Hal Holbrook speaks out on the political and the personal
It's a weekday afternoon and the Oscar-nominated, Tony-winning actor is speaking by phone from a hotel room in Northern California. He is supposed to be promoting his upcoming stage appearance as Mark Twain in Thousand Oaks Wednesday but he's having trouble staying on topic.
Holbrook, 85, excoriates Republican Party leaders, cable news and Wall Street, among other things.
"I'm sorry you have to hear me go off like this, but I'm just so angry right now," he says.
The actor, who describes himself as a political independent, has never kept his views hidden. In a long screen and stage career, Holbrook has worked with outspoken liberal filmmakers such as Sean Penn and Oliver Stone. Perhaps his most famous role -- aside from Twain -- is as the Watergate informant known as "Deep Throat" in the 1976 drama "All the President's Men."
Through the conversation, Holbrook returned to Twain and Holbrook's scheduled appearance in "Mark Twain Tonight!" at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. He also talks about his recent appearances in the FX series "Sons of Anarchy."
But it's politics that seem to interest -- and impassion -- Holbrook the most. What follows are highlights from our talk with the actor, in which he also discusses the recent passing of his wife, the actress Dixie Carter.
You've been playing Mark Twain on stage for more than 40 years. What does the role mean to you now and how do you keep the character fresh?
The easiest way to describe what it means to me is like this -- when I sit in a hotel room, listening to the news, and listening to the idiots blabber in what they like to call "news" ... if I didn't have Twain to go on stage and attack this kind of foolishness, I would end up in the nuthouse.
In what ways is Twain relevant today?
The role gives me the opportunity to hit certain targets that need to be hit. I didn't have to update the material and I still don't have to. Let me recite to you something that he wrote about big business -- he once described the behavior that goes on there as "the limitless rottenness of our financial institutions on Wall Street where theft has been practiced as a profession by our most influential commercial men."How do you think the financial sector has failed this country?
Everywhere you turn the public man is being crapped on. It's terrible that this country, which developed this
great system of capitalism, is giving way to greed. We're going to pay for it and pay for it and it may be
too late to stop.
That echoes what your character in "Wall Street" said -- that the thing about money "is that it makes you do things you don't want to do."
Well, that role was modeled after Oliver Stone's father, who worked in the industry. Isn't it amazing -- that movie came out more than 20 years ago, and here we are today. Everything we're going through now -- it's a repeat. That's the cosmic joke.
Do you belong to a political party?
I have voted Republican, I have voted Democrat. I register myself as an Independent. Right now, frankly, I am disgusted with the behavior of the Republican Party. I don't say that they shouldn't be arguing..[about]...the bill that is going to be clobbered to death by the lobbyists -- the one restricting the wild excesses of the financial institutions. This young man [President Obama] was elected by the majority and yet from the very beginning that party has chosen to stonewall him and destroy him. This I do not respect. We elected this boy Bush, who hadn't grown up. The Democrats opposed him on some things, but went along with him on other things... what kind of a political party is it -- I don't care what the name of it is -- that allows itself to turn itself into a stone wall, that turns itself against solving these problems. What has happened to this country? Where is the moral basis underneath our actions -- it's gone, it's gone.
You seem to be very passionate about politics.
I'm very disturbed as you can see. My dear wife [Dixie Carter] disliked me having to scream at the TV. My wife was a Republican. My wife was a brilliant woman and deeply kind and couldn't stand me talking like this. But I can't help it. I don't see people getting angry about it. I see this country split in two -- what do they have against this young man [Obama]? I don't want to think it's racism...
Did you talk politics with your wife?We talked about politics quite a lot, all through the [2008 presidential] election. During the primaries, we were looking for someone good -- didn't matter what the party was. I remember saying to her, I think this young man is going to win this thing. We both heard the speech he gave at the Democratic convention. He was appealing to the finest things of our country...
Her funeral [in McLemoresville, Tenn.] was in the church where we were married and the graveyard is across the street. And she went to the school around the corner. My wife could give a speech and use better language than I ever dreamed of using. She would use words I didn't know. She was educated in this tiny town that most people in New York would make fun of -- but she could speak better than they could.
You've returned to the stage less than a month since she passed away.
I canceled five shows because of what was going on. I flew to L.A. to do Thousand Oaks and turned on my cellphone and heard that Dixie had another stroke on top of the cancer and I turned right around on Southwest. Look ... I need to work. If I don't work, I could sit down and contemplate suicide. My wife was no quitter ... she would be telling me to get out there to do my work and that's what I'm doing. So that's the main thing -- to keep working, to keep trying to figure out how to do this job right. What I'm beginning to learn and it started with [Sean] Penn's movie ["Into the Wild"] is how to act in film. I never felt as comfortable as I do now.
You're also appearing in the FX series "Sons of Anarchy."
Yeah, I did four episodes. It's about a motorcycle gang. Acting can be a cathartic release or it can be self-indulgent. And I've always tried not to make it self-indulgent. I like the people very much -- they look like renegades so I kind of like that. I'm kind of fed up with actors looking like they're in a commercial for some [expletive] product.
Where will you travel after Southern California?
I go to Hannibal, Mo. My first show after Dixie passed was in Elmira, N.Y. where Twain and his wife are buried. On his wife's grave, there's an inscription: "Wherever she was, there was Eden." That's a beautiful phrase, isn't it?
-- David Ng
Photo: Hal Holbrook. Credit: Michael Stravato / For The Times