Posts Tagged ‘hal holbrook’

R.I.P Hal Holbrook

February 4, 2021

In 2009 Lincoln Center Theater celebrated its 50th anniversary, and I was asked to interview  some of the actors who had appeared on those stages for an article to be published in the excellent Lincoln Center Theater Review. What a plum assignment! I got to speak to 12 of the most impressive performers I’ve ever seen in my life: Kelli O’Hara, Billy Crudup, Leleti Khumalo (the South African actress who starred in Sarafina! as a teenager), Amy Irving, Patti LuPone, Kevin Kline, Philip Bosco, Audra McDonald, Cherry Jones, Sam Waterston, Meryl Streep, and Hal Holbrook. (Okay, I didn’t actually get to speak to Meryl Streep – she submitted her perfectly formulated remembrances of LCT by email.)

I’ve interviewed a couple of hundred actors over the years, usually when they were promoting a movie or show they were in. This occasion generated a very different kind of conversation, sprinkled with quirky, mundane details from the life of an actor. Many of the things these actors said to me were incredibly moving, vulnerable, and unexpected. None more so than Hal Holbrook, who died last week at the age of 95. Holbrook of course is best-known for portraying Mark Twain in a widely produced one-man show and for playing any number of august roles (including Abraham Lincoln) in movies and on television. He played that kind of savvy paterfamilias in Wendy Wasserstein’s An American Daughter, which Lincoln Center Theater produced on Broadway. But our interview for this article centered on his involvement at the very beginning of Lincoln Center Theater, when he spent two seasons as a member of Lincoln Center Repertory Company, one of the many valiant yet ultimately unsuccessful attempts to create an American national theater with a resident acting company. The company was launched with great fanfare under the leadership of director Elia Kazan (famous for staging Death of a Salesman  and A Streetcar Named Desire) and esteemed Broadway producer Robert Whitehead, with director/critic/Group Theater co-founder Harold Clurman as executive consultant. When the first season didn’t get great reviews, Kazan and Whitehead got axed. Herbert Blau and Jules Irving (Amy’s father), who had been running San Francisco’s prestigious Actors Workshop, came in with their own acting ensemble and got rid of the previous company members, including Holbrook. [NB: The company for that first season included, among others, Faye Dunaway, Roy Scheider, Laurence Luckinbill, John Philip Law, Graham Jarvis, Salome Jens, Joyce Ebert, Tony LoBianco, Harold Scott, James Greene, and Crystal Field.]

Fifty years later, after all the roads he’d traveled, all the roles he’d played, and all the acclaim he’d received, Holbrook recalled those early days at Lincoln Center with a vivid sense of hurt and disappointment at how he was treated, which I found very touching. He also conjured poignant memories of working with Barbara Loden and Elia Kazan. I used only a very few lines from the interview in the article that was published, which you can read in full online. I offer here the full transcript as a tiny portrait of Holbrook not as Broadway/Hollywood celebrity but as a working actor with a strong commitment to the ideal of repertory theater.

Phone interview with Hal Holbrook, Jan 15, 2009:

An American Daughter had almost nothing to do with Lincoln Center. We rehearsed at Julliard and performed at the Cort Theater on Broadway under the banner of Lincoln Center Theater.

My main Lincoln Center experience was the beginning of the Lincoln Center Repertory Company. It’s a sad memory for me because it was something that I poured my heart and soul into. I wanted really bad to be a part of it and stay a part of it. They wouldn’t let me. I was forced out of the company by [Herbert] Blau and [Jules] Irving. Very upsetting. It was too bad what happened to that company. It was just beginning to come alive in the second year and they killed it off before it had a chance to flower.

The first year down there [1964-65] it was a very cold place. I don’t know if this is what interests you. When you came into the backstage door, my dressing room was with David Wayne at the very far end. You’d walk down that long cement corridor past door after door. Nobody said hello. It was not…it wasn’t the kind of theatrical company that you expect to have. Where everybody relates to each other and tries to be cheerful and helpful. It wasn’t that way. Why? I dunno. All kinds of reasons I suppose. A lot of the younger people were disappointed because they’d been promised a lot of stuff that never came true. There wasn’t the coming together, the feeling of a company that you above all wanted to have to start what’s supposed to be the great repertory company of the American theater. That’s a heavy load to dump on the shoulders of these people.

