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Willie Steele meets Hal Holbrook at the Christian Scholars Conference in Malibu, Calif., in 2011.
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Photo provided by Willie Steele

I was upstaged by Hal Holbrook. And I’m OK with it.

Lipscomb English professor remembers his interview with the actor and scholar — who spent more years portraying Mark Twain than Samuel Clemens himself.

Several years ago, I was asked if I had anything I could present on Mark Twain for the Christian Scholars Conference at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. The conference was only a month or so away. I didn’t have anything prepared, but the guy who was organizing the panel knew I loved Twain and said, “Can you think of something? We found out Hal Holbrook is going to be there and we want to put something together.”

Holbrook, who played Mark Twain on stage for more years than Samuel Clemens played Mark Twain, did a phenomenal stage production, a one-man show based entirely on Twain’s writings.

I told the organizer I would have something ready. Soon, I was scheduled to be on a panel with some of the top scholars in Twain studies and the man himself, Hal Holbrook.

A journal caught wind of this and asked me to do an interview with Holbrook. This was the equivalent of a little league pitcher being asked to start game one of the World Series in Yankee Stadium.

The auditorium was nearly packed and everyone was anxious. The moderator started the panel, and while she was speaking there was a loud clattering in the back of the room. Everyone turned around and Hal Holbrook was walking down the aisle.

Stopping her presentation, she announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, Hal Holbrook!”

At the end of her talk, I was supposed to speak and Holbrook was going to wrap things up. Instead, as I was rising to walk to the stage, Holbrook pops up and says something to the effect of, “I’m not sure what I am supposed to talk about, so I’ll tell you a little about Mark Twain.”

He talked. And talked. And talked. The moderator kept looking at me and shrugging. When there was a lull in the talk at the end of one of Holbrook’s anecdotes, the moderator stood and said, “Well, Mr. Holbrook, we appreciate your time and the wonderful stories. We can wrap up with the last presentation and then open it up for questions.”

Holbrook, who was hard of hearing, yelled, “WHAT?”

Flustered, the moderator said, “Well, you can take a break before we wrap things up.”

Holbrook hollered, “Break? Well, I’m just getting warmed up!” And the audience erupted in laughter.

I sat back down — and proceeded to be entertained for another 20 minutes. I never got on stage.

After the session ended, a lovely woman came up to me and said, “I’m so sorry we didn’t get to hear your paper.”

“I’m not,” I responded.

“Really? Why not?” she asked.

“Look, when you saw the program and it listed Hal Holbrook and Willie Steele, who were you most excited to see?” I asked.

She stammered, “Well, I uh, ummm …”

“Don’t worry, ma’am. Me, too” I said.

I went next door and had a cup of coffee and a 30-minute interview with Hal Holbrook. I shut the recorder off and we spoke for another 15 to 20 minutes. Our conversation ranged from Twain to politics to theater to Ohio to education and, yes, to seersucker suits.

Willie Steele meets Hal Holbrook at the Christian Scholars Conference in Malibu, Calif., in 2011.

Willie Steele meets Hal Holbrook at the Christian Scholars Conference in Malibu, Calif., in 2011.

I was fortunate enough to see Holbrook on stage three times. But the time I had coffee with Mark Twain — after he hijacked my panel in Malibu — remains my favorite time with him.

Hal Holbrook died on Jan. 23, 2021 at 95-years-old.

Mark Twain once said, “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

I kind of wish that were the case today with Holbrook, but he certainly had a good run.

WILLIE STEELE is a professor of English at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tenn. He is the author of “Going the Distance: The Life and Works of W.P. Kinsella,” a biography of the author whose novel became the blockbuster film “Field of Dreams.”

Filed under: Hal Holbrook In memory Mark Twain memorial Obituaries People Top Stories

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