Here’s a photo of the late, great Hal Holbrook, who I’m sad to report has just died at 95 after a long, eventful, and ridiculously creative life. It’s a photo I’m particularly fond of, taken at the Hotel Bel-Air on a February evening in 2008, as Hal graciously accepted the AARP Movies For Grownups Lifetime Achievement Award.
Not visible in this photo, just to Hal’s left, is me—trying to figure out a respectful, non-creepy way to drag one of the past century’s most beloved actors away from the podium.
“This is one of the greatest moments…of my life!” Hal had declared, pausing for dramatic effect, acknowledging the standing ovation from a roomful of celebrities, holding aloft the golden Movies For Grownups Chaise d’Or trophy.
“You know…” he then began, adopting the storyteller’s cadence that he’d perfected as a young man, playing Mark Twain thousands of times in the stage show that first made him famous. “This morning I was going for my morning swim. I swim every morning. I highly recommend it. And I was doing a backstroke. Just slicing through the water. Stroke…stroke…stroke…And I watched the ceiling above the pool just slide by, and I got to thinking about the things that brought me to this spot, here in this room, tonight…”
Then Hal Holbrook, summoning his considerable actor’s gifts, harkened back to his earliest childhood memories in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of a vaudeville dancer. His voice quivered slightly as he recalled being abandoned by his parents at age two and, along with his two sisters, being raised by his grandparents.
He spoke of school; of developing his Mark Twain persona as a project in college; of being discovered by Ed Sullivan in the 1950s.
The audience was rapt. Holbrook, the consummate storyteller, had this A-list group in the palm of his hand.
There was just one problem. Hal had been speaking for 10 minutes and he was barely into his young adulthood. One could sense the slow rise of nervousness in the room.
Another 10 minutes slid by. After reminiscing, dewey-eyed, about Shirley Booth and a 1966 TV version of The Glass Menagerie, Hal finally returned to his framing device; swimming on his back, backstroking through life.
“And so,” he said, and you could almost feel the breeze from the audience’s sigh of relief, “I do recommend a daily swim. It clears your mind; it focuses your memory. As I swam there, on my back, looking at the ceiling, I thought about making the difficult decision to play a gay man in That Certain Summer, with Marty Sheen, back in 1972…”
Hal Holbrook was swimming. The rest of us felt like we were beginning to drown.
I turned tentatively to Hal’s wife, the actress Dixie Carter, who was sitting to my left at a large round table near the stage. Her eyes were fixed on the love of her life, her mouth slightly open in a proud smile.
“Do…do you know how long Hal was planning to talk?” I whispered.
She turned to me, her smile not diminishing in the least.
“Oh, don’t worry. Hal could go on like this all night!” she enthused.
I felt an elbow in my right ribs. It was my other table mate, Julie Andrews.
“You’ll have to do something,” she whispered.
After another 10 minutes did a slow crawl, Hal was lovingly telling a story about his stint on TV’s Designing Women in the 1980s, costarring with Dixie. There was no end in sight.
The actual host of the evening was Monty Python’s John Cleese, but as tall as he is, Cleese was nowhere to be found. I imagined him sliding down into his seat, Basil Fawlty-like, just wishing to be left out of the unfolding drama. As the movie critic for the event’s sponsor, AARP the Magazine, and creator of the Movies for Grownups Awards, I had given the evening’s opening remarks and made some introductions. Although I was not the master of ceremonies, it appeared I would have to be the sergeant at arms.
At the next table sat my editor at AARP the Magazine, Nancy Graham. She was frantically nodding her head toward the podium, mouthing the words, “Get him off!”
In a distant corner, I heard Rob Reiner stage whisper: “Are there any rooms available in this hotel, because I think we may all have to check in!”
Tentatively, I rose from my seat and made my way to Hal’s left, about five feet from the raised podium. I stood there, wondering what to do next, goofily resplendent in my tuxedo (earlier in the evening, Michael Moore had mistaken me for a waiter). I was now aware that not a single person in the room was watching the speaker. Every pair of eyes was focused on me.
“Save us, Obi Bill,” they pleaded silently. “You’re our only hope.”
I knew I needed to catch Hal’s eye, but that was difficult because at this moment his eyes were actually closed, his face raised upward, his voice waxing rhapsodic about discovering love again with his beloved Dixie. I moved slightly forward and shifted from foot to foot, hoping that when he re-opened his eyes the movement would draw his attention.
It did. Hal looked at me, flashed a smile, nodded—and continued with a story about reuniting with Marty Sheen in an episode of The West Wing.
Finally, I had an opening. Once more, Hal employed his framing device: A man in his twilight years, backstroking through his pool of memories.
I stepped onto the podium. I was within two feet of Hal. He turned, looked at me utterly unsurprised, returned to his microphone and said, “I guess that’s it. This has been a great honor. Thank you, and good night!”
During his six decades in show business, Hal Holbrook may have enjoyed louder ovations at the end of a performance. But he most certainly never got a more grateful one.
He had been up there for 40 minutes.
About five years later, I interviewed Hal one last time in relation to his film Savannah. As we wrapped up, I reminded him of that night in Bel Air.
“Oh, yes!” he said. “I did that swimming thing.”
Who could forget?