Published in KPBS On Air Magazine July 1993
When he was in his thirties, Hal Holbrook never acted his age. He’d been such a success at his portrayal of snowy-haired Mark Twain that he was only asked to play characters of seventy and older. Now, at 68, he’s finally grown into some of those roles. And he’s taking on one of the most challenging: King Lear (at the Old Globe Theatre, July 10-August 29).
“I had to get older to be stupid enough to try this role,” Holbrook confesses. But don’t expect him to reveal anything about its resonance with his own life. “When you get into your sixties, certain things start to happen,” he says warily. “But I don’t like to talk about my personal feelings. It takes away the fun and the mystery of the part.” On daughters (he has four, step and natural, and one son): “If you’re suggesting that any of my daughters fall into the category of Goneril and Regan [Lear’s nasty offspring], they certainly don’t.” Bristling response. But on the subject of Lear, he’s off and running.
“This old man is a primal kind of jungle cat. He’s not physically weak [as some suggest]. He’s unusually strong physically, and maintains his strength throughout the play. In the second scene, he comes back from hunting boar. He may be 80 years old, but he’s coming back from a big macho, physical excursion. And at the end, after all that’s happened to him, he kills a guard with his bare hands and then carries Cordelia in his arms. To play him as anything other than a remarkably strong man doesn’t make any sense.
“The drama has to do with his mental senility and the fact that he knows he’s losing it,” Holbrook continues. “There’s a tremendous amount of fear in a strong man losing his power… When a person gets so famous and powerful and rich — we see it in Hollywood all the time — he begins to believe his own notices. And when stars are deposed, it’s a terrible blow they can’t accept… Lear hides behind his bluster, his rage, which he then turns on himself. He’s not a mean, deceiving, conniving person. He’s innocent, primal, like an animal. Animals kill. It’s survival, the law of the jungle. That’s the kind of man he is.”
And what kind of man is Hal Holbrook? He won’t really say. Though he does admit that “acting is an ego trip. And anyone playing King Lear has got to be on a major ego trip. “Lear” is renowned for its difficulty. An Everest hardly anyone’s able to climb. It’s a wonderful challenge. It sure beats a TV movie.”
Holbrook has certainly had his share of those. His television career began in the mid-fifties on a daytime soap opera, “The Brighter Day.” He was extremely active on TV in the seventies, and won several Emmy awards. It was in a 1981 TV movie that he met his third wife, actress/singer Dixie Carter. He’s since produced an album of her cabaret show, and debuted as a director on “Designing Women.” He still has a continuing role on the CBS sitcom, “Evening Shade.”
He’s ambivalent about his television work. “When you take three months out to do regional theater like this, at 600 dollars a week, you have to pay for it by doing other things.” Some of the “other things” have also included numerous movies, including “The Group,” “The Great White Hope,” “Magnum Force,” “All the President’s Men,” “Julia,” “”Scaremaker,” “Creepshow,” “Wall Street,” “Fletch Saved” and recently, “The Firm.”
But in the eighties, Holbrook started to get “fed up with the kind of stuff I was doing in Hollywood . There was no sense of fulfillment.” He went back onstage. He’d been a theater major at Denison University in Ohio . It was his college honors project that spawned “Mark Twain Tonight,” which he’s toured every year since 1954, making it one of the longest running shows in theater history, with over 1800 performances. He’s amassed twelve hours of material and doesn’t decide precisely what he’s going to do each time until he’s onstage.
“I work very hard to keep it from getting old,” Holbrook explains. “For one thing, I don’t do it too often. Maybe twenty times a year. And I change it all the time… It’s my bread and butter — when nobody will give me a job doing other things. But I’m very proud of it. The older I get, the more I realize the material is gold. It gives me a chance to get things off my chest. Mark Twain discussed damn near everything.”
For a brief moment, Holbrook gets personal. His only regret? Too little stage work in the seventies. He made his Broadway and musical debuts in the sixties, but then he became successful in those “other” media. “Those are ten terribly important years in an actor’s life,” he laments. “Now it’s too late for Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard III, Richard II. It’s sad, really. In the seventies, I was offered “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” with Colleen Dewhurst in New York . And I did a goddam TV movie instead.”
His disappointment with Hollywood led him to play Lear in Cleveland and New York in 1990 and Shylock here at the Globe in 1991. He loves regional theater and still does two plays a year. As for the future, Holbrook wants to direct a play. Would he consider putting “Lear” on the big screen? He can only chuckle at the daunting prospect. “But it’d make a helluva wonderful project.”
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.