Hal Holbrook’s first solo appearance as Mark Twain was at the Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania in 1954. At this time in his career, Holbrook was pounding the pavements in New York searching for work as an actor and the Twain show was his desperate alternative to selling hats or running elevators to keep his family alive. But that same year, fortune struck by way of a job on a daytime radio and television soap opera, “The Brighter Day.” At night Holbrook pursued the Twain character in a Greenwich Village night club while doing the soap during the day. He developed his original two hours of material in the curve of a baby grand piano and learned timing.
Thirty-five years later, Holbrook is still presenting “Mark Twain Tonight!” His only New Jersey appearance for this year’s tour takes place on Friday, November 7, at the State Theater in New Brunswick.
In 1959, after five years of researching the Twain character and honing his material in front of countless audiences in small towns all over America, Holbrook opened the show at a tiny theater off-Broadway in New York. He was a stunning success, as stunning to Holbrook as anyone else. “Mr. Holbrook’s material is uproarious, his ability to hold an audience by acting is brilliant,” raved the New York Times.
Holbrook quit the soap opera and after a 22-week run in New York with Twain he toured the country again and performed for President Eisenhower, and at the Edinburgh Festival. The State Department sent him on a tour of Europe, where he was the first American dramatic attraction after World War II to appear behind the Iron Curtain.
In 1963 Holbrook joined the original Lincoln Center Repertory Company in New York and starring roles on Broadway followed. Meanwhile, he continued to do Mark Twain every year and in 1966, on Broadway, his second New York engagement won him a Tony Award and a Drama Critics Circle Award, followed in 1967 by a 90-minute CBS television special of “Mark Twain Tonight!,” which was nominated for an Emmy Award and seen by an audience of 22 million.
Since then Holbrook has done over 50 television movies and mini-series, two sitcoms, been nominated for 12 Emmys and won five. Moviegoers have seen Holbrook in more than 35 films, most recently in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor. He has constantly returned to the stage in New York and at regional theaters in such demanding roles as King Lear, Shylock, Uncle Vanya, and Willy Loman.
But Holbrook has never been able to quit Mark Twain and probably never will. He has toured the show in some part of every year since 1954, including a third New York engagement in 1977 and a fourth in 2005, and a world tour in 1986. The year 2008 is the 54th consecutive year for this remarkable one-man show. On January 17, 2004, Holbrook marked his 2,000th performance in Germantown, Tennessee. Holbrook adds to his Twain material every year, editing and changing it to fit the times, and he has mined over 15 hours of Twain with more coming all the time. He has no set program — he chooses material as he goes along. “Mark Twain Tonight!” has become perhaps the longest running show in theater history.
Mark Twain Tonight, Friday, November 7, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Hal Holbrook’s solo performance. $25 to $60. 732-246-7469.