Hal Holbrook, long a dignified presence on the stage, screen, and TV, died January 23 at his Beverly Hills home, his assistant confirmed to The New York Times. He was 95.
A five-time Emmy winner who worked across eight decades, Holbrook was widely recognized for his one-man shows as Mark Twain, a performance he gave over 2,000 times. He first tried his hand at the concept while in college in 1947, but Holbrook had initially resisted the "corny" suggestion, made by his mentor at Denison University in Ohio. He proved a natural as Twain, dressing in the famed author's trademark white suits and donning a white wig and craggy makeup to complete the look.
It was an uncanny performance, and was meta before meta was meta — Twain himself had been a stagey creation of writer Samuel Clemens.
Holbrook's take on Twain was fully developed by 1954, when he debuted the show "Mark Twain Tonight!" — and he would eventually take the act across the country, on "The Tonight Show" (1956), and to Broadway, where he won a Tony for his portrayal. He revived the show again on Broadway in 1977 and in 2005, by which time he didn't need old-age makeup for the part, only retiring the role in 2017. Past 90 (Twain had only lived to 74), he sent regrets in writing to a theater where he'd been scheduled to perform: "I know it must end, this long effort to do a good job. I have served my trade, gave it my all, heart and soul, as a dedicated actor can."
Holbrook was born February 17, 1925, in Cleveland. Raised, along with his two sisters, by their grandparents, he attended a military academy as a teen and pursued acting in NYC after graduating college. He was already acting while serving in WWII, performing in plays.
An appearance as Twain on "The Ed Sullivan Show" (1956) marked his first big splash on TV following a 1955 debut on the series "Mr. Citizen," but aside from a recurring role on the soap "The Brighter Day" (1954-1959), it would be many years before his TV and movie roles ate into his time onstage, including a Broadway debut in "Do You Know the Milky Way?" (1961), a part in the original production of Arthur Miller's "Incident at Vichy" (1964), in Miller's "After the Fall" opposite Faye Dunaway (who starred in the Marilyn Monroe-inspired part), and as a replacement for the lead in "Man of La Mancha" on Broadway (1968) — even though he couldn't sing.
In 1966, Holbrook appeared with Shirley Booth in a CBS Playhouse production of "The Glass Menagerie," an acclaimed filmed play that was lost until being rediscovered, restored, and re-aired in 2016.
That same year, Holbrook made his film debut in director Sidney Lumet's "The Group." He appeared in the out-there political satire "Wild in the Streets" (1968), the dog-driven mystery "They Only Kill Their Masters" (1972), and in the Clint Eastwood action flick "Magnum Force" (1973) before playing the pivotal role of Deep Throat in "All the President's Men" (1976).
Holbrook had been skeptical of playing Deep Throat, saying it was a forgettable part because the guy was always in the dark. Following arm-twisting by star Robert Redford, he accepted the role and said in 2018, "He was right as rain... I was very happy to be part of that. It was a very important film."
Other films included "Julia" (1977), "Capricorn One" (1977), "The Fog" (1980), "Creepshow" (1982), "Wall Street" (1987), "The Firm" (1993), and "That Evening Sun" (2009).
Perhaps his best-remembered movie performances came late — opposite Emile Hirsch in 2007's "Into the Wild," for which he was Oscar-nominated, and as Francis Preston Blair in the Oscar-winning "Lincoln" (2012).
A frequent presence on TV, Holbrook starred on the series "The Bold Ones: The Senator" (1970-1971, Emmy win), broke ground as one half of a gay couple (with Martin Sheen) in the made-for-TV movie "That Certain Summer" (1972), starred in the TV movie "Pueblo" (1974, for which he won two Emmys the same year the late Cicely Tyson won two Emmys for "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman"), and portrayed Abraham Lincoln in the miniseries "Sandburg's Lincoln" (1974-1976, Emmy win).