The ‘Twain’ shall meet
At Mark Twain Luncheon Club, actor Hal Holbrook discusses his portrayal of American literary great

By D. Lyn Hunter, Public Affairs



Hal Holbrook
Peg Skorpinski photo

03 April 2002 | In the mid 1950s, Hal Holbrook was a struggling actor “looking for some good material” to perform. He hit the jackpot when a friend suggested the writings of Mark Twain.

Holbrook created a close impersonation of the author — his mannerisms, stage presence, drawl and timing. Nearly 50 years and 2,000 performances later, Holbrook’s one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight!” is considered the quintessential portrayal of the famed American author and social critic. Last week, he was a featured guest of the Mark Twain Luncheon Club, which raises much-needed funds for the campus’s cash-strapped Mark Twain Project.

Holbrook has used books published by the project — a priceless collection of manuscripts, letters, photos and artifacts housed in the Bancroft Library — as a resource for his show throughout the years.

“I’m here to help provide the life and sustenance needed to continue the extensive work on the Twain papers, a treasure of huge proportions,” Holbrook told club members, who gathered at the Berkeley City Club for a buffet lunch. “Twain carried with him the guts of America. We don’t want to lose that.”

“He gives us what no printed text can,” the Mark Twain Project Director Robert Hirst said of Holbrook, who won a 1966 Tony Award for his show. “This gifted actor is able to take written documents and make them come alive for us.”

During the lunch, Holbrook regaled the audience with tales of his performances, which have taken him across the United States and to countries around the world, from Scotland to India.

The 77-year-old actor attributes much of the show’s success to the genius of Twain’s writing.

“He has a razor sharp perception of who we are as Americans and how we behave,” said Holbrook, who referred to Twain in the present tense throughout his talk. “He is the most effective social critic that ever wrote in America because he understands human beings.”

While Holbrook called himself “not a scholar, but an actor,” his knowledge and understanding of Twain — acquired through years of study — rivals any expert.

Poring through the books published by the Mark Twain Project, Holbrook gleans new material for his shows, said Hirst.

“Information on Twain’s speaking tours, including news accounts and reviews, are included in our volumes,” Hirst said. “This gives Hal glimpses into how Twain presented his own lectures.”

Holbrook also contributes to the archive, forwarding information he discovers during his research.

Following the luncheon, Holbrook went to the Bancroft Library for a quick tour of the Twain archive. While there, a “CBS Sunday Morning” television crew taped a conversation between Holbrook and Hirst for an upcoming segment on the Mark Twain Project


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