Hal Holbrook obituary

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Jerry Mosey/AP</span>
Photograph: Jerry Mosey/AP

The actor Hal Holbrook, who has died aged 95, enjoyed a long and prolific TV and film career, with an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor in Into the Wild (2007). He specialised in authority figures, especially presidents – he played Lincoln several times on stage and screen – plus senators, judges and generals.

He also developed a nice sideline in sinister roles, nowhere more effectively than as the informant Deep Throat in All the President’s Men (1976). This part was relatively small in a brilliant but inevitably wordy movie populated by many of the leading character actors of the day – Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jason Robards and Ned Beatty among them – but his casting proved an ideal choice for the mysterious informant shot in near darkness and dependent on a distinctive voice for its powerful effect.

However, the thread that ran throughout his career was his characterisation of the writer Mark Twain, first given in 1955 in the unlikely setting of a New York nightclub, the Purple Onion. He went on to develop it, updating its relevance, on tours throughout the US, Europe and further afield. For his 1966 Broadway run of the show Mark Twain Tonight! he received a Tony award, and the following year won the first of his five Emmys, for the television version of the one-man show. By his own account, he played Twain more than 2,000 times.

Hal Holbrook in his one-man performance of Mark Twain Tonight! in 2007.
Hal Holbrook in his one-man performance of Mark Twain Tonight! in 2007. Photograph: Scott M Lieberman/AP

Holbrook’s fascination with the great humorist was combined with a distinguished theatrical career in classical and modern plays. There were numerous TV appearances in series and movies, as well as scores of films, beginning with The Group (1966), directed by Sidney Lumet. His fine voice – almost on a par with that of Henry Fonda – was frequently used on lucrative commercials and for narrations, where his warm midwest accented tones made him a natural for prestige documentaries.

Favourite roles other than Twain included Don Quixote in the musical Man of La Mancha (1968) and Quentin in Arthur Miller’s After the Fall (1964-65), a part he alternated with Robards, a friend and contemporary.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, son of Aileen (nee Davenport), a dancer, and Harold Holbrook, Hal (Harold Jr) and his sisters were raised by his grandparents after his parents separated. He only ever wanted to be an actor and immediately after completing his schooling he made his professional debut – aged 17 – as Richard in The Man Who Came to Dinner in his home town.

He moved on to years of summer stock, repertory and tours in dozens of plays, including Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Terence Rattigan’s The Winslow Boy, as well as personal selections from the classics, which he toured widely with his first wife, Ruby Johnston, whom he married in 1945.

After his New York appearance as Twain, he worked extensively in the theatre in Molière, Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams and appeared at many festivals. During the same period he became a regular in the television series The Brighter Day (1954-59).

Immediately after his movie debut he reprised his stage success as the handsome gentleman caller in Williams’s The Glass Menagerie for television, and the following year transposed his Twain production to the small screen. He was not always so lucky and despite theatrical success as the son in I Never Sang for My Father (1968), he lost out to Gene Hackman when it was filmed in 1970.

His big break came in 1972 with the controversial television movie That Certain Summer. In Lamont Johnson’s groundbreaking work, Holbrook played a man separated from his wife and living with his young lover – Martin Sheen. The summer in question is made problematic by the presence of his teenage son, as the trio come to terms with the situation. Television had not tackled a gay theme so sensitively – or directly – before, and the film became a minor classic.

Holbrook moved on to roles in bigger-budget films: the lieutenant in a Clint Eastwood movie, Magnum Force (1973), and Commander Rochefort in The Battle of the Midway (1976). Sandwiched between these he played the US president in the miniseries Lincoln – receiving his second Emmy as best actor. Among many other films, Holbrook took key roles in two effective horrors, The Fog (1980), as a priest, and the Stephen King portmanteau film Creepshow (1982), where he was the terrified victim of Adrienne Barbeau, in the episode The Crate.

He excelled as a villainous judge in the conspiracy thriller The Star Chamber (1983), and Lincoln again in North and South (1985). Other substantial roles came in Wall Street (1987) and The Firm (1993), in both of which he suggested malevolence behind an urbane exterior. For television he enjoyed a long run as the father-in-law of a former American football player (Burt Reynolds) in Evening Shade (1990-94) and had great fun in three Perry Mason mysteries, playing the ebullient “Wild Bill” McKenzie.

His resonant voice was heard narrating The Battle of the Alamo (1996) and more light-heartedly playing Cranston in the animated film Cats Don’t Dance (1997). In another animated feature, Hercules (1997), and its follow-up television series, he was Amphitryon. There were numerous other narrations, most notably the lavish Founding Fathers (2000), where he supplied the voice of Benjamin Franklin.

He continued to work steadily on screen, relishing the part of the bigoted commanding officer, Mr Pappy, in Men of Honor (2000), and followed this with character roles in Waking the Dead (2000), Haven (2001) and Purpose (2002).

Throughout his 70s and 80s, Holbrook’s energies appeared undiminished as he moved between television and the big screen and returned to the theatre, often in roles as demanding as King Lear, and still found time for his pastime of sailing.

He made a spectacular return to cinema in the factually based Into the Wild (2007), directed with great commitment by Sean Penn: as the retiree Ron Franz, Holbrook takes in Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) in the course of his Alaskan journey. He was the oldest actor to have received a supporting actor nomination, and it led to a string of further movies, including the thriller Killshot (2008), the engaging Water for Elephants (2011) and Flying Lessons (2012). In the last of these he took a poignant role as a former sheriff suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and struggling to recall his past. He had an important role as the newspaper editor Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg’s ambitious Lincoln (2012).

He remained something of an imposing figure thanks to his magnetic presence, deep and musical voice, countless appearances as cultural and political figures rooted in America’s past, and his ability to move between screen and stage, something which he said had taken him years to learn. While he acknowledged that characterisation and movement were essential in the theatre, he maintained that: “On screen you just have to be. You are. And that’s largely intuitive … you try not to act at all.”

With Ruby he had two children, Victoria and David; they divorced in 1965. The following year he married the actor Carol Eve Rossen, and they had a daughter, Eve. They divorced in 1983 and the following year he married the actor Dixie Carter; she died in 2010. He is survived by his children.

• Hal (Harold Rowe) Holbrook, actor, born 17 February 1925; died 23 January 2021

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