SAN DIEGO — You expect Mark Twain or the smart-mouthing Evan Evans of "Evening Shade." Instead you get King Lear striding through the Old Globe in San Diego's Balboa Park.
The real Hal Holbrook, it seems, is finally standing up.
Tall, lean and sure.
This Lear's beard is short, neatly cut and shaped. The longish hair doesn't quite make it to the shoulders--wild yet tamed. Lear's eyes burn, the great voice invokes the heavens and their denizens.
The face is a tortured Lear.
The tan Windbreaker and striped blue shirt are the casual, frontier, at-ease Twain.
How do the two personalities meet? The 68-year-old Holbrook says he is on a career-course correction, going after the big ones, tragic, demanding roles like King Lear or Shylock. Willy Loman looms.
Holbrook has been acting for 52 years, 39 in his one-man show, "Mark Twain Tonight!," which won him a Tony on Broadway in 1966. His credits and awards touch three territories--stage, television and movies. Last week marked the release of his latest feature film, "The Firm," with Tom Cruise. This fall he returns to TV in his continuing role as Burt Reynold's strong-minded father-in-law on "Evening Shade."
For the moment, he's fixed his gaze on the demanding lead role in "King Lear" opening Saturday at the Old Globe Theatre. It's a double reunion of sorts for him. Two years ago he appeared for the first time at the Old Globe as Shylock in a modern-dress version of Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice." Three years ago he returned to the classics and appeared for the first time as King Lear at the Great Lakes Theater in Cleveland.
It's too late for him, he says, to play Hamlet. But, of course, there's always Mark Twain.
Question: You're best known for playing strong male characters, Mark Twain, Lincoln ("Sandburg's Lincoln" miniseries), Shylock, Evan Evans ("Evening Shade"), Oliver Lambert (of Bendini Lambert Locke law firm in "The Firm"). Is this art imitating life?
Answer: There's something humorous about that because I don't think any of us see ourselves the way other people do. It's taken me damn near 65 years to realize that I am a strong person, partly because my wife, Dixie Carter, keeps assuring me I am, or reminding me. But for most of my life I did not see myself as strong or as powerful. As I got older I began to realize through my relationships with my children and my wives that I'm stronger and at times more intimidating than I actually felt.
Everybody it seems is frightened, everybody is shy, everybody is very supersensitive. It's just in the ways that we develop our defenses to prevent people from seeing the truth about us that we are defined in the eyes of others. The truth is something different.
I lost my parents when I was very young, they just left and I had to survive through my grandparents. I was sent to boys school and was knocked around by weird teachers and headmasters. Somehow I survived. I must have been much stronger than I thought I was.
I was raised by my grandpa from the time I was 2 and he died when I was 12. He had a phenomenal effect on me. He was a strong man. Very tough, but kind, in his way. It was not by any accident that I had success with characters like him--older men like Twain. As an actor I knew how to play old men.
My mother left me and my two sisters when I was 2. She went to New York and all we knew is that she left. An explanation was never given. Only recently, when I saw some letters she wrote to my father, I realized she left in order to survive. She wanted to go into show business and become a showgirl, working in musicals and vaudeville. I found her itinerary for her 1929-30 tour and discovered that I had played many of the theaters that she had.
Q: You've long been associated with your one-man show, "Mark Twain Tonight!" What brought you to Twain?
A: Economic necessity. I first did (readings from Twain) in the mid-40s at schools and colleges. It was one way to earn a little money. When I got out of Culver Military Academy I had a job at the May Co. in Cleveland for $18.74 a week. Acting in a play at the Cain Park Theatre got me $15 a week. So for three bucks I decided I would call myself an actor. Later I started doing brief appearances as Twain. I never thought that "Twain" would ever become the wonderful project that it did and have the success it has had. I fell in love with the material and I realized its terrific strength and entertainment value. "Twain" appeals to the American sense of loss, the loss of innocence, of pioneer values. It's a very tender chord in our national soul.
Q: So why now Lear? Was it your decision or was it a role offered to you?