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Ken Burns Remembers Hal Holbrook, 1925-2021
February 2, 2021  | By David Bianculli  | 68 comments

Today, on the day that Hal Holbrook’s Jan. 23 death at age 95 was revealed, PBS held a video press conference for Hemingway, the latest film by Ken Burns and company. I asked Burns to comment on Holbrook, who was the key ingredient in his fabulous 2001 documentary about another seminal American writer, Mark Twain.

“Hal was a friend,” Ken Burns said. “He was a narrator of our Lewis & Clark film, and someone we interviewed for our Twain film. We loved him. He was really great at what he did.

"You must understand, he had on his hard drive – I thought it was six hours; the [New York] Times suggested today it was 10 hours – of memorized material,” from which he would draw for his various one-man Mark Twain Tonight! stage shows.

“And he would sometimes, just minutes before he went on stage, decide which of the two hours he was going to put [into that night’s one-man stage show]. Do I have a lot of Republicans? Well, then, I’m going to throw thunderbolts about the Republicans. Do I have a lot of Democrats? Then I’m going to throw the torpedo like that.

“He was fantastic. And in fact, one of the best shows – I saw him as a little boy, I saw him several times, and then the last time I saw him perform it, not on tape or anything, was right after 9/11, in November, on Twain’s birthday, the 30th of November. And he performed at Ford’s Theatre, a pretty sacred ground for me. And he had, for the first time, basically most of President Bush’s cabinet out [in the audience], and he just let go, until these people were squirming in their seats. And just with material that was, in many cases, 100 years old.”

Burns smiled and concluded, “He’s sui generis. There’s nobody like him, and I’m so happy to count him – and I know I’m speaking for Dayton Duncan, who worked on both those films, the Lewis & Clark and the Mark Twain – how much we loved him and miss him so.”

I echo those sentiments. I interviewed Hal Holbrook for my book on the Smothers Brothers, and on several other occasions. Like Ken Burns, I saw him perform live on stage at different points in my life and his. And as a TV viewer and critic, I was the beneficiary of a generous number of fabulous televised performances, from That Certain Summer to Pueblo.

But my biggest debt to Hal Holbrook comes from his CBS telecast of Mark Twain Tonight! in 1967. It was the year I discovered both Mark Twain the writer, thanks to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Holbrook’s dramatic delivery of excerpts from that same novel in that CBS special.

I never forgot either, and both of them shaped me. Thank you, Hal.

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