Val Kilmer wants to make his Mark (Twain)

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Few actors own a role the way Hal Holbrook owns Mark Twain. The Tony- and Emmy-winning actor, who recently turned 87, has played the humorist in his one-man stage play “Mark Twain Tonight!” since 1954, logging thousands of performances and many more miles traveling with the show.

But longevity doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you have an exclusive monopoly on a part. A relative newbie to the Twain game, Val Kilmer recently launched his own one-man play, “Citizen Twain,” running in a workshop production at the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever cemetery through Wednesday.

Kilmer said in an interview that the play is a warm-up for a movie he wants to make about the contentious relationship between Twain and Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. (Kilmer is a lifelong member of the Church of Christ, Scientist.) In the play, Kilmer plays Twain as a ghostly apparition who returns from the dead. The words he speaks are a mix of Kilmer’s own jokey, surreal writing — “Welcome to the Batman Forever Cemetery,” he says by way of introduction — and selections from Twain’s essays, articles and novels. The actor also performs a song or two.

GRAPHIC: Twain vs. Twain

“It’s not a plot-driven play,” Kilmer explained in a recent interview in Santa Monica. “Twain himself sometimes wrote as if from the great beyond. It’s really a character study.”

Kilmer, 52, is no stranger at impersonating famous figures. He gave uncanny performances as Jim Morrison in the movie “The Doors” and artist Willem de Kooning in “Pollock.” The actor is practically unrecognizable as Twain, adopting a folksy accent and disappearing under layers of makeup and a white wig.

Kilmer’s last major stage appearance was in 2004 as Moses in “The Ten Commandments: The Musical,” a big-budget spectacle at the Kodak Theatre that received scathing reviews. Holbrook said in a separate interview that he has no problem with Kilmer’s new show, so long as he doesn’t take his material. The actor recently published his memoirs, “Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain,” which recounts the first 34 years of his life, culminating with his stage breakthrough as Twain. Holbrook said he is working on a follow-up book, which will take readers from 1959 to the present day.

This week, Holbrook is on the road again performing Twain in Huntingdon, Tenn., at a theater called the Dixie, named after his late wife, actress Dixie Carter.

“I’ve never been a star — what I’ve been is a touring actor,” said Holbrook by phone last month. “I have been in many ways a throwback to another century, when actors toured the road, took it on the chin and made the best they could of every theater they went to.”


How does Kilmer stack up to Holbrook? Here’s a breakdown of their careers and performances.


Hal Holbrook speaks out on the political and the personal

Theater review: ‘The Ten Commandments,’ starring Val Kilmer

Val Kilmer brings a musical Moses onstage

-- David Ng