The Big Read Blog (Archive)

The Crack Was Gone

November 22, 2008
Huntingdon, TN

The best interview I ever conducted has always been the mid-fatwa profile I did of Salman Rushdie for the LA Reader -- until now. Tuesday night I got to have an onstage conversation about Twain and the reading life with Hal Holbrook and his wife, the actress Dixie Carter, in her native Carroll County, Tennessee, at her jewel-like namesake theater. I'm still vibrating with joy at the memory, and no one recorded it, so these brief lines will have to suffice.

The whole thing originated at Big Read orientation last winter. Dixie Theater executive director Lee Warren came up and asked if I'd come do an event during their Big Read of Tom Sawyer. Already knowing secondhand about the Dixie, I answered that if she'd let me do something with Hal Holbrook, I'd move heaven and earth to put it on my schedule.

Hal Holbrook as older Mark Twain

Hal Holbrook in "Mark Twain Tonight." Photo courtesy of Vintage.

That's how I found myself shaking like a wet hound Tuesday afternoon at the prospect of a soundcheck with a man I've admired most of my life, not just for his landmark one-man show Mark Twain Tonight!, but for the Holbrook movie that more than any other, pressganged me into a career in journalism: not All the President's Men, mind you, but the cheese classic Capricorn One. I even wrote a part for Holbrook as a Twain scholar in the only screenplay I ever wrote.

I'd seen Holbrook in person once before, at last year's Broadcast Film Critics Association awards. Rheumy, frail, 82 and looking every minute of it, he stood besieged by reporters asking him about his soon-to-be-Oscar-nominated performance in Into the Wild. I wanted to go over but I didn't, so I wound up kicking myself all the way home instead.

Now he was chivalrously shepherding his cherished wife backstage at the Dixie not two feet from me, and he looked a new man. Some elaborate health troubles behind him -- the typical Yankee reticence about one's own health and other people's has no purchase south of the Mason-Dixon Line -- he looked, it must be admitted, uncannily like late-life Mark Twain.

I asked him about it, and he copped to an actor's disappointment at not getting to spend his quondam pre-performance 45 minutes making himself up to look like Twain anymore. He still tours Mark Twain Tonight! around the country, reaching into the 16 hours of material he's salted away to pull out whichever two or so seem most relevant when the house lights go down.

The soundcheck went so well, with me taking the opportunity to start interviewing him and Ms. Carter right there already, that I was afraid we'd wind up leaving our game in the locker room. I needn't have worried. They were such professionals that, come showtime, with a capacity crowd of 471 Tennesseeans including the mayor of Huntingdon (a high school beau of Ms. Carter's) in attendance, I threw out my trusty soundcheck questions and pulled out the rest that I hadn't got around to.

Near as I can tell, they relished the chance to keep the evening fresh. The one soundcheck story I wanted Holbrook to tell again was the one about his experience giving Mark Twain Tonight! at Ole Miss during the crisis over whether to admit a black student -- before an audience composed equally of students, faculty, and armed National Guardsmen. Still, I didn't want to pull the usual lazy interviewer's gambit of asking, "So, Mr. Holbrook, tell the story about...." That tactic just makes an interviewee feel like a jukebox.

So I asked him which out of thousands of Twain appearances stood out most vividly in his mind. I was perfectly willing for him to talk about his 1960s Twain tour behind the Iron Curtain, practicing the kind of cultural diplomacy that we're trying to rev up again at the NEA these days. (After the show, Holbrook offered to come to Washington on behalf of the arts in general and The Big Read in particular -- something I dearly hope to take him up on.)

Well, Mr. Holbrook did an amazing thing. He took the Ole Miss story that had moved me to tears at three minutes that afternoon, put back all the detail I didn't realize he'd taken out, and choked up the entire house at five minutes, himself included. I can't do it or much else he said justice here -- at least not in the scant space left me -- but I'll try to reproduce his answer to the one question I wasn't about to leave Tennessee without asking: "What would Mark Twain think about America electing a black man president?"

Hal Holbrook said, "It's as if you went to Philadelphia, and you looked at the Liberty Bell, and the crack was gone."