You'll have to excuse me, but there are those bits of news that come as a surprise. When I read that Hal Holbrook had died, I was a little taken aback. With all due respect to the late actor and his incredible body of work, I had naively assumed that he had already passed. In my mind, Mister Holbrook was old when I first encountered him in the late sixties. He was the tall, reedy presence of authority, a curmudgeon before his time. Whatever time that was.
When you consider that the role with which he was most associated was that of Mark Twain, and he started doing that in 1959, it's no wonder that I always assumed that he was in his seventies or eighties. To be fair, he was ninety-five when he made his exit from this stage, metaphorically speaking. I was fortunate enough to catch Mark Twain Tonight on one of the many tours it took across the country. Hal Holbrook created the show, which appeared first Off Broadway, then on Broadway, then on television, and crisscrossed the country for decades. It was on one of those crisses or crosses that I caught his act. It had the mild side effect of making me look in each one of his other portrayals for a little bit of Twain.
It wasn't always on display. He regularly played tough but fair lawyers or government officials, including Abraham Lincoln. But my favorite roles of his were the ones where he started out looking like that tough but fair guy but turned out to be a real bad guy. Like Lieutenant Briggs in Magnum Force, providing Clint Eastwood with one my favorite lines, "Man's got to know his limitations." I was also entranced by Mister Holbrook's turn as the head of NASA in Capricorn One. This had him riding the wave of conspiracy theories about faked landings all the way to the beach, and then some.
And then there was that voice in the garage. All The President's Men came tumbling down because of that shadowy figure nicknamed Deep Throat. When I was fourteen, I had no idea that this sobriquet was lifted from an adult film of the same name. All I knew was that Hal Holbrook was responsible for bringing Nixon down, and that redeemed him for any and all past and future sins.
Deep Throat and Mark Twain. That was plenty, but his stage, television and film credits fill the pages of IMDb and Wikipedia. Hal Holbrook didn't so much stomp on the Terra as much as he sauntered across it, which may have helped lead to his longevity. "We never become really and genuinely our entire and honest selves until we are dead -- and not then until we have been dead years and years. People ought to start dead and then they would be honest so much earlier." That one was Twain, but it could just as easily have come from Hal. And night after night, it probably did.