Hal Holbrook

Hal Holbrook Headshot

Actor • Director • Writer

Birth Name: Harold Rowe Holbrook Jr.

Birth Date: February 17, 1925

Death Date: January 23, 2021

Birth Place: Cleveland, Ohio

Spouses: Dixie Carter

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, 2008-14). 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. Hal Holbrook died on January 23, 2021 at the age of 95.

Credits

The Seventh Day

Actor
Show
2023

Go With Me

Actor
Whizzer
Movie
2015

Planes: Fire & Rescue

Voice
Mayday
Movie
2014

RectifyStream

Actor
Rutherford Gaines
Series
2013
95%

Monday Mornings

Guest Star
Show
2013

Savannah

Actor
Judge Harden
Movie
2013

LincolnStream

Actor
Francis Preston Blair
Movie
2012
90%

Promised Land

Actor
Frank Yates
Movie
2012

Water for Elephants

Actor
Old Jacob
Movie
2011

Good Day for It

Actor
Hec
Movie
2011

The EventStream

Guest Star
Series
2010
67%

Hawaii Five-0Stream

Guest Star
Leonard Patterson
Series
2010

Flying Lessons

Actor
Harry Pleasant
Movie
2010

That Evening Sun

Actor
Abner Meecham
Movie
2009

Sons of AnarchyStream

Guest Star
Series
2008
87%

Silent Wings: The American Glider Pilots of World War II

Narrator
Movie
2007

Into the WildStream

Actor
Ron Franz
Movie
2007
83%

BonesStream

Guest Star
Red Hudmore
Series
2005
90%

Grey's AnatomyStream

Guest Star
Lewis Clatch
Series
2005
84%

Hope & Faith

Guest Star
Show
2003

NCISStream

Guest Star
Mickey Stokes
Series
2003

ShadeStream

Actor
The Professor
Movie
2003
67%

Founding Brothers

Actor
Benjamin Franklin (voice)
Show
2002

Purpose

Actor
Tom Walker
Movie
2002

Haven

Actor
Show
2001

Haven

Actor
Harold L. Ickes
Movie
2001

The Majestic

Actor
Congressman Doyle
Movie
2001

The Life & Adventures of Santa Claus

Voice
Ak
Movie
2000
63%

Waking the Dead

Actor
Isaac Green
Movie
2000

Men of HonorStream

Actor
Mr. Pappy
Movie
2000
42%

The West WingStream

Guest Star
Asst. Secretary of State Albie Duncan
Series
1999
81%

Family Law

Guest Star
Series
1999

The Bachelor

Actor
Roy O'Dell
Movie
1999

El Florentino

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Smitty
Movie
1999

BeckerStream

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Series
1998

Hush

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Dr. Franklin Hill
Movie
1998

My Own Country

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Lloyd Flanders
Movie
1998

Beauty

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Alexander Miller
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1998

Judas Kiss

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Senator Rupert Hornbeck
Movie
1998

Walking to the Waterline

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Man on the Beach
Movie
1998

Rusty: A Dog's Tale

Actor
Boyd Callahan
Movie
1998

Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery

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1997

Trail of Hope: The Story of the Mormon Trail

Narrator
Show
1997

Operation Delta Force

Actor
Admiral Henshaw
Movie
1997

HerculesStream

Voice
Amphitryon; Hercules Foster Father
Movie
1997
82%

All the Winters That Have Been

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Uncle Ren Corvin
Movie
1997

The Third Twin

Actor
Pete
Movie
1997

Eye of God

Actor
Sheriff Rogers
Movie
1997

Innocent Victims

Actor
Bob Hennis
Movie
1996

The Outer LimitsStream

Guest Star
Justice Oliver Harbison
Series
1995

A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Jealous Jokester

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Wild Bill McKenzie
Movie
1995

She Stood Alone: The Tailhook Scandal

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Adm. Kelso
Movie
1995

Carried Away

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Doctor Evans
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1995

