Mark Twain Tonight! was a 1967 broadcast of Hal Holbrook’s acclaimed one-man Broadway show of the same name. In the 90-minute special, Holbrook portrayed the legendary humorist "Mark Twain," pulling directly from his writings to discuss topics like religion, slavery, and politics. The format was inspired by Twain’s years on the lecture circuit. One of the highlights of the show was Holbrook’s performance of a long passage from Twain’s beloved novel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Holbrook transformed himself from a man in his early 40s to a 70-year-old version of the author, speaking with a Southern drawl, donning his iconic white suit, and wearing a prosthetic nose, white wig, and moustache to complete the illusion. The production was recorded in front of a live studio audience on a simple set that consisted of a podium, rug, chair, and a table covered with books, a water glass, and pitcher. Holbrook would occasionally puff on a cigar, as the author himself was known to do.
Born Samuel Clemens in 1935, Twain is considered by many to be the “Father of American Literature.” He penned numerous essays, short stories, and novels like The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.
Holbrook first portrayed Twain in 1954 as part of a two-person show he created with his then-wife, Ruby, at Dennison University in Pennsylvania. They went on to tour the show in 307 schools in the southwest over a 30-week period to great success. But when Holbrook found himself alone and out of work in New York City, he created the one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! The first production opened off-Broadway in 1959.
As word about Mark Twain Tonight! spread, David Susskind approached Holbrook to do the special, which was directed by David Bassler. It originally aired on March 6, 1967, on CBS at 8pm. Susskind was a prolific television producer known for the series Armstrong Circle Theatre, the television miniseries Eleanor and Franklin, the feature film A Raisin in the Sun, and for hosting The David Susskind Show, originally titled Open End. Prior to the special, Bressler had directed television shows like The United States Steel Hour and CBS Playhouse and would go on to direct episodes of many popular series including All in the Family and The Golden Girls.
Holbrook was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Drama for Mark Twain Tonight! He had already garnered numerous accolades for the performance, including the Vernon Rice Award for Outstanding Performance, the Obie Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play. During his career, Holbrook would earn twelve Emmy nominations and win five statuettes for his performance in The Bold Ones: The Senator, his two turns on Pueblo ABC Theatre, the narration for Portraits of America: Alaska, and for portraying another real-life icon in the titular role of Abraham Lincoln in Sandburg’s Lincoln. His work in feature films included the role of “Deep Throat” in Alan J. Pakula’s political drama, All the President’s Men. At the age of 82, Holbrook received an Oscar nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role for the film Into the Wild.
Fueled by an ongoing fascination with Twain’s viewpoints on the American experience, Holbrook performed Mark Twain Tonight! for a total of 63 years. He kept the production fresh by changing material nightly to stay attuned to current events, pulling from over twenty hours-worth of original Twain material. But Holbrook said that it was the theme of hypocrisy that Twain addressed honestly in his work that he connected with throughout the many decades that he staged the show. From the Hollywood Blacklist to the politics of the early 21st century, Holbrook said that he used the platform he created through Mark Twain Tonight! and the words of the author himself to uphold the ideals laid out by the founding fathers and to combat people that he felt were corrupting the country.
In 2017, Holbrook retired the production after over 2000 performances around the globe, three Broadway runs (in 1966, 1977, and 2004), and the top selling record The Best of Hal Holbrook in Mark Twain Tonight! Throughout the course of over six decades, he did a command performance for President Dwight D. Eisenhower, took the show behind the Iron Curtain, and played the Deep South at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. Holbrook, in fact, played "Mark Twain" longer than the author used the pen name himself, since Clemens became Twain at the age of 24 and died 50 years later.
- Amy & Nancy Harrington, Pop Culture Passionistas
MARK TWAIN TONIGHT!
Hal Holbrook as "Mark Twain"
March 6, 1967 Monday 8:00-9:30
Holbrook, H. Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. https://www.amazon.com/Harold-Boy-Became-Mark-Twain/dp/0374533598
Brantley, B. Storyteller at Work: 'Mark Twain Tonight!' New York Times, 2005. https://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/10/theater/reviews/storyteller-at-work-mark-twain-tonight-and-as-ever.html
Lovell, C. Hal Holbrook Says Farewell to Legendary "Mark Twain" Role, Huffpost, 2017. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/hal-holbrook-says-farewell-to-legendary-mark-twain_b_59b9694ae4b06b71800c361f
Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey