In 1967, I watched “Mark Twain Tonight” on television. I was a 13-year old glued to the screen as the actor gave an outstanding performance and introduced me to a classic — and iconic — American fictional character. The actor in the lead role made Mark Twain come to life for me. The performance piqued my interest in Samuel Clemens, better known as Twain.
That actor won a Tony Award for his performance and continued to bring Mark Twain to life for generations to follow.
That actor, Hal Holbrooke, passed away Jan. 23 at the age of 95. The news of the former Lakewood resident’s death wasn't released until last week. It hit home because his Mark Twain is still vivid in my mind. I also didn’t know he was a Lakewood native. My wife and I lived in Lakewood for more than two decades before moving to West Park.
For years, I listened to an LP of Holbrooke’s performance. To me, he was Mark Twain, the great writer and speaker. I wore out that album, listening to it over and over. Holbrooke continued to tour in the play until he retired in 2017 after 2,100 performances.
The next time I saw him perform after that Mark Twain was in 1973 in “Magnum Force,” the second Dirty Harry movie. I was shocked that the guy who had portrayed one of my heroes was the bad guy facing good guy Dirty Harry. The amazing thing was that he was great at being a bad guy.
Other roles came. Once he was Abraham Lincoln on a television series. He was Deep Throat in “All The President's Men.” Dozens more followed.
And with each one, he gave his usual outstanding performance. He became that character.
In the 1990s, he had a recurring role in the sit-com “Designing Women,” which starred his wife, Dixie Carter as one of the Sugarbaker sisters.
When we moved to my wife's hometown in 1996, I spent a day in the Lakewood library using city directories to look up the famous people who had lived in the area. First, of course, was Johnny Kilbane. But then, I looked up the famous ones from Lakewood. Hal Holbrooke was the first, followed by Burgess Meredith and Teri Garr.
Holbrooke's parents are buried in Rocky River's Lakewood Cemetery.
In reading about Holbrooke the last few days, it seems he never was “the big Hollywood Star.” He seemed to be just a common man who happened to act. He and Carter split their time between Hollywood and their home in McLemoresville, Tenn., Carter's hometown. He said Carter's home there had the feel of Mark Twain.
When Carter died in 2010, she was buried in McLemoresville, and she will be joined by Holbrooke.
In the words of Mark Twain: “There are basically two types of people. People who accomplished things, and people who claimed they accomplished things. The first group is less crowded.”
Hal Holbrooke belonged in that first group.
Brian Love is a freelance writer, sports writer and teacher.