After 61 years of portraying humorist Mark Twain, Hal Holbrook has in a way become Twain.
The actor, who’ll perform his one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight” on Wednesday in Olympia, used to painstakingly apply old-age makeup to play the author of “Huckleberry Finn” and other classics.
At 90, Holbrook is 15 years older than Twain lived to be.
But the two share a lot more than wrinkles and white hair. There’s also a talent for putting society under a microscope and a fearlessness about telling it like it is.
“The one thing people don’t know about Mark Twain is that he was a social critic,” Holbrook said in a phone interview earlier this week.
“Huckleberry Finn,” he pointed out, is not a children’s book but a fierce social commentary.
“It’s a book about racism in this country, which has never changed,” he said. “We are a racist country today. We’ve never been able to scrub it away.
“All of us, every one of us, we don’t want to stop and think about these things,” he said. “It’s no fun. But Twain puts it out in a humorous way … It’s a lot of laughs, but it’s laughing at ourselves, really.”
Holbrook kept the interview going for close to an hour, sharing his thoughts about religion, racism and the Republican Party. (A mild example: “Teddy Roosevelt was a Republican. He was no more like a Republican today than the man in the moon. He was a reformer. He tried to look after the common folk.”)
He does the same thing in “Mark Twain Tonight” — but onstage, he uses only Twain’s words.
“I never update his material,” the actor said. “I play him as a man who is talking to you in 1905 or 1901 or whatever.
“He is talking to us from 100 years ago, and he’s talking about the same idiocies and insanities and corruption and stupidity that is rampant in our country.”
Holbrook began performing as Twain not out of love for the man or his writing, but out of desperation. He needed to find a job to feed his family. He’d previously performed a funny sketch of Twain’s to great response, so when his agent suggested he create a one-man show, he went looking for more of the author’s work.
The passion came later.
“Mark Twain has been such a tremendous force of intellectual inspiration to me,” he said.
And that inspiration — along with his dismay at the state of economics, politics and more — keeps him going, he said, especially since his longtime wife, Dixie Carter, died in 2010.
“This gets me out of bed in the morning,” he said. “I’m 90 years old. I have to get inspired to move.”
He still performs about 20 shows each year, and each one is a bit different since he has hours of material from which to choose.
“Holbrook’s vast repertoire allows him to draw upon thousands of pages of Twain’s writing to comment on current events,” Cindy Lovell, executive director of the Mark Twain House, wrote last year for The Huffington Post. “Using Mark Twain’s words, he commented on every current event from Wall Street to gun violence to evolution to Congress. And more.”
Michael Kuchwara of the Associated Press summed up the writer and the actor this way:
“If Mark Twain were alive today, he’d probably have his own blog where he could spout cantankerous opinions on politics, religion and just about every controversial subject in between. Instead, Twain has something much better: Hal Holbrook.”
It’s true turned inside out, too. Holbrook could easily have his own blog. Instead, he has Twain.
MARK TWAIN TONIGHT
What: Hal Holbrook brings his Tony-winning, ever-evolving one-man show about the iconic writer to Olympia.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: The Washington Center for the Performing Arts, 512 Washington St. SE, Olympia.
Tickets: $47-$67; $43-$61 for students, seniors and military; $24-$34 for youth.
Information: 360-753-8586, washingtoncenter.org.