But the second year, when Bill Ball came in [to direct the 1965 production of Moliere’s Tartuffe] and brought with him all these actors who’d been out there [in San Francisco] acting mostly because they loved it – Larry Gate, Sada Thompson, Michael O’Sullivan – all these terrific actors who were friendly. They were fun. We had a great time together. Bill Ball surprised everybody with a remarkable production of Tartuffe, it became our first really solid hit. The whole second year became quite thrilling, especially since they forced dear Bob Whitehead out. Hardly anybody’s ever met a finer theater person than Bob Whitehead. They forced him out. Somehow it brought the company together standing up to Bob Whitehead, trying to do a good job. After the Fall [Arthur Miller’s play, based on his brief marriage to Marilyn Monroe] played well. I was lucky enough to take over the role … I started playing the matinees a year before when Jason [Robards] was on overload because they started doing a lot more performances because the other plays weren’t working out. So I took over the matinees. Then he left, and the second year I had 3 great roles – leading in After the Fall, one was [Miller’s] Incident at Vichy, I played the major and apparently did very well. John Simon, our beloved critic, wrote that it looked like Hal Holbrook could finally act after all. Then I had this wonderful little five-minute routine in Tartuffe that Bill Ball and I put together. Working with Sada and dear Larry Gates. Larry was so much fun. After David Wayne left, Larry and I were roommates. He took over David’s place. Larry would get all dressed up as Orgon to go on, and he would stand in the doorway and he’d say, “Look at me! Being paid to dress up and look like this!” It was really wonderful. We had fun!

We had spirit, and the company started coming together…and they axed us. They took away the opportunity we had to build a company. That remains a sad memory in my life. The thing I wanted to do more than anything else was to do exactly that – to be in a repertory company and play all those different kinds of roles.

How did you join? It was a hell of a shock. I was out on tour with Carol Rossen, who later became my second wife. We were on a Theater Guild tour in the summer. In August, I was approached to take over George Grizzard’s position as an actor at the Tyrone Guthrie Rep Company. I think I was going to be able to play Hamlet. It was a great opportunity. I’d visited the year before when they started the company. Then George decided to go back, so that was out. Carol said to me, “Why don’t you have your agent call the Lincoln Center people and see if they would like to have you?” I said, “Come on, are you kidding? Kazan, Clurman, why would they be interested in me?” She said, “Hal, just call your agent.” I did, it was Milton Goldman, he called and they wanted to put me in the company. Just thrilled. I found out a year or so later that it was Harold Clurman who wanted me in the company. I always treasured that. I joined the company. [NB: The company for that first season included, among others, Faye Dunaway, Roy Scheider, Laurence Luckinbill, John Philip Law, Graham Jarvis, Salome Jens, Joyce Ebert, Tony LoBianco, Harold Scott, James Greene, and Crystal Field.]

The corporate heads of Lincoln Center uptown…they were building it, we were working downtown there in a wonderful theater they’d built for Man of La Mancha before we came. The corporate heads fired Bob Whitehead. Kazan was either fired or left. The top echelon of our people were either dismissed or left, because there was considerable disappointment on the part of the people running and creating Lincoln Center up there over the failure of this new company catching on and becoming instantly the American treasure that it was designed to be. Well, people who know anything about the theater do not ever expect a company born one year to become any kind of a treasure inside of quite a few years, if it’s a repertory company doing a number of different plays. So that opportunity didn’t get to happen.

Blau and Irving ran a very fine theater [the Actors Workshop] in San Francisco. I saw Michael O’Sullivan in Beckett’s Endgame. They had to get rid of us because they wanted to bring their own company in. We all had contracts for 2 ½ years, and they couldn’t fire us unless they forced us out. So they forced everybody out. You got down to Joe Wiseman and me left, and I just kept hanging on and saying “I’ll play anything, I’ll do walk-ons, I don’t care.” As long as I had one role in the whole season, just a role that had enough to it that I could make some kind of impression. I’m a guy who was playing significant parts in three productions running at that time. All I was asking for was peanuts. But one peanut where people could notice me. I was willing to start over and work my way up. They kept saying they didn’t know what the plays would be. We had three meetings. The third was in a coffee shop, we sat in a picture window, the three of us. I said, “Look, the New York Times announced the 12 plays you’re considering for your first season.” Maybe it was down to 6. “Out of that, just give me an idea of one role that I might have when I could make some kind of impression. The rest of the time I’ll carry a spear.” Well, they couldn’t tell me. I said, “Come on, we all know Hamlet. In the cast of Hamlet, what character might be the best that I could get out of the first season?” They hemmed and hawed and finally one of them said Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. At that point I knew that I had lost the battle with these people. I gave up and quit. The only person who stayed with them was Joe Wiseman, if I remember correctly.

The greatest experience I had, aside from working with Bill Ball and that company, the most meaningful experiences and one of the most important in my life as an actor was working with Barbara Loden in After the Fall. I did 87 performances of it all told. Working with Barbara Loden onstage was…I’d never been onstage with an actor who gave every single ounce of her guts. The commitment that she made out there was so…almost frightening that you couldn’t help learning something about acting by being out there with her. I developed a very warm lovely feeling toward her even though we hardly knew each other offstage. I developed a real affection for her in an unspoken way which we played out onstage. She taught me a lot. It was so immediate. It wasn’t anything you could get set for. Every time out it was a new animal. It wasn’t any feeling that you were repeating something, which is a wonderful feeling for an actor. When you’ve been brought up in another tradition…this is the thing we all strive for. It’s called by some people spontaneity, but it’s more than that – a real gift is another. I know a lot of people who are spontaneous, but it stops there. This girl, she lived through this role so thoroughly that you were caught up in it and you had to go right along with her.

