If you have seen the Oscar-nominated film The Big Short, you might remember that the film opens with a quote from Mark Twain. “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” One person who knows Mark Twain and his quotes well is actor Hal Holbrook. For more than 60 years he’s been performing his always-evolving one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight! Holbrook brings the show to the Broad Stage in Santa Monica tomorrow night as a benefit for The Actors Fund.
“What [Twain] has taught me is he’s the only one I know who really tells the truth about who we are, how we behave and all the disruptions we practice as people,” Holbrook says. “I don’t know anybody I’ve ever read, and I read a lot, who tells the truth as simply and directly and as understandably as he does. We live in a world today which is riddled with lies. The act of lying, the habit of lying, I could say, has become acceptable.”
Holbrook, who turns 91 a week after this performance, is best known for his Oscar-nominated role in Into the Wild, along with roles in Lincoln and Water for Elephants. He memorably played Deep Throat in All the President’s Men.
He continually updates this show to remain topical. “I keep adding material all the time,” he says. “I put a new number in based on Mark Twain’s letter to his wife, as he puts it, ‘for his amusement.’ He forecast the coming of the monarchy in America. As he was doing so, he realized the monarchy was already here. He had not suspected it. It was here. What he said in this material is absolutely on target to what is happening today. That is why I have never updated Mark Twain’s material. You never have to update anything he wrote because we are replaying it over and over and over again in exactly the same way.”
Does Holbrook think we can ever break the cycle? “We never will,” he says with a laugh. “It’s the human race. They don’t know how to break the cycle. They never have. You can go back into history and change the costumes and the means of transportation and every other kind of way people live. It’s the same thing. What do you think Twain was talking about in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court? He made it in King Arthur’s court to disguise it. George Bernard Shaw, when he read it, wrote Mark Twain to say he was sure the future historians of America would regard him as America’s Voltaire.”
Of Holbrook, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Chairman of the Board of The Actors Fund, says, “I want to be him when I grow up. It’s not only his amazing artistry, but his amazing heart.” When told of these comments, Holbrook is genuinely modest. “That’s a terribly grand way of putting it,” he says. The reason I’m doing it for The Actors Fund is I’m an actor, and I admire actors more than anything else. I think our profession is one of the finest professions and has been for centuries. It’s been crapped on and made into a pretzel by a lot of people, mostly by people who run the big companies. And all they are thinking about is how to make a dollar. What actors are trying to do is tell us something important about who we are and our behavior and what we believe in.”
Before the conversation comes to an end, another Mark Twain quote is mentioned: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” Does Holbrook feels he has lived fully? “Wow, you’re getting into deep water,” he says. “I’m nearly 91 years old, and I look at that great beyond up ahead somewhere, and I’m trying to keep from entering it. I think a great deal about my life and about the horrible mistakes I’ve made. I wasn’t a good father, especially to my first two children. The one really great gift in my life was Dixie Carter [editor’s note: Holbrook’s third wife]. She taught me a great deal. And I know she’s waiting somewhere for me. I hope. It’s been almost six years since she passed away. She would say, ‘Buck up, scout, and don’t give up.’ I think about that all the time. I’m trying to live that way looking at 91. I’m just trying like hell to mean something.”