised me. By the time I went to college, I had had four years of regimentation at Culver Military Academy, and that was after four years at an academy in Connecticut where I had had just about enough of getting whipped and every other damn thing. I’d had enough of it. I hated it. Not that I didn’t derive something good from it.

How did you first get interested in acting?

My whole interest had been in sports. Then, in my senior year at Culver, I desperately needed another hour of credit because I flunked algebra and had to take an extra-heavy load of work to graduate. A friend of mine said, “Why don’t you take the dramatics class?” Now, I thought all those dramatics people were very weird. But he told me there was no homework, and I thought, “Well, what the hell.” But then the first play I was in, I walked out on stage, and God, I thought I was in wonderland. I was thunderstruck by the feeling that people were listening to me. I wanted to be noticed, you know, and to be listened to. It became very important. And it is now. It’s one reason we’re sitting here today. I mean, I want to be listened to. I want to say something. I want to try to have some effect upon the way people think about things.

I understand Mark Twain Tonight! derived from a senior project at Denison University, after which you and your first wife, Ruby, began performing a series of excerpts from literature at schools in the Southwest. Did that experience help you gauge Twain’s potential appeal to a mass audience?

No. The truth of the matter is that there was very, very little fertile ground for intellectual germination in those audiences. Mark Twain was an important part of our act because he was the surefire comedy number, and we put him at the end so we could get off with a laugh. But when I got up on my feet and conceived of holding an audience all by myself—I mean, hell, we’re talking about a whole different line of goods here.

When I started working this thing out as a solo, I developed it in a New York nightclub, and I learned a lot about the timing. But basically, you know, I wa_s still dealing with trying to hold an audience by being funny.

Yet, after some point, being funny was not your sole purpose with Twain.

Well, I also did a serious piece from Huckleberry Finn , the shooting of Boggs by Sherburn and the attempted lynching. It contains a great speech, which is really Mark Twain himself talking to the Ku Klux Klan. It was written after Reconstruction died in the South, when the federal government had pulled the troops out and the Klan came out of the woods and took over, literally, in the daylight. Thinking of it now, I don’t know why I would do such a thing in a nightclub, but I did.

I’d started to get bookings: women’s clubs, little colleges. In 1957 I had a booking in Arkansas. There’d been this riot at a place called Central High School a month before, and the troops were sent in. I arrived on the heels of that to perform at a women’s club in North Little Rock. I wanted to say something, but all I had that said anything about mob violence was Sherburn and Boggs. So I did it, and the audience was silent and still. Maybe I imagined it, but I think they got it. I realized I could say something. If I could get more specific, I could say a lot.

So when I came home, I started looking through Twain material that I hadn’t read. I found Philip Foner’s Mark Twain: Social Critic in the Argosy Book Store. That book just opened up a whole world to me. I began to realize that Mark Twain was a critic of the ills in our society and the failures in human nature.

A lot of it was funny, but it was funny while you drank the poison. And it was true . To me, it was as if somebody was suddenly saying stuff that I’d never been able to say, exactly, but that had been in my heart to say.

This came at the time of the civil rights movement.

Which was really a kind of revolution. In 1962 I was heading from Seattle toward Chicago when I read that there was this tremendous confrontation going on in Oxford, Mississippi: riots, soldiers, carbines, mortars. I was supposed to go there to perform. So when I got to Chicago, I called my manager. “Listen,” I said, “I’m supposed to head for Oxford day after tomorrow. I mean, what am I supposed to do? I’m not going there, am I?” But he said, “Hal, they haven’t said you shouldn’t come.”

So we went, my stage manager and I. We knew things were serious, because they had canceled the Ole Miss football game. The school had not been allowed to assemble for a couple of weeks, until it came to see me. I was the guinea pig. They had federal agents in the audience and backstage and an escape route for me out the stage door to the girls’ dorm, in case of a riot. They even taught me how to defend myself with a fire extinguisher.

But you know, with Mark Twain you can get away with murder. You can say damn near anything, and people are either intimidated by it or love it or are afraid to say anything because of who he is. I mean, he’s an old man, and he’s tough . He doesn’t take any crap from anybody. So he’s not an easy man to boo. You know what I mean? You can go down South, where they regard him as one of their own, and you can say a lot.

I’d already begun to see that if you ran a shoe store in some little town in Alabama or Georgia or wherever and you spoke out, your children would be in trouble, your house could get burned down. I mean, it all sounds very fine, you know—all this wonderful confrontation and everything—when you’re living up North, but I’d learned that it’s another thing if you live down South. I was a Northerner, but I learned a hell of a lot, which was: “Don’t be too damn sure, buddy. Don’t be too damn sure, pal, how brave you would be if you were down there.”

“They had federal agents … and an escape route for me out the stage door to the girls’ dorm, in case of a riot.”