I had one other good experience that I’ll always remember, with Kazan. I played a little walk-on in the original After the Fall, so he gave me the role of some guy with 3-4 lines with Jason. So when I took over for Jason, I had to create that whole goddam role myself. I had no help. I learned all the lines and worked on the role by myself. I was going through a very bad time in my life, and in some ways this role saved me from falling apart. This role of Quentin. That’s what the psychiatrist told me. I had two rehearsals with the cast, and they were not happy. They were not happy that I was playing the role as far as I could see. They all looked at me with cold eyes. Zohra Lampert would sit in the front row while I was running through this, no help, no encouragement. I knew they’d say, “Why the hell did they pick Holbrook to do this?” It wasn’t helpful. That’s not the theater that I love. So for the second rehearsal, Kazan came before I took over. He sat out there, 6-7 rows back. At the end of the second act, Quentin comes down these long stairs in this enormous soliloquy, which I had interpreted as a realization of his guilt. When Arthur Miller had me come up to his place in Connecticut to talk about the role, I stayed overnight at this cold place he lived in. I told him I thought the man was guilty and the play was about his guilt. I don’t think Arthur liked that, but that’s what the play was about. I started the speech, Kazan is out there, I’m all worked up inside and emotional. Suddenly I get hit with this tremendous emotion of what was going through in my own life, my marriage was breaking up, and I started to cry. But I stopped myself, kept stopping myself, could hardly get through the speech. I didn’t intend to cry, I felt so ashamed. I just sat down at the end and stopped. There was a long silence. I felt like an idiot. Kazan walked down to the stage and sat down beside me on the steps and he said, “Why are you afraid to cry?” I said, “Christ, I don’t know, it’s ridiculous. I don’t know what happened. It’s ridiculous!” He said, “It’s OK to cry.” He put his hand on my knee and got up and left. That was a wonderful moment for me as an actor to be given that wonderful encouragement by such a great director.

I could thank Barbara Loden for beginning to find my way into that kind of freedom. I could thank Kazan. At that time, her boyfriend was a Mafia guy, the kind who’d put the hand by the nose. He’d come around sometimes, a shadowy creepy figure. You heard this or heard that. We understood that this boyfriend was a tough Mafia guy and Kazan better watch out. I guess she was a tough girl, to go through what she came through, came out of the smoky hills of North Carolina, strangely vulnerable.

An American Daughter – my memory of the show … I had a lot of fun. I love Kate Nelligan. I learned a lesson there. People tell you before you meet someone, “Kate Nelligan, she’s rough to work with.” When I met Kate Nelligan in the rehearsal room at Julliard, she got up and smiled and me and said, “Hal!” and gave me a hug. There was never anything but wonderful feelings between me and Kate.

I also have lovely feelings from the rehearsal room. Dan Sullivan and dear Wendy Wasserstein. Wendy was remarkable. She was not precious about what she’d written. She’d change words around for you if somebody wanted her to. She’d come back every day and rewrite a few things if they were required. She was so in tune with the acting part of the production. Dan was the quiet black Irish type character who didn’t show much of a sense of humor. But he was patient with me because I was living in a hotel on E. 76th St, and I’d walk across the park and I’d always have some story to tell him when I’d come into rehearsal. I realized that I’d hold up rehearsals for five minutes to tell stories. After a while, I realized that Sullivan was being patient with me … then I could see him smiling after a while, he was getting a kick out it and so was Wendy. It was a nice feeling to create in a company.

The idea of a permanent acting company is so precious. It’s so wonderful when you are in a company where you generate these kinds of feelings for the work and each other. I really wanted to be part of that. I had to go out to regional theaters for the rest of my life. Tried to find it at the Old Globe with Jack O’Brien doing Lear, Shylock with Michael Kahn, Gerry Freedman Death of a Salesman in Cleveland. I had a good time doing all that.

I’m a clear believer that the health of the American theater, the true health has finally become the theater out there. The theater in the country, out there where people live. There are some wonderful companies. The Old Globe Theater under Jack O’Brien was a wonderful organization. Seattle Rep, Minneapolis, Louisville. I worked also at Hartford Stage. I saw wonderful productions there. I saw Richard Thomas as Hamlet there, I was astounded. I worked with Greg Boyd at the Alley Theater in Houston, that’s one of the finest theaters in the country. I worked there, my wife [Dixie Carter] has worked there. I’m going down to play Galveston again, just to get a chance to see the Alley. What Michael Kahn has done in Washington is quite remarkable. We should be enormously proud. I remember when I was a young man starting out reading books. Harold Clurman wrote this book about the future of theater in America, and he talked about the hope of theater spreading out, like it was in Europe, to cities where people live, who can’t afford to go to NYC to see plays. It became a quiet ideal planted in me by Harold and other people I’d read. Over the years, I saw it happen. It happened, it’s here.

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