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Hal Holbrook, Broadway's Legendary Mark Twain, Dies at 95

Holbrook won a Tony and five Emmys over the course of his storied career, which ended with his retirement in 2017.

Hal Holbrook
(© David Gordon)

Tony- and Emmy-winning actor Hal Holbrook, best known for his decades-long portrayal of Mark Twain on stage and screen, died January 23 at the age of 95.

Mark Twain Tonight! is Holbrook's legendary solo show, the seeds for which were first planted when he was a college student in 1947 at Denison University. Holbrook and his then-wife, Ruby, were creating a stage show called Great Personalities, where they would portray historic figures. Holbrook's mentor at the college, Edward Wright, suggested he add Mark Twain to the roster, and the character was first tried out in front of an audience of psychiatric patients at an Ohio veterans hospital.

Holbrook began developing the solo show in 1952, and first performed the show in 1954. Ed Sullivan saw it at a nightclub and gave Holbrook national television exposure. Holbrook first performed Mark Twain Tonight! off-Broadway in 1959, and the show made its Broadway debut in 1966 at the Longacre Theatre. He won a Drama Desk Award for the off-Broadway run, and the Tony for Best Actor in a Play for the Broadway engagement. In 1967, the show was presented on television, and Holbrook received an Emmy for his performance.

All told, Holbrook portrayed Twain more than 2,000 times over the course of his career, bringing the show back to Broadway in 1977 and 2005 and taking it all over the world. He was 29 when he first started playing the 70-year-old character; by the time Holbrook retired at 92 in 2017, he was older than the real Mark Twain, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, ever lived to be.

And that's not just the only facet of Holbrook's career on stage and screen. He appeared in a dozen Broadway shows including the Twain piece, ranging from the original productions of Arthur Miller's After the Fall and Wendy Wasserstein's An American Daughter to replacing Alan Alda in The Apple Tree and Richard Kiley in Man of La Mancha. He won five Emmy Awards, for work in The Bold Ones: The Senator, Pueblo, Lincoln, and Portrait of America.

Holbrook made his debut in Sidney Lumet's The Group, and gained recognition for playing Deep Throat in All the President's Men. Holbrook had a recurring role on Designing Women, opposite wife Dixie Carter, and directed several episodes of the series. He'd been seen on The Sopranos, Sons of Anarchy, Bones, and Grey's Anatomy, among other shows.

Holbrook was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame in 1999 and was honored with a National Humanities Medal in 2003. Married three times, he was partnered with Carter until her death in 2010, and is survived by three children, two stepdaughters, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.


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