Childhood & Early Life
Hal Holbrook was born Harold Rowe Holbrook Jr., on February 17, 1925, in Cleveland, Ohio. His mother, Aileen, was a vaudeville dancer. His parents, Harold Sr. and Aileen, abandoned young Holbrook when he was two years old. Holbrook and his two sisters grew up with their paternal grandparents.
Holbrook graduated from the ‘Culver Military Academy.’ Thereafter, he attended the ‘Denison University’ in Ohio, where he studied theater. While studying there, he was required to work on a project on the author Mark Twain. The author’s works had influenced him a lot and had inspired him to create his one-man show, a series of performances known as ‘Mark Twain Tonight.’
Holbrook served in the ‘United States Army’ during World War II. He was stationed in Newfoundland as an engineer. While in the army, Holbrook was active in theater and performed in plays such as ‘Madam Precious.’
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In 1954, Holbrook gave his first solo performance as ‘Mark Twain’ in ‘Lock Haven State Teachers College’ in Pennsylvania. He created a buzz with this performance. Soon, he was noticed by noted TV presenter Ed Sullivan. Holbrook was invited to ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ in February, 1956. The show received an overwhelming response from its audiences.
Holbrook developed his performance through a one-man show, ‘Mark Twain Tonight.’ He was part of the European tour sponsored by the ‘US Department of State.’ He performed in several nations situated behind the ‘Iron Curtain.’
In 1959, Holbrook performed solo for the first time in an ‘Off- Broadway’ show. He performed for the ‘New York World’s Fair’ in 1964 and 1965. In 1966, Holbrook performed on ‘Broadway.’ In the same year, he won a ‘Tony Award’ for his performance. In 1967, the show, ‘Mark Twain Tonight’ was presented on TV by ‘CBS’ and ‘Xerox.’ Holbrook won an ‘Emmy Award’ for this performance. When Holbrook gave his last performance as ‘Twain,’ he was 80 years old, making him older than the character he played. ‘Mark Twain Tonight’ remained one of the most popular shows, with more than two thousand performances, until Holbrook retired in 2017.
From 1954 to 1962, the daytime soap opera ‘The Brighter Day’ was aired on ‘CBS.’ In the series, Hal Holbrook played ‘Grayling,’ one of the major characters. In 1964, he played the role of ‘Major’ in the original production of the ‘Broadway’ play ‘Incident at Vichy.’
In the late 1960s and 1970s, Holbrook got more prominent TV roles. In 1976, he played ‘Abraham Lincoln’ in the mini-series ‘Lincoln.’ The series was based on the biography of Lincoln, written by Carl Sandburg. Holbrook continued his success story with the role of ‘Senator Hays Stowe’ in the political-drama series, ‘The Bold Ones: The Senator.’ The series was aired on ‘NBC’ from 1970 to 1971. Both these roles earned him ‘Emmy’ awards.
In 1966, Hal Holbrook made his debut in films, with ‘The Group,’ directed by Sidney Lumet. In 1972, he played the role of ‘Doug Salter’ in ‘That Certain Summer,’ a controversial movie that dealt with homosexuality. In 1976, Holbrook shot to international fame with the portrayal of the enigmatic ‘Deep Throat’ in the movie ‘All the President’s Men.’ In 1999, he was inducted into the ‘American Theater Hall of Fame.’ He also acted in several movies such as ‘Julia,’ ‘The Fog,’ and ‘Men of Honor.’
In 2007, Hal Holbrook bagged the role of ‘Ron Franz’ in the movie ‘Into The Wild.’ It was a biographical survival movie, directed by Sean Penn. This was a major landmark in his career. At the age of 82, Holbrook delivered the best performance of his life. He received an ‘Academy Award’ nomination for the ‘Best Actor in a Supporting Role’ for this movie. He shot to fame as the oldest star to be nominated for an ‘Academy Award’ in the said category. He was also nominated for the ‘Screen Actors Guild Award.’
Although Holbrook was in his eighties in the 2000s, he continued being active in films and TV. In 2008, he acted in the movie ‘That Evening Sun,’ with his wife. The movie was about an octogenarian farmer who refused to bend before old age. Holbrook received critical acclaim for his portrayal of the character.
In 2012, Holbrook played the part of ‘Francis Preston Blair,’ in the Steven Spielberg movie ‘Lincoln.’ In 2014, he lent his voice to the Disney animated movie ‘Planes: Fire & Rescue.’ He also directed some episodes of the TV sitcom ‘Designing Women.’
Hal Holbrook has won five ‘Emmy Awards’ and one ‘Tony Award’ for his portrayal of ‘Mark Twain.’ In 2003, he was honored with the ‘National Humanities Medal’ by President George W. Bush, for charming audiences with the wit and wisdom of ‘Mark Twain.’ In 2009, he was honored with a ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ at the ‘Nashville Film Festival.’
Hal Holbrook has married thrice. He married Canadian actress Ruby Elaine Johnstone in 1945. They had two children: Victoria and David. The couple divorced in 1965. In 1966, Holbrook married Carol Eve Rossen. They had one daughter, Eve Holbrook. His second marriage too ended in a divorce.
In 1984, Holbrook got married to actor and singer, Dixie Carter. He starred in a number of sitcoms with Dixie. The couple did not have any children. Dixie died of cancer in 2010. After her death, a local community in her hometown, Tennessee, constructed the ‘The Dixie Carter Performing Arts Center’ in her memory.
Holbrook is a converted Christian. However, he is known to keep liberal views, and he tends to criticize the ‘Bible’ at times. He holds independent views on politics.
In 2017, after Holbrook retired from his show ‘Mark Twain Tonight,’ ‘The HuffPost’ hailed him as “the man who has done more to keep Mark Twain on people’s minds than anyone else.”
Holbrook is known for his strong views on politics. He criticized the ‘Republican Party’ while Barack Obama was still in office. In 2017, he criticized President Donald Trump, saying that Trump was “trying to distort the American dream.”