"I became personally acquainted with that great menace to the itinerant lecturer known as the local interviewer. You know, it is the time-worn custom of these people to probe you with a long string of personal questions which you try to answer just as conscientiously as you can . . . then he goes home and improves you.
"One time one of these villains came upon me in my hotel room and knocked on my door, announced he was from the Daily Thunderstorm . . . my first impulse was to pulverize him with the chair, but he sat down on it before I was able." -- MARK TWAIN
HALL HOLBROOK was alone. He waited for the local interviewer for a short while and then he was no longer alone; he was a one-man show. The stories to be untold were to be left untold -- and the others were, like Twain's, unimprovable. They were constructed of spun steel and tested like the gilded skyscrapers of another age. The words, though casual, were carefully chosen, the product of a thousand hours of driving alone from city to city remembering and remembering. The hours were spent, some of them, deepening his living portrait of Mark Twain, and others deepening his living portrait of himself.
The next evening Holbrook once again would do "Mark Twain Tonight! and on would go the white wig and the pored prosthetic nose and the rubber turkey neck, and he woudl shred his voice into an unquavering approximation of Clements' aged rasp, as he has done since he began the two-hour monologue in 1955. Then he would pick up a cigar and not apologize for smoking. "Mind you," he would say in the act, "I have no objection to abstinence as long as it does not harm anybody." But in the late daylight of the New York hotel, there was Hal Holbrook This Afternoon!, the remembrance of ghosts and of the inexorcisable memories that walk with him with the energy and precision of the living.
The afternoon sun suffused the memories, covered Holbrook who, with his red bluster and blast-laugh, has the hearing of a later version of Prince Hal, still the rebel. Right now, Holbrook's in New York because he has to be, and after that it's Boston, and after that five days this week at the Kennedy Center. Then, he's sailing to New Zealand, picking up his 40-foot sloop in Tahiti and moving on, taking the one-man show all the way west toward the east.
This time, it's Holbrook with a crew of two. Last year, he sailed to Hawaii solo, 22 days and nights of calluses and bloody knees. Just Holbrook alone, Holbrook taking the punishment, Holbrook entertaining the Pacific. "I slept two hours a day for 22 days," the voyager says, lying back on his bed. "I lost 20 pounds and a rope hit me in the face and I detached my retina. I didn't even know it."
He began his solitude at seven, and those morning memories lived with him. His parents had deserted his life early, he says, leaving, him to his grandfather, who sent the boy off to Connecticut to the Sheffield Academy, a world halfway between Dickens and John Knowles.
"I wanted to play football," Holbrook says, the flinty eyes of a 56-year-old man dissolving into a child's shock at the cruelties coming upon him, "but a cleated foot smashed in my face ended that. I went across a field, one day, to a track where the other boys were running. I was 8 and it was a fifth of a mile around, and I knew it was five times around to run a mile, and I drew a line in the cinders and began to run. When I came to, there I was, and everyone had left the field. I was all alone.
"The headmaster," he says, "was very strict. He stood there in the dark in the shadows by the basement to watch you go by. I knew I was late to class and I was in trouble, and I got up and ran by, and I stopped and tried to explain." A cold detachment ages Young Hal. "He beat the hell out of me. He took me and picked me up and threw me against the white-walled concrete hall and he kicked me in the groin. He beat the hell out of me." The voice is cold.
But I wanted to be a miler," he says, "and I ran. I was sent off to the Culver Military Academy in Connecticut. I tried to box, but I had it beat out of me -- I was no damn good at it -- and so I ran. I was kind of the coach's mascot, but in my last year I needed an extra hour of class to graduate. A friend of mine told me to try dramatics. Dramatics? I figured the kids were all queers -- which is what we called anybody different, you know -- but I went in and they were wonderful people. They just didn't give a damn.
"I was to run for the school title and I had to choose between it and acting in a play and I chose the play. The coach stood me up on a block in front of the team and called me yellow and a coward, but I knew I'd found something I loved. I knew the people loved me. I knew," Holbrook's voice takes on an adolescent imminenece, "I knew I could be a winner here, you see, a winner."
That summer Holbrook went into stock in Cleveland and in the autumn he began college at Denison in Ohio, but the Army ended that. "The Army saved," he says. He doesn't smile. "I finally gave up trying to be good. I'd always been the good boy -- I'd had sisters in reform school and a bad family -- and I was the good one, but I just gave up trying to be good. The Army liberated me. I started going around with the other guys and learned to drink beer and learned to chase girls and became myself."
He says he gave up a nomination to West Point and showed that he was really trying to give up being good by bringing on brushes with two court martials -- one, he says, the work of a vengeful second lieutenant who wanted to punish him for not responding to his romantic advances, the other because he attacked, lunged at, an elderly electrical school teacher. "i had just dozed off in the sun and fell asleep and he called me un-American," Holbrook says. "It just struck me worng! So I went after him and the next thing I knew I had been dragged out and I was smashing the steel lockers with my fist."
He got out of the Army and went back to Denison with his first wife, Ruby, whom he had met during his Newfoundland detachment in the war. "Ruby and I worked on this honors project I was on at Denison where we played a lot of historical and Shakespearean characters and we discovered we could make some money off of it -- $24.50 a show -- if we took it on the school assembly circuit." The school assembly circuit was "a big business, not elegant, but big." The two played Victoria and Disraeli, and the closet scene from Hamlet, and "we always ended with something I had found about Mark Twain. At first, when I found Twain, thought it was the corniest thing I had ever run into, a chance to put on a white wig, but it was funny and it always got the laughs."
