February 17, 1925
Cleveland, Ohio, USA
Carol Rossen, Dixie Carter, Ruby Holbrook
PhotosView All (42)
A versatile leading man and supporting player whose folksy, avuncular nature often disguised his true acting firepower, Hal Holbrook was best known to audiences for his portrayal of American humorist Mark Twain in his Tony Award-winning one-man show "Mark Twain Tonight!" which he performed some 2,000 times between 1959 and 2005. Stage provided Holbrook his best showcases, but he was frequently praised for his television work, most notably in "Pueblo" (ABC, 1973), "That Certain Summer" (ABC, 1973), and the title role in the miniseries "Lincoln" (NBC, 1976). Among the more memorable of his dozens of film credits were such roles as the notorious informant known as "Deep Throat" in "All the President's Men" (1976), a guilt-stricken priest in John Carpenter's grisly ghost story "The Fog" (1980), and as the senior partner of a sinister law office with deadly ties to the mob in "The Firm" (1993). The veteran actor received an Oscar nomination for his moving performance in Sean Penn's "Into the Wild" (2008) and scores of accolades for his affecting turn as a proud man nearing the end of a hard life in "That Evening Shade" (2009). One-half of one of Hollywood's happiest marriages, Holbrook's more than quarter century relationship with actress Dixie Carter endured until her passing in 2010. Continuing to perform well into his eighth decade, Holbrook was the very definition of the working actor who loved to work - much to the enjoyment of appreciative audiences everywhere.
Though adept at gentlemanly Southern roles, Holbrook was born Harold Rowe Holbrook, Jr. in Cleveland, OH on Feb. 17, 1925, and raised mostly in South Weymouth, MA. The son of a vaudeville dancer, he was educated at the Culver Military Academy before moving on to Denison University to study theater. He left the school during World War II to serve for three years as an Army engineer; after the war, he returned to Denison, where an honors project on Mark Twain helped to foster an interest in the famed author's life and works. In 1945, he married actress Ruby Holbrook, with whom he had two children, including actor David Holbrook; the couple developed a two-person stage show that revolved around interviews with famous figures from history, including Twain. They presented the show during a punishing tour that saw them traveling 30,000 miles to perform 307 shows in 30 weeks. Holbrook revised the show into a one-man production that focused solely on Twain, and appeared (under considerable makeup) in "Mark Twain Tonight!" for the first time at a school in Pennsylvania in 1954. A job on the daytime soap opera "The Brighter Day" (CBS, 1954-1962) kept him and his new family fed while he performed in and developed the Twain show in clubs and theaters across the country. One of the most notable aspects of "Twain" was that Holbrook had done such extensive research into the author that he never set his program for any given night, and chose what material he would address in each respective show as he performed it.
The hard work paid off when Ed Sullivan caught a performance and invited him to present his Twain on "Toast of the Town" (CBS, 1948-1971) in 1956. The exposure gave Holbrook the boost he needed, and he mounted an off-Broadway production in 1959. The show ran for 22 weeks, which was followed by another national tour - including a performance for then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower - and a jaunt through Europe which made him the first American actor to go behind the Iron Curtain since World War II. He would pen a book about the show in 1959, Mark Twain Tonight! An Actor's Portrait, and go on to perform it for audiences great and small for the next 50 years. Holbrook made his Broadway debut in "Do You Know the Milky Way?" in 1961, and soon added more stage credits to his CV, including a 1965 stint as The Gentlemen Caller in "The Glass Menagerie" with Maureen Stapleton and Piper Laurie. The following year proved to be a watershed for the actor; not only did he make his film debut in Sidney Lumet's "The Group" (1966), but he brought "Mark Twain Tonight!" to Broadway. The production earned him a Tony and a Drama Desk Award, and was later preserved in a 1967 TV presentation which netted him huge ratings and an Emmy nomination. Holbrook had also divorced wife Ruth the previous year, and married actress Carol Eve Rossen, with whom he had his third child, a daughter named Eve. The couple would later split in 1979.
Holbrook's blend of gravity and compassion made him a natural for film roles requiring some degree of flexible authority, and he found himself cast as understanding fathers, as well as politicians, legal types, military men and law enforcement officials. He could be corrupted, like in his turn as a soft-hearted senator who allows a megalomaniacal rocker to take over the U.S. government in the counterculture nightmare "Wild in the Streets" (1968) or a high school principal with a libidinous secret in the TV movie "The People Next Door" (1968). And he could be cold, as shown by his straight-arrow police lieutenant who secretly fronts a death squad in "Magnum Force" (1973), the first sequel to "Dirty Harry" (1971). Mostly, he was dependably honest and real; he was a senator pursuing clean air regulation in the Emmy-nominated "A Clear and Present Danger" (1970), which served as the pilot for his short-lived series "The Senator" (NBC, 1970-1971); a father revealing his homosexuality to his son in "That Certain Summer" (1972); the captain of a U.S. spy ship captured by the North Koreans in "Pueblo" (1973); Carl Sandburg's "Lincoln" in a series of 1976 TV specials; and one of the most ideal stage managers to date in a 1977 television version of "Our Town." For this body of work alone, Holbrook won three Emmys - for "The Senator," "Pueblo" and "Lincoln" - and received countless nominations. During this time, Holbrook mounted a return to the New York stage with "Mark Twain Tonight!" in 1977.
