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CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD / SUSAN KING

His day in the 'Sun'

Making 'Into the Wild' gave Hal Holbrook something he needed -- confidence. Now, he has star billing.

November 18, 2009|Susan King

It took Hal Holbrook more than 40 years, but he's finally starting to feel comfortable acting in movies -- and he has Sean Penn to thank for that.

Two years ago Holbrook gave an unforgettable performance for director Penn in "Into the Wild." Holbrook played Ron Franz, a widowed loner who befriends a young adventurer (Emile Hirsch) who eventually moves on and perishes in Alaska. Holbrook received an Oscar nomination for the role and, perhaps even more important, got a shot of needed confidence.

The way Penn treats actors made him a better one, says the 84-year-old Holbrook.

"After a few shots you begin to realize that anything you do is going to be OK. Instead of retakes and retakes, he maybe will do one or two takes and then he would go like that" -- Holbrook proffers a thumbs' up -- "and go on. The little buzzing, faint quiet thing inside of an actor that always creates a little anxiety when you are creating a role, he took that right away because you realized he cast you and he trusted you."

Working with Penn, he says, he could finally understand what Sidney Lumet told him on the set of his first film, "The Group," in 1965.

After disliking what he had done in a scene, Holbrook begged the director to see the dailies.

"I saw the scene I did and after the thing was over I said, 'Oh, my God, I was acting, acting. I was awful.' Sidney said, 'Yes, you were, but we can get around it in editing. But what you have to remember in film is that the camera can read your mind.' It took me most of my life to really believe that and I believe it now. I don't have to add or throw in any kind of stuff; you just need to live the life of the person."

The idea that this beloved American actor, who in his six decades in the business has won a Tony and multiple Emmys, worries about his acting chops is a bit startling. So is the fact that he's waited this long to get solo star billing in a feature film -- "That Evening Sun," which opens Friday.

"I had a chance to be a movie star with Goldie Hawn," recalls the lanky Holbrook. He shared top billing with Hawn in the 1974 box office bomb "The Girl From Petrovka," but his most vivid memory is the reaction told to him later by Dixie Carter, who took her two young daughters to the movie when it opened in New York.

"She didn't know me then," Holbrook says with a twinkle in his blue eyes, referring to Carter, who later became his wife.

"She went to that movie with her two little girls and her agent. They were looking for a picture they could take the girls to, and they thought this would be safe because Hal Holbrook was in it. So they are sitting there watching it, and when I start taking my clothes off and getting in bed naked with Goldie, they covered the girls' eyes and looked at each other and said, 'Hal Holbrook?' "

Holbrook keeps his clothes on in "That Evening Sun," adapted and directed by Scott Teems based on William Gay's short story "I Hate to See That Evening Sun Go Down." The intimate film has already earned several festival awards, including two at the South by Southwest Film Festival. This last weekend, Holbrook also earned an excellence an acting honor award at the Denver Film Festival.

The veteran actor -- still best known for his Tony Award-winning one-man show "Mark Twain Tonight!" -- shines in "Evening Sun" as Abner Meecham, an elderly Tennessee farmer. Meecham is sent to live at a retirement home by his attorney son. The old man flees the home to return to the family farm that he shared with his beloved late wife (Carter). But unbeknownst to him, his son has leased the farm to Abner's old enemy and his family. But Abner refuses to leave and moves into the tenant's shack and waits for the family to move out.

"Abner has a code of honor and a code of behavior, which has been violated and has made him angry," Holbrook explains. "The side you see of the man in the film is mostly a man filled with anger and grumpiness. He's on a mission of survival."

Holbrook played the secretive Watergate source Deep Throat in 1976's "All the President's Men," in which he appeared in the shadows in an underground garage. It was a difficult experience for Holbrook. "We did take after take," he say.

The reason was that cinematographer Gordon Willis had lit him in such a way that Holbrook couldn't move his head or he'd ruin the shot. "It was a little intimidating and unsettling and unnatural to be where you couldn't respond to an inner impulse."

Holbrook has been performing "Mark Twain Tonight!" for the last 55 years and is enjoying it more than ever. He brings the famed writer and social critic to life 20 to 30 times a year.

This Saturday, Holbrook will be performing at California Center for the Arts in Escondido.

He has hours of the author's writings in his head and loves to constantly change the show. He is always digging and looking for ways to update the show, especially with writings by Twain that relate to current events.

For example, he's polishing a piece Twain wrote a century ago on the "terrifying and disgusting greed that exists in corporations and Wall Street. You think he is talking about now."

For information about "Mark Twain Tonight!" in Escondido, go to www.art center.org.

--

susan.king@latimes.com.

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