Hal Holbrook is always up for challenging fare

Veteran actor Hal Holbrook, 87, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Hal Holbrook has never been afraid of tackling tough subjects in his TV and film roles.

“I sort of like controversial things,” said the 87-year-old actor, best known for his celebrated one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight!,” which he has been performing since 1954.

Hal Holbrook: In the Dec. 17 Calendar section, the Classic Hollywood column about Hal Holbrook said the actor would be appearing in the coming film “The Promised Land.” The title is “Promised Land.” The error also appeared in an accompanying photo caption. —

Holbrook, an Oscar nominee for 2007’s “Into the Wild,” is appearing in two films exploring social issues of the past and present. He plays Republican politician Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg’s sweeping epic “Lincoln,” which focuses on the 16th president’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) dogged determination to end the Civil War and pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. ( Holbrook, by the way, won an Emmy playing the president in the 1974-75 NBC series “Sandburg’s Lincoln.”)


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And in Gus Vant Sant’s film, “Promised Land,” opening Dec. 28, Holbrook portrays Frank Yates, the conscience of an economically strapped farming town whose citizens are being asked to sell the drilling rights to their land to a natural-gas company.

“Promised Land,” which stars and was written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, harks back to some of the thought-provoking films Holbrook made some four decades ago, including his role as the Deep Throat character in the 1976 political classic “All the President’s Men.”

Relaxing in a suite at a Beverly Hills hotel in early December, Holbrook recalled an ill-fated location trip in 1970 to Birmingham, Ala., to shoot “Clear and Present Danger,” the pilot movie for NBC’s “The Bold Ones: The Senator.” Holbrook, who won an Emmy for the series, played a Robert F. Kennedy-esque liberal senator who in the pilot took on the cause of stopping air pollution.

But authorities in Birmingham weren’t pleased that the film was shooting the dirty air being pumped out of their factories’ stacks.

“After two days, the police and the state police came and we were kicked out,” Holbrook recalled. “Universal had to decide what to do — they shut the film down for several weeks. We ended up going up to Redondo and Manhattan Beach to shoot the stacks.”

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Two years later, he starred with Martin Sheen in ABC’s “That Certain Summer,” the first network movie to explore homosexuality.

“I turned down the movie,” said Holbrook. “I was married to my second wife, Carol Rossen, then and we were driving to our country house on Long Island. She said, ‘What did you do about that movie?’ I said, ‘It’s an interesting subject, but nothing happens.’ She said, ‘What was the story about?’”

So on the way to their house, Holbrook told her the plot of the film. “Finally, I start to think, ‘This isn’t bad.’ I finished the story and she said, ‘Are you out of your mind, Holbrook? When you get to the house you are going to pick up the phone and call [the director].”’

For “Promised Land” star and co-writer Damon, Holbrook was the perfect embodiment of Frank Yates, a high school teacher who objects to “fracking,” the process of obtaining natural gas that creates fractures in rocks and rock formations by injecting fluid into cracks.

“We needed somebody who could be simple, commanding and believable and speak of what the country used to be,” said Damon. “Because the movie is about where we are now and where we are headed.”

Yates, Holbrook said, “was as much me as you can get. We are on the edge of a very serious decision about the direction of the country. It goes back to what Mark Twain observed and wrote about at the end of the 19th century and 20th century.”

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Holbrook does about 20 performances a year in “Mark Twain,” for which he won a Tony Award in 1966 and an Emmy nomination in 1967 for the CBS telecast. And he’s still adding material Twain wrote to the show.

Last month, Holbrook performed “Twain” in the beloved writer’s boyhood town of Hannibal, Mo., as well as in Hartford, Conn., at the Mark Twain House and Museum where the Great Hall was renamed Holbrook Hall.

But by the time he reached Lafayette, La., in early December, he had caught a bad cold. “I became as sick as dog,” Holbrook said. And the unthinkable almost happened.

“I stood offstage ready to go on and for the first time in my life I didn’t think I would be able to get through and complete the show,” he said.

Call it will power or perhaps intervention from Twain himself, Holbrook didn’t let his audience down.

Still, he said with a sigh, “I shredded my voice.”

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