Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Lock Haven, Clinton County
Hal Holbrook began his internationally acclaimed one-man stage tribute, using Mark Twain's own words, at Lock Haven University in 1954.
Awards: Emmy Award, Tony Award
Hal Holbrook is an actor and playwright who is best known for his creation of the one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight!, performed for the first time, in 1954, in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. Holbrook has also starred in several movies, the most famous of which include All The President’s Men, Wall Street, The Firm, and Creepshow, which was filmed in Pittsburgh. His television credits include The Senator and Designing Women, and he has starred in such plays as Death of a Salesman, King Lear, The Glass Menagerie, and Our Town. Holbrook has won five Emmys, a Tony Award, and a Peabody Award. Holbrook still performs in Mark Twain Tonight! a few shows each year.
Hal Holbrook was born Harold Rowe Holbrook Jr. on February 17, 1925, in Cleveland. Abandoned at a young age by his parents, Holbrook and his two sisters were raised by their grandparents in South Weymouth, Massachusetts. Holbrook was sent to boarding school by his grandfather, at the age of seven, and eventually ended up at Culver Military Academy, where his interest in acting began. After failing algebra and needing a few extra credits to graduate, a friend suggested drama classes. Holbrook came to enjoy acting, and in 1942 he landed his first paid acting job at the Cain Park Theater in Cleveland. Holbrook was paid $15 per week for his portrayal of the son Richard in The Man Who Came to Dinner. In the fall of that year, Holbrook enrolled at Ohio’s Denison University, majoring in theater. However, his education was interrupted when he left the university to serve as an Army engineer in World War II. After the war, Holbrook returned to the university, where he began work on an honors project that would develop into his most distinguished achievement.
The project began as a two-person show with Holbrook and his first wife, Ruby Johnson, portraying a variety of literary characters, including Mark Twain. When the couple graduated in 1948, they took the show on the road, touring schools in the Southwest. In 1953, Holbrook began working on a new project, a one-man show focused exclusively on the life and works of the great American writer, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain). Holbrook debuted his Mark Twain, in 1954, at the Lock Haven State Teachers College in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania. Not long after the performance, Holbrook earned a role in The Brighter Day, a television soap opera. Although the job was a wonderful opportunity for Holbrook, he continued to develop his one-man show, performing the play at a nightclub in Greenwich Village where the show ran for seven months.
A stroke of luck brought Ed Sullivan to the club one evening, and he offered Holbrook the opportunity to portray his Mark Twain character on his show. Motivated by his appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, Holbrook opened his play, now titled Mark Twain Tonight!, in an off-Broadway theater, where it received rave reviews. Holbrook quit his job on the soap opera and devoted his time and energies to researching and updating his play.
Due to the initial critical and commercial success of Mark Twain Tonight!, the play opened on Broadway in 1966, where Holbrook’s performances won him a Tony Award and a Drama Critic’s Circle Award. The following year, the play was adapted for television as a 90-minute CBS special, for which Holbrook earned an Emmy nomination.
In 1967, Holbrook played another famous historical character, the anonymous Watergate witness, Deep Throat, in All The President’s Men. Holbrook went on to star in a number of other films, most notably Oliver Stone’s Wall Street and the darkly comic horror film Creepshow, which was filmed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Holbrook also appeared on a number of television shows, mini-series, and specials. His role as Hays Stowe on the television show The Senator earned him his first Emmy Award. Following this, Holbrook earned three more Emmys, two for his performance in the television special Pueblo, and another for Sandburg’s Lincoln.
In 1979, Holbrook was awarded an Honorary Doctor of the Humanities Degree from Ohio State University, Kenyon University, and Denison University. Shortly thereafter, during the 1980s, Holbrook hosted the WTBS show, Portrait of America, for five years. His work as narrator and host earned him his fifth Emmy Award, as well as the Peabody Award and the CableACE Award.
In 1984, Holbrook married his third wife, actress Dixie Carter, who starred on the television show Designing Women. Holbrook has five children, including two stepchildren from his marriage to Carter. The couple now lives in Los Angeles. Holbrook continues to reprise his role as Mark Twain, performing a few shows each year.
Mark Twain Tonight! 1954.
Plays (starred in)
The Man Who Came to Dinner. Cleveland: Cain Park Theatre, 1942.
The Glass Menagerie. CBS Television, 1966.
Merchant of Venice. San Diego: Old Globe Theatre, 2000.
All The President’s Men. Warner Brothers, 1976.
Wall Street. 20th Century Fox, 1987.
The Firm. Paramount Pictures, 1993.
The Majestic. Castle Rock Entertainment, 2001.
The Brighter Day. CBS Television, 1954-1959.
The Senator. Universal Television, 1970.
Sandburg’s Lincoln. David L. Wolper Productions, 1975.