Hal Holbrook, character actor noted for All the President’s Men and his Mark Twain one-man play – obituary

Holbrook portraying Mark Twain in Connecticut, August 1959 - Robert W Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Holbrook portraying Mark Twain in Connecticut, August 1959 - Robert W Kelley/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Hal Holbrook, the American character actor who has died aged 95, enjoyed a successful career in film, television and theatre embodying establishment figures, yet gained international renown playing a whistleblower.

In 1976 Holbook was at the end of a two-year stint, appearing as Abraham Lincoln in a highly rated TV mini-series, when he took the role of “Deep Throat” – the source who helped to bring down another President, Richard Nixon – in Alan J Pakula’s All the President’s Men.

“The back story I created for him was based on a question of morality,” said Holbrook, adding that the character was “an idealistic myth that has been thrown into the rubble of public opinion”.

As Deep Throat meeting in an underground car park in All the President's Men (1976)  - Alamy
As Deep Throat meeting in an underground car park in All the President's Men (1976) - Alamy

Holbrook’s bread and butter, however, was portraying white-collar patricians – judges, lawyers, doctors, police chiefs, priests, congressmen, Wall Street brokers and naval commanders. In addition to Lincoln, he also took on the role of John Adams, the second President of the United States, in the 1984 mini-series George Washington.

But it would be Mark Twain, the father of American letters, with whom he would be most closely associated. Twain was his lifelong obsession, providing him with a role with which he honed his oratory and to which he would return repeatedly for more than six decades.

Holbrook was nominated for only one Oscar – for his supporting role as an old man who befriends the doomed wanderer Chris McCandless in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007). Yet he became a symbol of high-quality American drama.

With Emile Hirsch, right, in Into the Wild (2007) - Alamy
With Emile Hirsch, right, in Into the Wild (2007) - Alamy

He took his craft seriously and inspired a generation of younger actors. “I look at Hal Holbrook and what he did in Sean’s movie Into the Wild,” said Michael Keaton, “and it was so unbelievably perfect and poetic and simple and brilliant. I thought, well, look at that guy. That is nailing the scene. That is admirable.”

Harold Rowe Holbrook (always known as Hal) was born on February 17 1925 in Cleveland, Ohio. His father, Harold Rowe Holbrook Sr, and his mother, Aileen, a vaudeville dancer, abandoned Hal and his two sisters, leaving them in the care of grandparents in Massachusetts.

Holbrook served in the US Army during the Second World War. Stationed in Newfoundland, he performed in amateur theatre, and after the war he attended Denison University, graduating in Dramatic Arts in 1948. It was during his studies that he was drawn to the life and work of Mark Twain.

For several years he was a member of the Valley Players, a summer theatre company which performed at the Mountain Park Casino Playhouse in Massachusetts, and in 1954 he appeared in the television soap opera The Brighter Day.

That same year, at the age of 29, Holbrook debuted as the 70-year-old Mark Twain (he spent four hours in make-up). His first one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight!, was at the Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania.

Ed Sullivan put Holbrook on his chat show in 1956 after seeing his performance, and the actor would repeat and refine the part until he retired in 2017.

“Mark Twain never stops surprising me,” said Holbrook. “I never update the material. Let me get that clear. I find material that seems to be talking about what’s going on today, and there’s plenty of it. The fact that this old man is on the stage, saying things he said 100 years ago, is part of the power that’s kept the show going.”

Holbrook with Brenda Vaccaro in Capricorn One - Shutterstock
Holbrook with Brenda Vaccaro in Capricorn One - Shutterstock

The Twain show took him across Europe (funded by the State Department), where he performed behind the Iron Curtain, and to packed audiences off and then on Broadway (winning a Tony award in 1966). Columbia Records released a record of his monologue and a television special of Mark Twain Tonight! was broadcast in 1967. He even played Twain for President Eisenhower.

Holbrook made his film debut in 1966 in Sidney Lumet’s The Group, starring Candice Bergen, about a circle of college girls coping with the sexual mores of the swinging Sixties. Scores of small film roles followed: Deep Throat was one of the most substantial.

To prepare for All the President’s Men Holbrook analysed the psychology of a whistleblower whose identity was unknown (he was later revealed as FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt).

“He found himself trapped in a situation where he would have to betray his president or betray the country,” said Holbrook of Woodward and Bernstein’s shadowy source. “You do not betray a president when you work for him. You don’t break the code, but he had to choose between that code and what he thought was the good of the country. And he did so.”

Through the 1980s and 1990s when a director needed to cast a CEO, company founder or corporate sage, Holbrook was the obvious choice. He could play sincere or smarmy, principled or corrupt – a quality he had shown as the bent cop in the 1973 Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force.

Magnum Force (1973) - Shutterstock
Magnum Force (1973) - Shutterstock

In Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987) he played Lou Mannheim, an ageing broker who attempts to rein in wayward trader Buddy Fox (Charlie Sheen), leading to one of the film’s best-known lines. “Man looks into the abyss and there’s nothing staring back at him,” says Mannheim, “At that moment, man finds his character.”

(In an interview given shortly after the 2008 crash Holbrook brought up Wall Street: “Everything we’re going through now, it’s a repeat. That’s the cosmic joke.”)

For Sydney Pollack’s The Firm in 1993 he played the antithesis of Mannheim, in Oliver Lambert, a senior lawyer working for the Mafia.

In 2007 he was Ron Franz in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild, but at the Oscars he lost out to Javier Bardem (for No Country for Old Men).

By the time Holbrook reprised his Twain show on Broadway in 2005 he had played the author on stage more than 2,000 times. In his nineties, Holbrook was still performing more than 20 of his Twain shows each year.

“One day I looked at a side view of my neck with a hand mirror. And I looked at my face and said, ‘Holbrook, are you crazy? What in hell are you making up for?’” he said in 2015.

In 2012 he returned to familiar territory playing the Virginian journalist and politician Francis Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg’s biopic Lincoln.

In addition to his Oscar nomination and Tony award, he won five Emmys – for his performances in The Bold Ones: The Senator (1971), a double award for Pueblo (1974), for Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln (1976) and for his narration of the television series Portrait of America (1989).

The Firm (1993) - Shutterstock
The Firm (1993) - Shutterstock

In 2006 he contributed a notable cameo to an episode of The Sopranos (“The Fleshy Part of the Thigh”) as John Schwinn, a scientist dying in hospital who regales the hero, Tony Soprano – recuperating from a near-death experience – with Zen-like musings on quantum physics and the interconnected universe. His last appearance on television was in 2017, in Hawaii Five-O.

Holbrook believed that good acting came from discipline, tradition and scholarship. “When you walk on to the stage you’re not just going on for yourself,” he once said, “you’re walking on for the theatre.”

He married first, in 1945, Ruby Elaine Johnston; the marriage was dissolved in 1965. The following year he married Carol Eve Rossen; that marriage was dissolved in 1979. In 1984 he married, thirdly, the actress Dixie Carter. The couple modelled their home on Twain’s Connecticut house and appeared together in That Evening Sun (2008), a much praised film adaptation of a short story by William Gay.

Hal Holbrook’s wife Dixie died in 2010; he is survived by a daughter and son from his first marriage and a daughter from his second marriage.

Hal Holbrook, born February 17 1925, died January 23 2021