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Hal Holbrook On The Road To Becoming 'Mark Twain'

While actor Hal Holbrook is best known for his portrayal of Mark Twain, he has starred in scores of films and television programs.
Ana Gilbert
While actor Hal Holbrook is best known for his portrayal of Mark Twain, he has starred in scores of films and television programs.

Hal Holbrook is best known for his portrayal of Mark Twain in the long-running one-man show Mark Twain Tonight. The actor also played Deep Throat in All the President's Men and won an Oscar nomination for his performance in Into the Wild.

But before becoming a beloved actor, Holbrook had to survive a painful childhood.

He describes that childhood in his new autobiography, Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain. When Holbrook was a young boy, his father was sent to an insane asylum, a separation for which the young Holbrook received virtually no explanation. He was abandoned by his mother and endured repeated beatings and humiliation at boarding school.

Holbrook eventually discovered his passion — and his escape — in acting. Onstage, he tells NPR's Neal Conan, he learned to hide behind multiple masks of grease paint, accents and costumes.

Holbrook says it took "years and years" for him to realize how those myriad disguises had, in many ways, prevented him from finding his own identity.

Interview Highlights

On finally finding himself, beneath his onstage disguises

"The book really is not just about doing Mark Twain ... it's about this young man — this young boy who became a man. ... It's about how to find yourself when you're inside of a disguise, whether it's me being made up as Mark Twain, or whether you're disguising yourself from other people because you don't feel comfortable with yourself ...

"Nobody knew who I was. Mark Twain was the star. He was the one who had made the success. Nobody knew what I looked like; they didn't know what I was like as a person; nothing. I was behind this mask, this disguise. And I finally had to be brave enough to get out behind disguises. Which I'd always loved. I always wanted to get a limp or a hump on my back or an accent. ... [I had to] get out behind the disguise and try to figure out who I was. It took years and years ...

"It's a lot of mistakes made, with my children. ... There is a great cost that comes to you, and to other people around you, when you have a single-minded purpose and you pursue it against all interference. My single-minded purpose was to survive. I didn't think of it that way, but that's what was in me. And I couldn't ... do anything but just keep trying to go ahead and go ahead. And I've just always been that way."

On childhood in the 1930s, and today

"It was tough. It was New England. It's much different from now. We have so many distractions for kids now, and you're not allowed to punish anybody or discipline them or anything. It was a totally different world then. ... If a teacher wanted to whack you in the face, they could do it. So it was tough. It was tough.

"We didn't have plastic toys. We had to make our own life our own imagination. You had to obey orders and were disciplined. It was a very different time than what it is now. I don't know that it was worse than what we have now; in some ways I think it was much better — if you could survive it."

On why playing Mark Twain is so appealing

"Mark Twain tells the truth. ... I have done Twain in all kinds of situations. ... [My portrayal of Twain] grew out of the civil rights period. I started doing it in 1954 and really in 1956, when I started touring. [I] went all through the South.

"You know, Mark Twain's heart was with the common man, not the Wall Street millionaires. And I do stuff today that you probably couldn't get away with, if you were me. But with him, he's telling the truth. He's telling you what the truth is. And it's so clear, that people listen to it."

On why he never feels he has perfected a role

"The material is so — it's so rich, and it's so on target. No, I don't update anything. I never have updated anything, because you don't have to, and I learned that early on, because people think you're talking about something that happened today or yesterday, because it all happened the same way 100 years ago, or 140 years ago. Nothing has changed!

"The stuff we're going through now — with the banks and with the economy and with the corporations and the whole bit — has all been done before. Teddy Roosevelt put the restrictions on the banks because they did the same thing in 1907 that happened a couple of years ago. And we took them off in the 1990s, and they got loose and bang, bang, bang. So everything that happened in the past is just revolving on a 360-degree circle."

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