‘American Odyssey’ chronicles 60 years of Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain

Hal Holbrook, left, and director Scott Teems, right, pose for a portrait at Holbrook's home in Beverly Hills. They teamed up for the documentary "Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey," a look at Holbrook's 60 year journey playing Mark Twain in his award winning show.
Hal Holbrook, left, and director Scott Teems, right, pose for a portrait at Holbrook’s home in Beverly Hills. They teamed up for the documentary “Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey,” a look at Holbrook’s 60 year journey playing Mark Twain in his award winning show.
(Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Hal Holbrook has performed the one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight!” for 60 years, earning a 1966 Tony Award and later an Emmy nomination for the CBS telecast.

He’s crisscrossed America, playing big cities and small towns in all 50 states, as well as 20 countries, even some behind the Iron Curtain. Five presidents have witnessed him bringing the beloved humorist and author of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” to vivid life.

“Mark Twain gets me out of the bed in the morning,” said Holbrook, 89, who performs as Twain about 20 times a year. “He literally fires me up. I don’t have to fire myself up, all I have to do is lay there and think about what’s going on in my country and the world and run over some Twain I am going to do.”


Holbrook and his iconic show are the subject of a new documentary, “Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey.” The film, which doesn’t have a distributor yet, will screen Sunday afternoon as part of the Los Angeles Film Festival.

Scott Teems, who directed Holbrook in the 2009 drama “That Evening Sun,” helmed this intimate black-and-white documentary exploring the history of the show, Holbrook’s painstaking preparation and his transformation into the man born Samuel Clemens. Teems includes candid interviews with the actor, who admits that he’s made countless mistakes in his life, as well as interviews with friends and co-workers such as Sean Penn, Emile Hirsch, Martin Sheen and Cherry Jones. Two of his three children, David and Eve, also are poignantly honest about their often difficult relationship with their father.

“Holbrook/Twain” is also a love story about Holbrook and his third wife, Dixie Carter, who died four years ago after 26 years of marriage.

It was Carter who was the catalyst for the documentary.

“The whole thing was Dixie’s longtime dream,” said Teems during a recent interview with Holbrook in the actor’s hilltop home in Beverly Hills. Paintings of Carter and pictures of the couple decorate the warm, rustic house.

“I came over here to try to convince Hal and Dixie to be in ‘That Evening Son,’” Teems said. “It was the first time I ever met them. We went through all of that business about ‘Evening Sun,’ and at one point she said to me, I am going to make a movie about the Twain show. I think you should make the movie.”

A year later, while the three were on the festival circuit with “Evening Sun,” Carter asked him again. “We kind of kept talking about it,” Teems said. “When she passed away suddenly, we put our heads together about what it must be.”


He knew he wanted “Holbrook/Twain” to be in black and white because he wanted the movie to reflect the timelessness of Twain’s words. Shooting in black and white also would neutralize Holbrook’s stage makeup.

“I wanted to be really intimate with him, and because it [black and white] neutralizes it, you are not looking at the makeup, you are looking at a face that is tonally consistent,” Teems said. “I wanted to draw you in and focus on him and the life on the road.”

“Mark Twain Tonight!” was the result of a two-person show that Holbrook did with his first wife, Ruby, in which they portrayed figures from history and literature, including Twain. Holbrook first performed Twain at what was then called State Teachers College at Lock Haven (now Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania) and got his first big break on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956. The show earned raves off-Broadway in 1959, and six years later Holbrook opened on Broadway.

After all these years, it’s difficult to separate Holbrook from Twain, who during his lifetime offered satirical, razor-sharp and still topical commentaries on such topics as racism, religion and politics — especially the machinations of Congress. Holbrook feels as strongly about these subjects today as his onstage alter-ego, who died in 1910 at the age of 74.

“I put in three numbers last summer,” said Holbrook, who has won five Emmys, including one for the 1974 miniseries “Lincoln,” and earned an Oscar nomination for the 2007 film “Into the Wild.”

“One of them is on the Christian Bible and Christian people and religion,” Holbrook said of the additions to the Twain show. “It’s a very powerful piece. I respect religion, but I don’t respect how people treat it. They politicize it, and the politicians use it.”


Holbrook keeps a record of every performance he’s given, taking copious notes after the show on what material he performed and audiences’ reaction. Whenever Holbrook does a return engagement at a theater, he rarely repeats any of the material.

These days, Holbrook isn’t the only actor performing Twain. Several others are treading the boards as the humorist, including Val Kilmer in “Citizen Twain.”

“Guys have secretly played and not-so-secretly played Twain for years,” Holbrook said, smiling. “I try to track them down and make sure they aren’t stealing my show.”

Holbrook, who was abandoned by his parents when he was a small boy, didn’t mind telling some harsh truths about his life, most notably that he was not a good father when his children were growing up.

“I was raised by grandparents,” he said. “I was brought up with ancient people. They didn’t play with children. We didn’t have toys. They sent me away at 7 to boarding school and I was lost. I was not brought up to sit around and make sweet talk to children. My job was to go out and make a living.”

But he said that Carter opened his heart. They two met on the set of the 1981 TV movie “The Killing of Randy Webster.”


“She was brought up in the South, where everybody loved each other,” Holbrook said, softly. “I had never known people like that in my own life.

“I thought this is not for me. I thought this is not for real. But it was real. I was a hard man to teach. I was a very hard, skeptical person. I still am skeptical, but she educated me.”

Twitter: @mymackie