Holbrook's film career remained largely an afterthought for most the 1970s and 1980s, though he was widely praised for his largely unseen turn as Deep Throat, the Washington insider who revealed the truth behind the Watergate scandal in "All the President's Men" (1976). His screen output slowly shifted from big-budget features, including "Julia" (1977) and "Capricorn One" (1978), to smaller dramas and thrillers - in 1983's "The Star Chamber," he played a judge who handed down death sentences to criminals who evaded the law - and horror movies, including John Carpenter's "The Fog" (1980) and the George Romero-Stephen King collaboration, "Creepshow" (1982). Television remained a source for quality material; he was a mentalist targeted for murder by his wife (Katharine Ross) in the acclaimed "Murder By Natural Causes" (1979); the father of a teenage runaway in "Off the Minnesota Strip" (1980); and a father searching for answers in a police cover-up surrounding his son's murder in "The Killing of Randy Webster" (1981). He made a terrific screen president on several occasions, from the low-budget feature "The Kidnapping of the President" (1980) to John Adams in the miniseries "George Washington" (1984) and Abraham Lincoln (again) in "North and South" and "North and South Book II" (1985 and 1986). Holbrook's co-star in "Randy Webster," the ebullient Southern actress Dixie Carter of "Designing Women" (CBS, 1986-1993) fame, became his third wife in 1984, and he had a recurring role on the hit series as her boyfriend from 1986 to 1989.
In 1985, Holbrook toured the world with "Mark Twain Tonight!" in honor of the author's 150th birthday. The jaunt took him from London to New Delhi and points everywhere in between. Meanwhile, the movies gradually began to rediscover Holbrook, beginning in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with substantive roles in Oliver Stone's "Wall Street" (1987) and "The Firm" (1993), and later in the acclaimed "Eye of God" (1997), "The Bachelor" (1999), "Men of Honor" (2000) and "The Majestic" (2001). Television also continued to yield regular work, most notably as a series regular on "Evening Shade" (CBS, 1990-1994) as Burt Reynolds' irascible father-in-law. There were also notable guest turns on "The West Wing" (NBC, 1999-2006) as the Assistant Secretary of State and "The Sopranos" (2006), as a terminal patient who shares a hospital wing and wisdom with a recently injured Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini).
In 2004, Holbrook marked his 2,000th performance in and 50th year of consecutive performances of "Mark Twain Tonight!", and in 2007, his contributions to American theater and the preservation of Twain's legacy received a special commendation from the State of Mississippi's legislature. That same year, he was cast as Ron Franz, a lonely elderly man who develops a deep emotional connection with a wayward young man (Emile Hirsch) in Sean Penn's film version of "Into the Wild." Critics singled out Holbrook's affecting turn in a top-notch cast that included William Hurt, Marcia Gay Harden, Vince Vaughn, and Catherine Keener, and he was showered with award nominations, most notably an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actor in 2008. The 82-year-old Holbrook was the oldest performer to ever receive such recognition. The octogenarian showed little signs of slowing down, as Holbrook kept busy with guest turns on hit shows like "ER" (NBC, 1994-2009) and small roles in such features as the crime-thriller "Killshot" (2008). Putting to rest any questions as to whether or not he could still carry a film on his own, Holbrook delivered a heartbreaking performance as an elderly farmer facing his broken past and uncertain future in the acclaimed indie drama "That Evening Sun" (2009).
Although riding high on the favorable reception of his last performance, Holbrook suffered a devastating personal tragedy when his beloved wife of 26 years, actress Dixie Carter, died in the spring of 2010 due to complications from endometrial cancer. A firm believer in hard work being the best cure for misery, the actor returned to his craft with a moving portrayal of an Alzheimer's patient in the drama "Flying Lessons" (2010) and a similar character, this time as the father of Katey Sagal's Gemma, on the third season of the biker saga "Sons of Anarchy" (FX, 2008- ). Other turns included a cameo as an elderly version of Robert Pattinson's character in the period romance "Water for Elephants" (2011) and a recurring role as a powerful businessman embroiled in a vast alien conspiracy on the short-lived sci-fi series "The Event" (NBC, 2010-11). The following year, the seasoned actor ably essayed influential politician Francis Preston Blair in director Steven Spielberg's ambitious biopic "Lincoln" (2012), starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the embattled president. At the turn of the year, Holbrook returned to screens as a revered town elder at odds with the efforts of a corporate salesman's (Matt Damon) efforts to convince the community to lease drilling rights to his gas company in the topical drama "The Promised Land" (2013), directed by Gus Van Sant and written by Damon and co-star John Krasinski.
Promised LandFrank Yates
Water for ElephantsOld Jacob
That Evening SunAbner Meecham
Into the WildRon Franz
The MajesticCongressman T Johnston Doyle
Men of HonorMr Pappy
Waking the DeadIsaac Green
Eye of GodSheriff Rogers
Cats Don't Danceof Cranston
Carried AwayDr Evans
The FirmOliver Lambert
Fletch LivesHam Johnson
The UnholyArchbishop Mosely
Wall StreetLou Mannheim
The Star ChamberBenjamin Caulfied
The FogFather Malone
All the President's MenDeep Throat
Girls Nite OutActor
Jonathan Livingston Seagullof Elder
Good Day for ItActor
The Kidnapping of the PresidentPresident Adam Scott