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Older, wiser, sadder, madder.

Byline: FRED CRAFTS The Register-Guard

NINETY-TWO YEARS after Mark Twain died, actor Hal Holbrook believes the famed writer is more popular now than ever.

"It's as if people want to hear this guy now," Holbrook says by phone from his home in Los Angeles, basing his observation on the capacity audiences and emotional reaction that his celebrated one-man show "Mark Twain Tonight" has gotten lately.

"I don't believe I'm making it up," he goes on. "It's been something special the last year or so."

In other words, since Sept. 11, 2001.

Since then, Holbrook, who will perform at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, has found audience response to his meandering around on stage, smoking cigars and spouting outrageous Twainisms "mysterious and kind of wonderful."

Whatever is going on, Holbrook is happy about it.

"Isn't it amazing," he goes on, "in this world today - when language has been flushed down the commode and is of less and less importance; when visual images and push buttons have taken over the communicating process from the use of language; when the younger generation is speaking in a semi-whisper, instead of speaking up, because they are not trained to use language as a means of communication - to have this man be able to get out there in front of an audience and make them listen to words - to thoughts expressed in language. I mean, really listen. It's almost spooky."

Cleveland-born Harold Rowe ``Hal'' Holbrook Jr., has been impersonating Mark Twain for more than four decades now, beginning when he was a student at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, in 1942-43. Afterward, he toured with a show about famous historical figures throughout the Midwest. His professor, Edward Wright, urged him to concentrate on Twain.

Eager to make his mark as an actor in New York City, Holbrook landed only a small role in the daytime soap opera "The Brighter Day," but he polished his Mark Twain show in Greenwich Village clubs at night.

After trying it out Off-Broadway in 1958 and around the country for several years, "Mark Twain Tonight" opened on Broadway in 1966.

The critics went wild. Holbrook won a Tony Award and a Drama Critic's Circle Award. The performance was then taped for a CBS-TV special, for which Holbrook received an Emmy nomination. He was given the Mark Twain Circle of America/Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998.

Now 77, Holbrook still does 20 to 25 shows a year. He figures he has performed as Mark Twain more than 2,000 times, all over the world.

He also has had recurring roles in such television shows as "The Senator," "Designing Women" and "Evening Shade" and has been seen in such movies as "The Group," "Wild in the Streets," "Magnum Force," "The Star Chamber," "Wall Street" and "The Firm."

In 1976, he was nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of the shadowy character Deep Throat in ``All the President's Men.''

Although Holbrook was in his 20s when he began doing Mark Twain, he never considered portraying him as someone closer to his own age. He always did Twain at roughly age 70, because he wanted what he calls "the look."

Twain lived from 1835 to 1910, dying when he was 74.

"We think of Mark Twain with this magnificent head of white curly hair, and a moustache, and the beetling eyebrows, and the piercing eyes and the white suit. So, give the audience the image they recognize. The `look' is the most dramatic and most recognizable when he was older," Holbrook explains.

He doesn't do a set show. Instead, he reaches into his memory bank and more or less invents the show as things occur to him. Although Twain's observations often seem as if they were written about today's events, Holbrook insists he never modernizes or updates Twain.

"His material is more powerful that way," Holbrook says. "You'll laugh at it. Then your brain will suddenly say, `Hey, wait a minute. This guy wrote that a hundred years or more ago. Isn't that amazing?' When he says, `More blood has been shed in the name of religion than any other cause,' it's sad. Sad. One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry. You know what I mean?"

Holbrook's insistence on authenticity has kept him in high regard among Twain scholars. Many credit him with, in effect, keeping Twain "alive," and they often praise him for not succumbing to his own fame and capitalizing on Twain's image.

"You don't go out and defame a man's reputation if you have any respect for him," Holbrook says. "Years ago, I could have done a cigar commercial. I turned down almost $500,000 about 10 years ago to do Mark Twain for a bank commercial. I can't do that kind of thing with him. It would violate him. In this world today, I see people violating their principles. It's not right. It's not the way to go. It's just wrong."

In the same measured and mellifluous voice he uses as Mark Twain, Holbrook holds the floor in an interview by spinning long, complicated sentences that bear a strong resemblance to Twain's own manner of expression. Sometimes it is difficult to know where Holbrook leaves off and Twain begins, or vice versa. Both can be extremely opinionated.

"You can't be associated with a thoughtful writer through the course of your life this way without having it cast a huge shadow upon your perception of your own society, your world," Holbrook says. "I'm tainted by my association with Twain. It's had a big effect on me.

``Plus the fact that I'm 77 years old. You can't live till you're in your 70s without learning a whole lot that you didn't know in your 20s and 30s. You don't have to be Albert Einstein to figure things out. You don't have to do a study and hire people to do your thinking for you.

``My God, use your common sense. When you get to be 70 years old, your common sense well has been filling up for a long, long time. You don't have to be well educated. Look at Jim in `Huck Finn.' Mark Twain used him as an example of how wise and humane a human being can be who is not educated."

After impersonating Mark Twain for most of his life, Holbrook has formed strong opinions on how the writer and lecturer would view today's world.

"I think he would be horrified by the shallowness of our public mentality. I think he would be horrified by the lowering of standards in education. I think he would understand that we've done it to accommodate `everybody,' but I think he would be horrified knowing that the end result of this lowering of standards is going to be a weaker country, a less important society, culture."

Holbrook pauses.

"It's going down. We all see it going down. It's also eating away at our character, at our people and at our guts. We get more and more wimpy, more and more selfish, more and more greedy and arrogant and angry. That goes along with slipping down the coal chute - you get angry."

Holbrook's incisive digression gains steam as it moves along - then it abruptly returns to Twain.

"The great thing about Mark Twain is, when he criticized anything he included himself. He said, `The human race is a race of cowards, and I am not only marching in that procession but carrying a banner.'

``He could say damn near anything and get away with it."



WHAT: Actor Hal Holbrook impersonates Mark Twain in an award-winning one-man show

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Hult Center's Silva Concert Hall, Seventh and Willamette streets

HOW MUCH: $20 to $40, through the Hult Center box office (682-5000)


Hal Holbrook, 77, began playing Mark Twain when he was in his 20s - but in the show Twain has always appeared ``70ish.''
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Title Annotation:After 45 years as Mark Twain, actor Hal Holbrook sees America sliding down a coal chute; Entertainment
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Oct 13, 2002
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