They drove and drove through the Southwest, "the pace was killing," Holbrook says, his eyes narrowing as he unleashes the statistics: "we traveled 30,000 miles and did 307 shows in 30 weeks, we were going to be the next Lunts, you know, and we'd come into these towns and that's all the kids in these schools needed to see -- a guy coming on stage in Arkansas wearing gree tights. You couldn't even speak for two minutes and the kids would be hanging from the rafters yelling 'Romeo, oh Romeo!" and the pace was killing and Ruby couldn't stand it and she became pregnant and had to give it up."
They moved to New York, had a daughter and a son, and Holbrook got a job on a soap opera. He began to piece together the Twain material he'd been reading. "I'd had it doing the soap. I had this idea I wanted to ski down Mr. Shasta in California," he says turning red. "What a dumb bastard!" He drove out to San Francisco in 1955 for the good and wild days at the Purple Onion with Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, and then he went north, by himself.
Mt. Shasta is 14,000 feet. "I'd never climbed, and I found a guy to drive me to 6,500 feet and then I got to the timberline at 8,000 and then I made it up to 10,000 and the top." He explodes with a wild cough of laughter. "I had bouillon cubes all over me. I figured -- God, was I dumb! -- I figured if I got in trouble I'd just melt snow and add the bouillon cubes and when I got to the top I just slid down that glacier -- five steps, three steps. I've never been in the hand of nature like that. If I ever play somebody on the moon, I'll know exactly what it's like. Looking down, way, way, way down," Holbrook narrows his eyes and looks cold and very distant, a man a quarter of a million miles away from anyone else. "Looking way down there were these witches' crags. I stood there and started to laugh and laugh and laugh. Before I'd gone up someone had said, You're going to die up there,' and I just stood there and laughed uncontrollably and said to myself he was right!"
He didn't die on the mountain and he certainly didn't die when he came back to New York. His marriage ended, but his act flourished. He started doing Twain at a little club in the village called Upstairs at the Duplex. "I just started reading buckshot. Ed Sullivan came around to see me with this old boxer he had who went everywhere with him. And when I was done, he said, 'Can you cut that down to seven minutes?' and I said I could. And he said 'Come around to my apartment,' and I did. And he said, 'Who's your agent?' and I said I don't have one. And he said, 'Well, how much will it take you to come onto the show?' and I said, 'Well, if I can have $500 that would be great,' and he said, 'You got a deal.' "That was sweet," he says. "Then I began taking it more seriously. I said Jesus Christ! This could be successful and I got out and started working like hell!"
Twain did it: After Sullivan there was Steve Allen and Jack Parr and Jack Lescoulie and American midhighbrow culture to embrace him. He did records, he played before the captivated innocent s of the '50s, he entertained Eisenhower on his birthday. "In 1956, I did it in Little Rock during the riots, when the whole revolution started."
Holbrook has a righteous fury in his eyes, the kind you can telegraph. "I was incensed. I started pulling stuff from Twain -- the lynching number from 'Huckleberry Finn,' and I suddenly realized I had a source, a source I could speak with, a source with wit and feelings. By this time I'm doing it 10 times a year supporting myself on Twain and I discover that he's talking about religion and ideas and that he has genius.
"I played it in the suicide ward at the Chillicothe Insane Asylum in Ohio, and they made these sounds. Noises, but they were noises in the right places. And I knew I was there. A little later I played it for the Kiwanis in Newark, Ohio, and they laughed where the insane asylum had made noises. Late at night I'd do the last show at the club and the drunks would sit there, the slow drinkers, the ones that really listened, and they would just sit there and take it all in." Holbrook's voice gets very soft. He stops. "I began learning to take my time, to poise myself, to learn the materials and my audience became my directors. When I'm on a stage, I'm not alone. My audience is my companion, and we discovered the material together. They would laugh like hell at stuff I never thought was funny and I discovered that it was funny, that it was genius. I drove and drove and took the show almost every place, just me and my stage manager."
Holbrook sits up on his bed and frames his face with his hands. "I always thought I'd have to use less and less makeup as I went on and on in the years, but I don't," he says. "I still have to spend the time putting the nose on and," he pushes back his storm-gray hair, "my hairline won't recede fast enough. I'll only do 10 or 20 shows a year now -- and I won't travel anymore the way I had to. I got most of that out of my system. I've got a little girl of 10. I saw the same thing starting to happen with her that happened with my two children with Ruby." Holbrook stops. His face freezes for a moment into a stricken distraction. "When you're coming home from working the road and a little girl isn't really grabbing for you, not grabbing you, well . . . I said, oh s---, I'm not going to let that happen another time."
Hal Holbrook lifts himself off the hotel bed and picks up a glass of white wine and walks over to the bureau where there's a little color four-by-six of a grinning blond girl next to a horse and for the first time in Hal Holbrook This Afternoon! Hal Holbrook grins and turns red and smiles at the girl, and says that even though it's a tough tour, very tough, he's not going to work the house alone anymore.