ELMIRA, N.Y. (AP) - After more than half a century playing Mark Twain, Hal Holbrook feels qualified to declare the absence of a true successor to the great author and humorist.
"I really don't think there is anybody you can compare him to," Holbrook said Tuesday night after his latest, but not last performance of "Mark Twain Tonight!", a one-man show Holbrook has been giving since he was barely 30 and still enjoys at age 85, 11 years older than Twain was at the time of his death.
"Nobody's close to Mark Twain. (Stephen) Colbert and that other fellow (Jon Stewart), they make some interesting comments, but they don't have depth. Mark Twain has depth."
Holbrook has often performed at Elmira, where Twain's grave is located, and he returned Tuesday to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the author's birth. A sellout crowd at the 1,600-seat Clemens Center sang "Happy Birthday" before the lights went down, then laughed along with Holbrook, for many the nearest incarnation of Twain.
The actor once again put on his white suit and makeup and reminisced, wisecracked, smoked and scolded in the latest, and not the last, stage re-enactment of Twain's world famous speaking engagements, the templates for modern standup comedy.
Relying as ever on a simple set of lectern, high-backed chair and adjacent table, Holbrook assumed Twain's gravelly drawl and for nearly two hours rasped the master's ever-relevant wisdom on some favorite targets - politicians, religion and human nature itself. He slouched against the lectern as if it were an old pal; sat open-legged and defiant in the chair; shuffled on and off stage in profile, cigar sticking out of his mouth like a drawbridge.
"I wonder," Holbrook said as Twain, "if God invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey." Considering the general atrocities of the world, he stated, "It is inexplicable that God would endure all this, with lightning so cheap." Another shot: "Man was made at the end of a week's work, when God was tired." And one for the immigration debate: "There are patriots who cannot love God because he is a foreigner."
At a reception after the show, still in costume, Holbrook noted that audiences would laugh at jokes without realizing they were part of the problem. He remembered performing in the South in the 1950s and '60s and quoting some of Twain's sharper opinions on lynching and slavery.
"If I had been without the white suit and wig, I would have been shot," Holbrook said.
He debuted as Twain in 1954 at Pennsylvania's Lock Haven State Teacher's College, a show that was noticed by Ed Sullivan and led to an appearance on Sullivan's star-making variety show. Holbrook remembered being terrified at Lock Haven. He had tried out some of Twain's stories on his friends, only to be stared at and asked when the punchline was coming. But once on stage, the audience laughed, during the story and after.
"They just took to this old man," Holbrook said. "I will never forget it."
Holbrook not only plays Twain, he studies him. He keeps up with the latest releases, like the first of three planned volumes of Twain's unexpurgated autobiography, a surprise best-seller. He attends academic conferences, including a gathering in Elmira during which he joined a group of scholars on a picnic at Quarry Farm, where Twain's study once was located. "He told stories under the moonlight. It was magical," said Barbara Snedecor, director of Elmira College's Center for Mark Twain Studies.
The actor has been coming to Elmira for decades, including an emotional show in April upon the centennial of Twain's death. Holbrook's wife, actress Dixie Carter, had recently died and Holbrook made a point of including material about Twain's adored wife, Olivia, who grew up in Elmira and is buried alongside her husband.
Holbrook also has a close connection to the Clemens Center, a tribute to Twain's real name, Samuel Clemens. Tom Weidemann, the center's executive director, said that when the theater was just getting started Holbrook made suggestions about lighting and stage design which remain in use.
"He is a very special part of our history," Weidemann said.
During the show, Holbrook recited a long passage from "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and dabbed his eyes as Twain's hero lied to authority on behalf of the runaway slave Jim. He quoted from Twain's memories of his courtship of Olivia, "just 22" when they met and "she was beautiful." Olivia Langdon came from a wealthy and respectable family that had doubts about the unpolished author and requested letters of recommendation.
Even his friends turned on him.
"They not only spoke of me with disapproval," Holbrook/Twain said, "they were enthusiastic about it."
No side of the barn was broader than our system of government. We not only have freedom of speech and freedom of worship, but the will to ignore them both. Congress, Holbrook cracked, is the "best that money can buy" and sworn to "distribute the graft." In a quote that might have come from the staff of Stewart, Holbrook/Twain observed: "If you could work a multiplication table into a political platform, Republicans would vote it down."
The genius was in the words. And the timing. Holbrook recalled Twain's belief that politicians never reformed. Well, there was one politician who reformed.
On election eve.
"He was reformed by his friend who took him boating on the East River."