I found out that there were people who silently wanted a change down there. And so, when I started my show in Oxford, with my knees knocking, I bet on them. I opened the second act with the toughest material I had, which was about the silent lie. It introduces Huck. Mark Twain uses slavery as an example of the silent lie, how people lied by remaining silent in the face of this great injustice. At the end of that section there’s a long pause. I do it on purpose. I end up saying, “It is timid … and shabby .” Then there’s a long pause where I walk back to the lectern.

Three times an audience has applauded at that moment. The first time was in Hamburg, Germany, in 1961. The second time was in Oxford, Mississippi, in 1962. And the third time was in Prague in 1985. So it’s not as if this stops.

No, it doesn’t.

And then there was the Vietnam War, which I felt was a bad move for us even before we really got into it. So I began to look at Twain’s anti-imperialistic stuff, like “Now we are a world power and are happy and glad and have a seat up front with the family, with tacks in it.” So here I was riding the wave of a new realization, a new vision of areas in Mark Twain’s writings that hadn’t been explored before or popularized.

What about today?

When you’re old, like me, it’s hard to evaluate properly because you get trapped in this whole business of being so much older and not wanting to see your way of life tremendously altered. But in my view, the cynical disregard for honesty that has slipped into our way of life is awful. This machine [he points to the television set], I think, has been the most powerful instrument of destruction I’ve seen in my lifetime.

You’re 78, which is years older than the Twain you’re portraying.

Yeah. I have to play him young now. It’s much easier because I’m now playing a character, so to speak. I’m not playing age.

There were so many times during your performance in Nashville when I recognized nineteenth-century traits that I can remember from my own grandfather, like the slow, anticlimactic fussing with things. You’ve got a lot of business with the cigar and the ashtray and the match, and it goes on for so long that the audience is dying of suspense to see whether Twain’s going to use it or put it out.

Yeah. Well, those are all crafted things. They’re part of the character that I developed years ago. He had a kind of walk that was described as slightly off kilter. People, even his best friend’s wife, sometimes thought he was a little loaded. And I wondered where this walk came from. When I was first doing the show and we were working along the Mississippi, we took a steamboat. I thought, “Now, he was a pilot” [he gets to his feet to demonstrate], and so I started walking around the boat, and I thought, “Well, just relax your body and walk the way this boat makes you walk.” And I noticed that my outboard foot would kind of throw out because the deck was slanted outboard. Then it happened that the next year I saw the only existing film of him walking, and he was doing the same thing, throwing his foot out.

As for the fiddling with the cigar and all those things, I’m alone up there; I have to have a physical activity to keep the show in motion. But also I’m dealing with a person whose comedy technique was deadpan. He threw lines away, laugh lines on top of laugh lines, punch lines on top of punch lines, as if he didn’t know they were coming. He doesn’t say, “Hey, this is funny.” He just drops it. You think that’s it, and he turns to walk away and drops another one, and they explode on you without warning. That was his delivery. So I go toward the ashtray, and it seems like that’s all I’m intent on. But at the same time I’ll say, “God invented Man because … he was disappointed in the monkey,” and then I’ll drop the ash.

Twain’s first date with Olivia Langdon, his future wife, was to hear Charles Dickens lecture in New York City. It was very formal, with Dickens standing at a lectern. But in his own lectures, Twain broke all the traditions of public speaking, the same way he broke the European literary traditions that were influencing American writers. He was criticized for it too. He wandered around the stage, leaned on the lectern, slouched. All those things were shocking to some people in those days.

But they would not be today. So I had to think, “What can I do today that would establish the eccentricity and be a little shocking because it’s unusual?” So I figured, first, the white suit. Twain never wore it on the platform, but I wear it. Second, there is the use of the cigar, partly because the cigar was as much a part of his public persona as of Winston Churchill’s but also because it gives me an activity. I have to go to the ashtray.

Are there any of Twain’s books that you would like to see dramatized?

Well, I think Pudd’nhead Wilson is far more important in Mark Twain’s output than anybody seems to realize. It’s a direct frontal attack on the issue of racism. Huckleberry Finn is not so direct, because it’s told through the mouth of a boy who doesn’t know the import of what he’s saying. But Pudd’nhead Wilson is told by the author. That’s why nobody wants to have it banned for the use of the word nigger . They can understand it. The author is telling the story, and they get his point of view, so he’s all right.

“There was nothing … handsome about [Lincoln’s] face until he became beautiful as a human being.”

But not so with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn .

When it comes to Huckleberry Finn , people who aren’t able to use their imagination properly or are frightened into “political correctness” or are just deeply involved in their own pain over this word will say the book should be banned because he’s a racist. Well, the idea that Huckleberry Finn is racist is absurd. It’s not racist; it’s about racism. There’s hardly one decent white person in the whole damn book. The portrait of Jim and the development of this ignorant white juvenile delinquent’s respect for this black man is a beautiful thing. But Pudd’nhead Wilson is a scathing statement of the white man’s idea that he’s better than the black man.

Are there any parts of Twain that rub you wrong? I mean, he had a narcissistic streak, and he sure could hold a grudge. Are there places where you say, “I can’t follow him there.”

