Holbrook & Eisner: On beginning at Denison

February 16, 2015

Denison is known for great faculty mentorship, and it’s a tradition that runs deep. Exhibit A: Hal Holbrook ’48 and Ed Wright, his theatre professor.

It was Wright, after all, who changed the course of the now legendary actor’s life when he inspired Holbrook to come to Denison and then suggested not only that he portray the American philosopher and writer Mark Twain, but that he make a study of it.

It was a moment that launched—and provided a continuing framework for—Holbrook’s entire career. Now, almost 70 years of award-winning performances later, the Emmy and Tony-award winning and Oscar-nominated Holbrook is still working on stage and screen, and he’s still making a study of it.

“The purpose of doing Twain, for me, is to just make people think.”

Holbrook recently sat down with Michael Eisner ’64, a fellow Denison grad who for four decades has been a leader in the entertainment industry, including his two-decade tenure as CEO of The Walt Disney Company. The conversation was recorded in December 2014 and released in February 2015, in honor of Holbrook’s 90th birthday.

Seated in the library of Holbrook’s home overlooking Beverly Hills, they chat about the importance of a liberal arts education. “You cannot be Mark Twain, you cannot be all the characters you have played in your award-winning productions,” Eisner tells Holbrook, “if you did not have knowledge about many things.”

“You’re very right, Michael,” Holbrook responds. “You’ve struck gold there.”

“The purpose of doing Twain, for me, is to just make people think,” says Holbrook, who also has received acclaim for his many roles on television and in such films as “All the President’s Men”, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, and “Into the Wild”, for which he received an Oscar nomination.

And in a touching moment of surprise, Eisner reveals that he was a freshman sitting in the audience when Holbrook returned to Denison in the 1960s to perform Twain on the Swasey Chapel stage—an experience that impacted Eisner’s career path.

“It was really lucky that I was in the chapel that day,” he tells Holbrook.

On Friday, Sept. 21, alumnus Hal Holbrook ’48, a four-time-Emmy-award-winning actor perhaps best known for his performances as American icon Mark Twain, spent an informal and humorous hour on campus with fellow Denisonians, sharing stories about his time on the Hill, about how his acting career developed, and some lessons that he learned along the way.

Holbrook spoke with great affection about the people at Denison who made all the difference in his life and career. One of those was Professor Ed Wright, who was directly involved with the launching of Holbrook’s career and with the birth of what has become decades of Mark Twain scholarship and performance. “Because he taught us by example,” said Holbrook of his favorite professor, “and because of the inspiration he gave me, the professionalism and the history of the theatre that he taught me—I owe more of my success to Ed Wright than to any other person.”

In answer to a student’s question about his acting method, Holbrook said he learned a lot by watching a friend, the actor Charles Nelson Reilly, learn to be “himself” in an acting class. “That was the best acting lesson I ever had in my life,” Holbrook said. “I’ve played a lot of characters. I look for the human being inside. You have to try to be comfortable with who you are. … Being an actor is not that much different from being a person. You’re trying to figure out who you are and hoping that people will love you and care about you.”

About his most famous character, Mark Twain, Holbrook said, “It’s really long past time that we let Mark Twain out of the cave—because he was a major social critic of America. He wrote criticism about the status quo and the way society behaves.”

Holbrook challenged the Herrick Hall crowd with this line from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, ” ‘a privileged class, an aristocracy, is but a band of slaveholders under another name.’ Maybe you don’t want to think about that,” Holbrook said, “but it’s out there.”

“I don’t change Twain’s material. I do my own research and put it all together—like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s really fun, but it’s kind of dangerous.” Speaking about his performance of Mark Twain Tonight! in nearby New Albany, he said, “I put a new piece of material in last night, and I think it kind of shook them up.” He laughed, “It got very quiet. …”

Holbrook stayed afterward, talking with students, shaking hands, hearing their stories, and posing for photos with them.

Denison cinema student Gina Ezzone was one who stayed to talk. “Actors like you make us want to be filmmakers,” she told Holbrook, to which he responded with a big smile.

“He’s intelligent and inspiring,” Ezzone, a sophomore from Painesville, Ohio, said afterward. “I hope to be like him someday, coming back to Denison to talk to students about my work.”

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