"Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain" by Hal Holbrook

The Washington Post, October 14, 2011

Hal Holbrook is a fine actor. He is a lovely and distinguished man. He is a great American, even. Does he really need more than 500 pages to tell his life's story?

Well, that's the plan, anyway. The first installment in a projected two-memoir sequence, "Harold" puts us on notice right away. It will stop before the onset of Holbrook's film career. (The Oscar-nominated turn in "Into the Wild" is still decades away.) It won't get around to his TV triumphs in "Pueblo" and "That Certain Summer" or his marriage (his third) to the divine Dixie Carter, or what he thought about Bill Clinton or Kennedy or capri pants, or where he was for the moon landing. "Harold" is about the guy who became Hal Holbrook, and it takes its good sweet time getting him there.

Then again, it's a wonder he got there at all, given how many strikes he had against him going in. A mother who had run off to Hollywood, never to be seen again . A father shuffling in and out of insane asylums. A kindly grandfather in Cleveland who died too soon, abandoning Harold to strangers and sadistic schoolmasters. Very early in life, the boy's mission was sealed: "I would survive even if no one else did."

Salvation comes from Culver Military Academy, where he finds, for the first time, stability—and a soft academic credit in dramatics. As soon as he sets foot on stage, though, something "immense and powerful" happens. "I spoke my first line and then another and another, and they felt real to me. Bold and scary but real. . . . People were listening to me. Listening to me."

He enrolls in the drama department at Denison University, and after some stateside war duty, he and his pretty new wife mount a touring show of the classics—Shakespeare and Moliere and Maxwell Anderson—driving hundreds of miles a day to perform for women's clubs and fidgeting school kids. They dress behind screens, they shake dead cockroaches from their sheets, they weave their Ford station wagon around cattle and steers. Always one step ahead of poverty, they say yes to every gig, and they keep moving, "a tiny speck racing across America." And for what? Twenty bucks a show, and the chance to bring culture to Oklahoma City.

Holbrook honed his craft in summer stock and got his first break in a daytime soap opera. Then an agent suggested turning his Mark Twain material into a one-man show, along the lines of Twain's famous lectures. Holbrook refined the act the only way he knew—on the road—and in 1959, he went for the brass ring: a solo bill, with all of New York's critical knives sharpening in the dark.

The knives were soon sheathed, and if you've ever seen Holbrook's Twain, you'll know why. More than just a masterful makeup job or an exemplary display of technique, it's an absolute fusion of actor and character. It's Mark Twain, walking and breathing before you.

So the success wagon finally stopped and let Hal Holbrook aboard, but the predominant note of "Harold" is one of loss. His sister dies young, possibly from a botched abortion. His wife suffers a nervous breakdown. Holbrook himself struggles with profound fear and insecurity. He has an affair; he neglects his kids. No sin goes unrecounted, and in his description of his sexual failings, the honesty can rise to the level of excruciating.

"Harold," in short, is an exercise in healing—and not always an artful one. For every felicitous phrase (a theatrical agent who "smelled like the walls"), there is a slurry of purple ("the massed anger and fear that lay waiting like a wolf in the night would come howling out of the darkness and claim center stage in the struggle to come"). And with its shoals of raw data, "Harold" can make you feel like you've been squeezed next to an old uncle as he leafs through all his scrapbooks. Ancient receipts and itineraries. Playbills and postcards. Every rave he's ever received. And it's so nice outside!

Maybe it's only when you've freed yourself from Uncle Hal that you realize what a uniquely American pilgrimage he undertook all those years ago—traveling vast empty spaces for a few moments in the dark—and how much it cost him. Maybe you'll even think of Willy Loman (another kind of actor): "He's a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. And when they start not smiling back, that's an earthquake."