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Hal Holbrook's Hollywood legacy

Hal Holbrook’s Hollywood legacy — The Emmy award winning actor reflects on 54 years in show business and his recent role in ”Into the Wild”

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Hal Holbrook stares into a roaring fire, hearing aids in both ears (”the wages of getting old,” he says), a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich on a small antique table at his side. It’s an unseasonably blustery December afternoon, and the actor, having recently recuperated from a serious illness, is resting in the library of the Beverly Hills home he shares with his wife, actress Dixie Carter. Around the room sit awards from his distinguished career: five Emmys in a neat row and trophies for his work in the theater, most notably his acclaimed one-man show Mark Twain Tonight!, which he’s been performing for five decades. But in his 82 years, there is one award that Holbrook hasn’t won, the Oscar, and it’s been weighing on his mind lately. ”You try not to think about it, but it’s impossible not to think about it,” he says. ”And once you start thinking about it, it goes around and around in your head. You have to try to chase it away, because you can get sick with this kind of stuff.”

Most actors who find themselves on the short list for an Academy Award work hard to act blasé bout their prospects, trotting out bland red-carpet cliché. Not Holbrook. Sixty-five years deep into his career, the actor — perhaps best known to moviegoers as the shadowy Watergate source Deep Throat in the 1976 film All the President’s Men — has delivered one of his finest performances ever in the drama Into the Wild. His achingly vulnerable turn as a lonely widower who befriends the doomed young wanderer Chris McCandless (Emile Hirsch) has been widely considered a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nod. Actor Javier Bardem, himself a hopeful in that category for No Country for Old Men, called it ”one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. It broke me into pieces.”

With his gravelly voice and piercing, owl-like gaze, Holbrook has turned in iconic performances on the stage (most notably channeling Twain), in countless television roles, and in films like Magnum Force, Wall Street, and The Firm. Sean Penn, who wrote and directed Into the Wild, says the actor has been a role model ever since the two worked together on a 1981 TV movie: ”He has a humility as an actor and a very American kind of dignity. I always aspired unsuccessfully to the kind of grace he had on a set. He set the bar for me.”

Still, to hear Holbrook tell it, his career hasn’t played out the way he’d dreamed it would. Where others see a run of successes, he sees a number of missed opportunities, unforeseen detours, decisions guided by paychecks rather than passion. Looking back, he says with unusual candor, his work in Hollywood too often diverted him from his true love, the theater, and, despite some memorable performances, he never quite built the movie résumé he’d envisioned. ”I had a different kind of career. I mean, I’m not Bob Redford — you know what I mean?” he says. ”There are roles I would have loved to have done. But now I’m too old. I missed my window.”

From its earliest days, Holbrook’s working life has been fueled by urgency. A Depression-era kid, abandoned by his parents at age 2 and raised by his grandfather, he was driven by the simple need to survive. In 1956, still getting his bearings as a young stage actor, Holbrook found himself propelled to stardom when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show performing a selection from the Twain act he’d developed, for which he’d eventually win a Tony award. ”Seven pages in LIFE magazine, every newspaper — you couldn’t miss me,” he says. ”It was so overwhelming, it frightened me.”

A decade later, having found success on the New York stage, Holbrook was lured out to Hollywood despite some reluctance — and initially turned down what would become his most famous film role, in All the President’s Men, because it was so small. ”I looked at it and there was nothing to it,” he says. ”Redford came over to my house and said, ‘Hal, I promise you, this role will be remembered more than any other role in this film.’ And it was.”

In the 1980s, at a time when he felt he should be trodding the boards doing Shakespeare, Chekhov, and O’Neill, Holbrook found himself instead making a string of horror movies: The Fog, Creepshow, a slasher flick called Girls Nite Out. ”I can’t tell you how many people come up and say, ‘Movie star, right? The best thing you’ve ever done is The Fog,”’ he says with a grim laugh. ”I try to rearrange my face and say thank you. What can you do?” By the late ’80s and early ’90s, Holbrook was acting regularly in sitcoms, playing Carter’s boyfriend on Designing Women and Burt Reynolds’ father-in-law on Evening Shade. Asked now if he enjoyed the work, he says simply, ”I enjoyed the money.”

Holbrook would probably have cruised into the sunset, continuing to tour the country with his evergreen Twain show, if not for a call in 2006 from Penn, asking if he’d be interested in a role in Into the Wild. Reading the script, Holbrook connected to the story of McCandless’ ultimately tragic wanderlust. ”My son did something similar,” he says, dredging up a memory that’s clearly still painful after 30 years. ”He was on the road for two years, living outdoors, looking for something. Even when he came to L.A., he lived outside in a sleeping bag — and I don’t mean on the lawn, I mean alongside the highway. I was busy, doing jobs and traveling, and couldn’t really spend the time with him I should have. You have to spend a lot of years repairing something like that, and we have.”

Last fall, within weeks of Into the Wild‘s debut, Holbrook was hospitalized for exhaustion and had to drop out of a production of the play Our Town in Connecticut. Now he’s gripped by a pressing desire to find other challenging work. ”The illness thing — it was scary, but I survived, thank the Lord,” he says. ”Now I want to do something really tough. I’m not the kind of person who waits for something to drop into my lap.”

As for the Oscar race, Holbrook is trying not to let his hopes get the better of him. He found himself left out of the nominations for the Golden Globes last month, only to land a nod a week later from the Screen Actors Guild. ”The chances are slim or none,” he says of his Oscar odds. ”I’ve been in this business too long, and there’s a lot of power going on there, and there are a lot of very strong performances.” He pauses. ”But if such a thing happened, it would be a miracle. A miracle.”

Whatever the outcome, Hirsch says Holbrook’s unflagging perseverance remains an inspiration: ”We have all these whining, burned-out young actors who are like, ‘Oh, I don’t know if I can keep working’ — and this guy’s doing a one-man show at 82 years old that he’s been doing for 54 years. It blows my mind. Even some of the most badass guys can’t touch what Hal has done.”

There aren’t many octogenarians who would go toe-to-toe with Tony Soprano either, but in 2006, Holbrook guest-starred on an episode of The Sopranos, playing a cancer patient named John Schwinn who befriends Soprano in the hospital. It wasn’t a huge part, but Schwinn had some interesting dialogue about the interconnectedness of all things, and Holbrook made the most of it. ”They all marveled that I remembered my lines perfectly. Because I’m an old guy, they figured I’d stumble around,” he says now. ”I did this scene, and David Chase was at the monitors, watching. Apparently someone said to him, ‘Boy, that was good, wasn’t it?’ And David Chase said, ‘When you want to get it right, hire a pro.”’ He smiles a faraway smile. ”I treasure that remark.”

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