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One-man therapy

Actor Hal Holbrook, in his 50th year of portraying Mark Twain, uses the author's words to vent his own feelings about today's world.

Published February 15, 2004

[AP photo: 2001]
Hal Holbrook first began performing Mark Twain Tonight! as a struggling actor in 1954, putting on the show in high schools for $35.

Hal Holbrook has been Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens was.

Clemens used his pen name for 47 years, from 1863 until his death in 1910. Holbrook has been portraying Twain since 1954.

"This is my 50th year, and in January I gave my 2,000th performance," Holbrook said in a phone interview. "I'm thinking about making it a permanent thing."

He'll deliver performance No. 2,000-and-something when he brings Mark Twain Tonight! to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center for one show, on Tuesday. It's a one-man show in the purest sense.

"I've never had any help in putting the show together or doing it," he said. "I don't have a director. The audience has always been my director; the audience tells me what works and what doesn't. I don't have a costume designer or a set designer. I have a stage manager. That's all."

The astounding longevity of the show has surprised even Holbrook.

"It amazes me because I didn't sit down and plan it," he said.

Holbrook was a young and unknown actor when he developed the first version of the show. He didn't have a passion for Twain's writing at the time. He just needed work and put together an educational show about Twain as a way of making a living.

"I didn't know anything about him when I started," he said. "I started doing it in high schools for $35."

Even though he has performed as Twain continuously since 1954 - there hasn't been a single year when he hasn't done a show - Holbrook has avoided being overly identified with the role. He's had a busy and varied film, stage and TV career and has never been considered "that guy who plays Mark Twain."

That's partly because his Twain costume and makeup make audiences forget that it's Holbrook they're watching. But it was also part of his career plan.

"I fought hard for that," he said. "I was in a small theater in New York, and I became sort of the gray-haired boy of New York theater. I restricted my use of Mark Twain for a couple of years and worked on other things."

But he says he has never tired of the show, and one reason is that he's constantly adding new material and taking out old stuff. There's very little remaining of the original 1954 show.

The words are all Twain's, but Holbrook tries to address current issues. He doesn't edit the original words but usually picks material that avoids specific historical references. For instance, Holbrook finds passages that refer to "the president" rather than naming a specific president.

"I just added some things about the elections," Holbrook said. "I do not rewrite Mark Twain, and I don't bring it up to date because it's more powerful if you don't. But the words I find to use will lead people to think I'm talking about what's going on today."

One example culled from Twain's works: "The candidates are so expert in lying that they don't know if they're telling the whole truth, the half-truth or no truth at all."

After a half century, Holbrook has developed a symbiotic relationship with Twain's work. The writer's words come to life through Holbrook's voice, and Holbrook's views manifest themselves through Twain's words.

"The world I live in irritates me enormously," Holbrook said. "Doing the Twain show has become a way for me to express my feelings. It gives me the opportunity to take a look at what's going on and let loose on it."

PREVIEW: Mark Twain Tonight!, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center's Carol Morsani Hall. $20-$50, plus service charge. Call 813 229-7827 or go to

[Last modified February 12, 2004, 11:19:29]

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