Farewell to Hal

Hal Holbrook meeting a student

". . . he plumbed the depths of Twain’s writing and thinking with the same patient perseverance that Samuel Clemens used to navigate the Mississippi River."

Hal Holbrook ’48 walked in and started talking like he’d been briefly interrupted from an earlier conversation with the audience. It had been decades since he’d last been on the campus of his alma mater.

“I’m going to have trouble hearing you, because I’m getting very old and the hearing aids are my second ones,” he said. His assistant in California was getting his good ones repaired, so he could stay on the road.

The award-winning actor, director, and writer was 87 years old and “on the road” with his second-best hearing aids. He was pretty cheerful about it. Holbrook invited questions, but being hard of hearing as well as outgoing, his strategy was to do all the talking.

He covered some of his early autobiography, early career and thoughts on acting technique, and channeled his alter ego, Mark Twain, who had some pointed things to say about lobbyists in Washington and globalism, which Holbrook had recently added to his show.

Holbrook also took up the topic of his time in college. He thought he’d be going to a big school like Michigan to study acting, but he learned about Denison during a chance encounter with theatre professor Ed Wright in Cleveland. Wright did some fast talking about his stellar program, giving Holbrook’s arm a congenial and convincing twist. Wright was an actor, too.

Hal’s freshman year ended in the spring of 1943 with a D+ average and orders to report to Army training at Fort Hayes in Columbus. After three years of service, he was more than inspired to buckle down and learn. He was also newly married to Ruby Johnston ’50 from Newfoundland, where he’d been stationed. Whatever talent Hal had shown as a freshman, Ed Wright still wanted him at Denison, and he went to bat for Holbrook with President Brown, who agreed to readmit the lanky, underperforming fellow. Holbrook rewarded them with all As. Ruby also enrolled in theatre, and the young pair lived with Wright and his wife until the temporary housing on the east quad for postwar married couples, winsomely named the Enchanted Cottages, was completed.

Holbrook’s stories unfolded with the memory and dry wit deeply inhaled from a lifetime of inseparable contact with the mind of Samuel Clemens. He described being introduced by Wright to the idea of “Mark Twain, An Encounter With an Interviewer” as a senior project, and also as a vehicle for post-graduation employment. Wright had been talking up Hal and Ruby to a tour promoter as the next Lunt and Fontaine before they even had an act. Once he had sold them the idea, he handed them a script he had written years before.

Holbrook thought the original script was too corny, so Wright encouraged him to work on it, to make it his own. This was the start of his lifelong intellectual engagement with Twain, and the start of his own life’s vocation. Holbrook never stopped rewriting his script through the years—it was a journey he lived and continually renewed as he plumbed the depths of Twain’s writing and thinking with the same patient perseverance that Samuel Clemens used to navigate the Mississippi River.

As Holbrook exited Herrick Hall that day in 2012, he walked toward the campus common between Talbot and Higley on his way to the parking garage. He looked around to get his bearings, but there was nothing in this recently urbanized section of campus to anchor his memory. “Do they still have the chapel?” he finally asked, a little forlorn. “Oh yes, of course,” we answered, pointing out the tip of the steeple behind Burton Morgan. “Ah. Good.” He was relieved. “And just past that,” he added, “are the Enchanted Cottages.”

Published August 2021