Stormchasers

Narrator
Movie
1995

A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Lethal Lifestyle

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William McKenzie
Movie
1994

A Perry Mason Mystery: The Case of the Grimacing Governor

Actor
Wild Bill McKenzie
Movie
1994

Bonds of Love

Actor
Jim Smith
Movie
1993

The FirmStream

Actor
Oliver Lambert
Movie
1993
76%

Evening Shade

Actor
Evan Evans
Series
1990

A Killing in a Small Town

Actor
Dr. Beardsley
Movie
1990

Fletch LivesStream

Actor
Hamilton "Ham" Johnson
Movie
1989
37%

Sorry, Wrong Number

Actor
Jim Coltrane
Movie
1989

Emma: Queen of the South Seas

Actor
Jonas Coe
Show
1988

The Unholy

Actor
Archbishop Mosely
Movie
1988

I'll Be Home for Christmas

Actor
Joseph Bundy
Movie
1988

El Profamo

Actor
Movie
1988

Emma: Queen of the South Seas

Actor
Jonas Coe
Movie
1988

Mamma Lucia

Actor
Dr. Andrew McKaig
Movie
1988

Wall StreetStream

Actor
Lou Mannheim
Movie
1987
79%

Plaza Suite

Actor
Sam Nash
Movie
1987

Designing WomenStream

Actor
Reese Watson
Series
1986

Designing WomenStream

Director
Series
1986

Designing WomenStream

Guest Star
Reese Watson
Series
1986

North and South, Book II

Actor
Abraham Lincoln
Show
1986

Dress Gray

Actor
Show
1986

USA en Estado de Sitio

Actor
Movie
1986

Dress Gray

Actor
Gen. Charles Hedges
Movie
1986

Under Siege

Actor
President Maxwell Monroe
Movie
1986

North and SouthStream

Actor
Abraham Lincoln
Miniseries
1985

92 Grosvenor Square

Actor
Col. Calvin Turner
Movie
1985

The Three Wishes of Billy Grier

Actor
Grandpa Grier
Movie
1984

The Star ChamberStream

Actor
Judge Benjamin Caulfield
Movie
1983
71%

America Remembers JFK

Narrator
Movie
1983

Girls Nite Out

Actor
Jim MacVey
Movie
1982

CreepshowStream

Actor
Henry Northrup (segment "The Crate")
Movie
1982
65%

The Killing of Randy Webster

Actor
John Webster
Movie
1981

The Fog

Actor
Father Malone
Movie
1980

Off the Minnesota Strip

Actor
Bud Johansen
Movie
1980

Natural Enemies

Actor
Paul Steward
Movie
1980

The Kidnapping of the President

Actor
President Adam Scott
Movie
1980

Murder by Natural Causes

Actor
Arthur Sinclair
Movie
1979

When Hell Was in Session

Actor
Cmdr. Jeremiah A. Denton
Movie
1979

Legend of the Golden Gun

Actor
J.R. Swackhammer
Movie
1979

Rituals

Actor
Harry
Movie
1978

Capricorn OneStream

Actor
Dr. James Kelloway
Movie
1978
65%

The Awakening Land

Actor
Miniseries
1978

Julia

Actor
Alan
Movie
1977
74%

Midway

Actor
Commander Joseph Rochefort
Movie
1976

All the President's MenStream

Actor
Deep Throat
Movie
1976
94%

TattletalesStream

Guest
Game Show
1974

The Girl From Petrovka

Actor
Joe
Movie
1974

Jonathan Livingston Seagull

Voice
The Elder
Movie
1973

Magnum ForceStream

Actor
Lt. Neil Briggs
Movie
1973
68%

Pueblo

Actor
Capt. Lloyd Bucher
Movie
1973

They Only Kill Their Masters

Actor
Watkins
Movie
1972

That Certain Summer

Actor
Doug Salter
Movie
1972

Suddenly Single

Actor
Larry Hackett
Movie
1971

Goodbye Raggedy Ann

Actor
Harlan Webb
Movie
1971

The Bold Ones: The Senator

Actor
Senator Hays Stowe
Series
1970

The Great White Hope

Actor
Al Cameron
Movie
1970
43%

The People Next Door

Actor
David Hoffman
Movie
1970

Travis Logan D.A.

Actor
Matthew Sand
Movie
1970

The Wacky Zoo of Morgan City

Actor
Mitch Collins
Movie
1970

A Clear and Present Danger

Actor
Senator Hays Stowe
Movie
1970

The Perfect Image

Actor
Mayor John Adrian
Movie
1970

The Wonderful World of Disney

Actor
Mitch Collins
Series
1969

The Whole World Is Watching

Actor
Chancellor Graham
Movie
1969

The Name of the Game

Guest Star
Series
1968

Wild in the Streets

Actor
Sen. Johnny Fergus
Movie
1968

The Cliff Dwellers

Actor
Jonathan Murray
Show
1966

The Glass Menagerie

Actor
Tom Wingfield
Movie
1966

The Group

Actor
Gus Leroy
Movie
1966

What's My Line?Stream

Guest
Game Show
1950

News aboutHal Holbrook