Harold Rowe "Hal" Holbrook, Jr. was born in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of Aileen (Davenport) Holbrook, a vaudeville dancer, and Harold Rowe Holbrook, Sr.After being abandoned by his parents at age two, he and his two sisters were raised by his paternal grandparents, first inSouth Weymouth, Massachusetts, and then in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood. He graduated from the Culver Academies andDenison University, where an honors project about Mark Twain led him to develop the one-man show for which he is best known, a series of performances called Mark Twain Tonight (for which he won both a Tony and a Drama Desk Award). Holbrook served in the U.S. Army in World War II and was stationed in Newfoundland, where he performed in theatre productions such as the play Madam Precious.
According to Playbill, Holbrook's first solo performance as Twain was at Lock Haven State Teachers College in Pennsylvania in 1954.Ed Sullivan saw him and gave Holbrook his first national exposure on his February 12, 1956, show. Holbrook was also a member of the Valley Players (1941–1962), a summer stock theater company based in Holyoke, Massachusetts which performed at Mountain Park Casino Playhouse at Mountain Park. He was a member of the cast for several years and performed Mark Twain Tonight as the 1957 season opener. The State Department even sent him on a European tour, which included pioneering appearances behind the Iron Curtain. In 1959 Holbrook first played the role Off-Broadway. Columbia Records recorded an LP of excerpts from the show.
Holbrook did a special production for the New York World's Fair (1964, 1965) for the Bell Telephone Pavilion. Jo Mielziner conceived of an innovative audio-visual ride experience and utilized Hal's acting talents on 65 different action screens for "The Ride Of Communications" with the movie itself known as "From Drumbeats to Telstar".
In 1967, Mark Twain Tonight was presented on television by CBS and Xerox, and Holbrook received an Emmy for his performance. Holbrook's Twain first played on Broadway in 1966, and again in 1977 and 2005; Holbrook was 80 years old during his most recent Broadway run, older (for the first time) than the character he was portraying. Holbrook won a Tony Award for the performance in 1966.Mark Twain Tonight has repeatedly toured the country in what as of 2005 has amounted to over 2000 performances. He has portrayed Twain longer than Samuel Langhorne Clemens did.
In 1964, Holbrook played the role of the Major in the original production of Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy. In 1968 he was one of the replacements for Richard Kiley in the original Broadway production of Man of La Mancha, although he had limited singing ability.
Holbrook co-starred with Martin Sheen in the controversial and acclaimed 1972 television movie That Certain Summer said to be the first television movie to portray homosexuality in a sympathetic, non-judgmental light. In 1973, Holbrook excelled as Lieutenant Neil Briggs, the boss and rival of Detective Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood) in Magnum Force, who an "obsessively neat and prim fanatic" supports the obliteration of San Francisco's criminals and the ringleader of the vigilante officers. In 1976 Holbrook won acclaim for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in a series of television specials based on Carl Sandburg's acclaimed biography. He has also starred in many films and TV programs. He won an Emmy for Lead Actor in a Dramatic Series in the 1970 TV series, "The Bold Ones: The Senator". In 1979 he starred, with Katharine Ross, Barry Bostwick and Richard Anderson, in the made-for-TV movie, "Murder by Natural Causes". Holbrook also had a major role on the sitcom Evening Shade throughout its entire run.
Early in his career Holbrook worked on stage and in a television soap opera, The Brighter Day. He is also famous for his role as the enigmatic Deep Throat (whose identity was unknown at the time) in the film All the President's Men. Holbrook appeared as a featured guest star in a 2006 episode of the HBO series The Sopranos and the NCIS episode "Escaped".
Holbrook was the narrator on the Ken Burns' documentary Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery in 1997.
Holbrook appeared on Fisher Investments' infomercials.
In 2000 Holbrook appeared in Men of Honor where he portrayed a racist and hypocritical officer who endlessly tries to fail an African-American diver trainee.
He appeared in Sean Penn's critically acclaimed film Into the Wild (2007) and received an Oscar nomination for Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role at the 80th Academy Awards. This renders Holbrook, at age 82, the oldest nominee in Academy Awardhistory in the Best Supporting Actor category. On December 20, 2007, Holbrook was nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award for his work in the film. In late August 2007 through mid-September he starred as the narrator in the Hartford Stage production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town, a role he had once played on television.
Holbrook appeared with wife Dixie Carter in That Evening Sun, filmed in East Tennessee in the summer of 2008. The film was produced by Dogwood Entertainment (a subsidiary of DoubleJay Creative) and is based on a short story by William Gay. That Evening Sunpremiered in March 2009 at South By Southwest, where it received the Audience Award for Narrative Feature and a special Jury Prize for Ensemble Cast. Joe Leydon of Variety hailed Hollbrook's performance in the film as a "career-highlight star turn as an irascible octogenarian farmer who will not go gentle into that good night." That Evening Sun also was screened at the 2009 Nashville Film Festival, where Holbrook was honored with a special Lifetime Achievement Award, and the film itself received another Audience Award.On April 22, 2010, Holbrook signed on to portray Katey Sagal's character's father on the FX original series Sons of Anarchy for a four-episode arc in their third season. He also had a multi-episode arc on The Event, an American television series, airing on NBC in the 2010–2011 season.
Holbrook's latest films are Water for Elephants (2011), Steven Spielberg's Lincoln (2012), and Gus Van Sant's Promised Land (2012).
Holbrook has been married three times, and has three children. He married Ruby Holbrook on September 22, 1945, and they had two children, Victoria Holbrook and David Holbrook. They divorced in 1965, and on December 28, 1966, he married Carol Eve Rossen. They had one child, Eve Holbrook, and they divorced on June 14, 1983.
He married Dixie Carter on May 27, 1984. Architect Hoyte Johnson of Atlanta redesigned Carter's family home and created an environment that the couple shared with family and friends. Holbrook has said that the home has the "feel" of the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, and that there is no other place to which he feels so ideally suited. Holbrook and Carter remained married until her death on April 10, 2010. Holbrook had a recurring role on his wife's hit sitcom Designing Women, appearing in nine episodes between 1986 and 1989 as Carter's on-screen significant other.
Holbrook grew to love Dixie's home in McLemoresville, Tennessee, and continues to retreat there from the busy life on the road and in Hollywood. The local community responded by building the Dixie Theatre for Performing Arts in nearby Huntington, Tennessee, which features the Hal Holbrook Auditorium.