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Hal Holbrook: A Chance to Be Himself

The character actor at rest (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)

Hal Holbrook is best known for his portrayals of the famous (Mark Twain, Deep Throat) and the anonymously powerful (countless government/military officials, congressmen). But in Into the Wild, writer-director Sean Penn’s adaptation of the Jon Krakauer book about young wanderer Christopher McCandless’ tragic end, Holbrook plays a character we don’t associate with him: the extraordinarily ordinary.

Holbrook’s Ron Franz is a retired military man, marooned from the world since losing his wife and child in a car accident, who, over the span of a few days, forms a friendship with Chris (played by Emile Hirsch) that’s all the more poignant because it can’t last: Ron’s life is too sedentary; Chris’ is too fluid. When Ron gets emotional saying farewell to the young man, the unspoken understanding is that both characters are heading toward their own oblivion, and Holbrook’s performance captures the struggle to face mortality with grace while fighting off the disappointments that kill so many people’s souls long before their bodies follow.

Hal Holbrook is 82. He sits in his suite at the Four Seasons, radiating that same warm, rugged-yet-frail presence.

“I’ve been a character actor most of my life,” he says. “I always go for ‘character,’ like ‘the lawyer guy’ in The Firm. My wife [actress Dixie Carter] always says to me, ‘Now, don’t characterize it, Hal! Darling, just be yourself!’ When I insist and say, ‘Well, I am,’ she says, ‘No, you’re not.’ ”

Then a chance to be himself appeared. Penn recruited Holbrook to play Ron, giving him simple instructions: “He said, ‘I want you to shave off your mustache. This is an Army man.’ There was no discussion about ‘background.’ He’s cast you in the role, you are it. I’ve often thought about the mustache and how smart that was, because he took Mark Twain totally out of it.”

Though his one-man show, Mark Twain Tonight!, has been his legacy for more than 50 years, there was a time when any thought of a legacy seemed presumptuous. Born in Cleveland in 1925, Holbrook was raised by his grandfather after his parents left him and his sisters when he was 2. At 7, he was shipped to a boys’ boarding school in Massachusetts, where Holbrook encountered a headmaster he describes darkly as a “real weirdo” who enjoyed beating the children with a packing-crate stick until they cried.

“There was nobody around to pat my head,” he says matter-of-factly. “I had to learn to survive — it was either survive or perish. Somehow I had something in me, maybe given to me by my New England ancestors who came over here in 1635 in a leaky boat. Fortitude? Determination?” He laughs self-deprecatingly. “I guess ‘stubbornness’ is the best word.”

Holbrook started out in theater, developing his Twain show in the early ’50s, which led to Broadway and a Tony in 1966. Four Emmys followed in the ’70s, as well as a series of character roles in films like All the President’s Men and Wall Street. But in his later years, he’s played forgettable supporting parts in studio movies like The Majestic or stereotypically wily old rascals on series like Designing Women and Evening Shade. With that in mind, watching him in Into the Wild is to glimpse a different Holbrook: more vulnerable, more nuanced, more natural.

“When I saw the film, I didn’t even recognize myself,” he admits. “The first shot comes on and I thought, ‘Oh my god, that’s what I look like?’ But there was a character there. I guess it was me.”

He tells me he’s working on a memoir, which has caused him to reflect on his life: “That little boy in a picture at the age of 9 years old — how did this boy ever get to be me?”

And what has he determined? How did someone with such a tough upbringing end up without a chip on his shoulder?

He pauses. The next sentences come out slowly. “Once in a while, someone has done something beautiful to me. The earliest time I remember was after one of those beatings by that awful headmaster. I came out of the room, and the boys were embarrassed because they heard me cry. And then I saw, down the hall in a doorway, the piano teacher. A woman. I had forgotten that I had a piano lesson. The look on her face was enough to tell me that she knew what had just happened. She kept the door open and let me come in and close the door. I sat on the piano stool, and she came over and sat beside me. She was a woman in a boys’ school. She was a younger woman, a very nice lady. I don’t know what she said: ‘Do you want to start?’ I was learning to play ‘America.’ And I started trying to make the chords, and then I start to cry . . .”

He is choking back tears. He collects himself, but not easily.

“She put her hand on my head or put her arm around me . . . that’s one of those moments when somebody reaches out to you and does something human. You don’t forget that. And if you get a few of those in your life . . .”

I want to ask him if he needs a moment, but he continues, sounding more and more like Ron. Or maybe just himself.

“You make terrible mistakes. You get married, get divorced, don’t spend time with your children. I don’t see how anyone can go through that without realizing that they’re imperfect. In this process, you’re growing up. You’re maturing. And I think being an actor is a wonderful profession because an actor deals with all these thoughts, all this experience, all this emotion — and you can use it. It’s a gorgeous opportunity we have.”