Yes. He had a way of taking almost any side of any issue at any time. He was not consistent. There was an overall consistency about his philosophy that reflected a sensitivity toward the pain of life and a respect for and a seeking after the humanness in a human being. But he could argue two or three different sides of an issue, if he wanted to.

Do you suppose anyone will come along and take on the mantle of Twain after the comet comes round for you?

Sure. I mean, gosh, it’s a gold mine. I’ve already had to sue one fellow because he stole my material, word for word. Everything I do is copyrighted, because I’ve edited, rearranged, and spliced Twain’s work, sometimes to create a routine he didn’t write. But everything in it is his. I don’t rewrite Twain.

In addition to Twain, you’ve played a slew of historical figures. You portrayed Commander Bucher in The Pueblo on television in 1973 and effectively turned American public opinion in his favor.

I thought the man had been deeply wronged. I felt that he had been made a scapegoat by the head of the Pacific command and by President Johnson for a mistake of judgment the military had made. They put that man and his crew of 86 men off the coast of North Korea unarmed and in the way of great danger, and they did not save them from it.

In All the President’s Men you were one of the phantoms of American history: Deep Throat. I’m afraid I’m among those who don’t believe there ever was such a person, but I thought your portrayal was one of the most compelling elements in a very good film. There was a kind of anguished idealism under all his fear and cynicism.

It’s very interesting that you would catch that. We didn’t know who Deep Throat was. My idea for the character was that this was a man who had served several Presidents, and his allegiance went well beyond party and partisanship. His allegiance was to the United States and to his President, whoever that was. I learned from my research for the television show The Senator that one of the major rules in Washington is that you do not violate the code. To do what he did was unheard of. Unheard of. But he was driven to it by his recognition of the fact that the life of the country was in danger.

I think your portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Sandburg’s Lincoln , of 1975, is the best I’ve ever seen. You sounded like Lincoln. You brought out his simplicity but also a sense of his incredible complexity.

Once again, I did a great deal of research. I mean, a great deal of research. For instance, Billy Herndon’s book, which scholars don’t think a whole lot of, was tremendously important to me, because he was Lincoln’s law partner and knew him more intimately than all those other people who would write about him. He described him in detail. For instance [he stands up to demonstrate], Herndon said that when Lincoln gave speeches, he kept his feet together and straight parallel, like this. He bent from the knees, and he used his arms and swayed like a tree in the wind.

He also described how Lincoln laughed. I mean, you never see Lincoln laughing. No one has ever seen him with a big smile. Only the slight smile in that great photo by Alexander Gardner. But you never see his teeth. He had big, thick teeth. And when he laughed , he laughed. [He laughs loud and long.] I mean, he laughed like that.

The five words eyewitnesses used to describe Lincoln’s voice were: high, shrill, flat, nasal, unpleasant. And I found out that one reason he won the debates was that he didn’t lose his voice. Stephen A. Douglas did. Douglas had a beautiful voice, but the candidates had to speak to 8,000 to 10,000 people. And Lincoln’s voice was [he launches into an imitation that embraces all five adjectives] high! It was up in his he-e-ead! Over and out of his throat! Actors know that’s where you’ve got to get your sound so you won’t lose your voice. That doesn’t mean it’s how he’d sound sitting here with you. But it wasn’t the rolling, deep Raymond Massey voice, although I think Massey did a hell of a job with that character.

What else did you do to prepare for Lincoln?

I got on a plane, flew to Springfield, Illinois, and rented a car. I was going to retrace—backward—Lincoln’s steps from Kentucky to Gentryville, New Salem, and Springfield. It was late when I got the car, but I thought, “Fm going to drive up to New Salem anyway.”

When I got there, the park was closed, but I got out, and it started snowing, gently. The snow was falling, the woods were dark. It was spooky. I walked along the center lane of New Salem, and all of a sudden this figure burst out of the snow and went past me. I turned around, and he was gone. That night I couldn’t sleep. I drove all night. I went to Vincennes, and I stopped, and I had dinner at some local place and listened to the local people talk. I listened to their voices. I looked out at the weather, and I thought, “It’s cold out here. This man rode a horse in this weather on the circuit. I mean, this was a tough man.”

And look at his face. There was nothing beautiful or handsome about his face until he became beautiful as a human being. When we did the makeup—although, you know, they went overboard, unfortunately—I wanted people to see why he was called an ape. I wanted the ugliness to be there and the beauty to come out of the man psychologically.

Lincoln was not balanced. He did establish a certain equilibrium through discipline and his phenomenal mind and extraordinary character. But he was a deeply troubled man. What was he? Was he ashamed of his background? How did he feel?

We actors have a mission, like it or not, to show the heart of a human being, whether it’s Twain, Bucher, or Lincoln. With Lincoln I wanted to create a man who had all these things going against him so that people who weren’t beautiful and who were poor and injured could identify with this man and see that out of this kind of imperfection, perfection can grow.


We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.