OLD PAL HAL
DESPITE 65 YEARS OF GREAT PERFORMANCES, HAL HOLBROOK HAS NEVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR AN OSCAR. AT 82, HE IS AS SHARP AS EVER IN INTO THE WILD. IS IT FINALLY HIS TIME?
“I don’t like to get knocked down—matter of fact, I hate it when somebody knocks me down, because when I was a kid I got knocked down a lot, and I didn’t take it easy—and so when that casting director knocked me down, I decided, ‘Screw him. I’ll climb a goddamn mountain.’”
Many people spend their childhood dreaming of becoming an actor, but from what I understand, acting was the last thing on your mind during your early years. I hope you can tell me about your life before you became an actor, and how one day—at the Culver Military Academy, of all places—you became one…
Yeah. Well, I never even thought of it, you know? I had no idea about such a thing. I was sent away to boys schools when I was seven years old, and mostly, in schools like that, I don’t know, one way or another you get attached to some athletic activity since it’s sort of a basic competition—when you’re in a boys school, you’re, sort of, jammed into a competitive kind of environment, I guess you might say, you know? It’s the essence of it. So, I mean, I got interested in athletics, you know? I was a distance runner, and ran the mile, and all that sort of thing. I was on the boxing team—I got beat up all the time; I was never any good. But, I don’t know, my last year at Culver, because of a situation that came about, I was kind of forced into taking the dramatics class to get one hour of credit so I could graduate—and, you know, with a lot of reluctance, ‘cause I thought these people were all kinda weird, and so did everybody else in the school. And when I got in that group, I found they were more fun than anybody and I really liked them. And, you know, when I went on stage, I suddenly had a wonderful feeling of people listening to me for the first time in my life, and that was the bug that bit me, I guess.
I know you ended up at Denison University, where Edward A. Wright was particularly influential in shaping you as an actor…
Ed Wright was a wonderful teacher. He was a really great teacher, and he became my longtime friend until he passed away. We spread his ashes on the Pacific from my sailboat here when he died—some of us who were his students. He had moved out here and so we were kinda watching over him the last years of his life when he wasn’t in too good shape. He was just this wonderful teacher, you know? He was a wonderful teacher. He didn’t push you into becoming an actor, but he taught you respect for the profession, and respect for the traditions of the theater over many centuries. The first class you had to take for the whole year was called “Introduction to the Theater,” and it was a survey of theater from the time of the caveman all the way up to, you know, John Barrymore. So you had to learn about the history of the theater, and develop some kind of a knowledge of it, and respect for it. I can imagine, from what I observe, most actors today don’t have any relationship at all with that information; they don’t know about it, because they don’t study it.
Actors cite different kinds of techniques—the Method or things like that—that they use to approach a part. I wonder what you draw upon to create a character…
Well, to begin with, it varies somewhat depending upon the role and, you know, what is demanded of it. I mean, if it’s an historical role, if it’s somebody recognizable, like Lincoln, or if it’s somebody out of a historical frame, like some Shakespearean character, then there’s a good deal of research available—research that you can do into the time that the person lived, and the conditions of life surrounding him, as well as his life—you know, wonderful, wonderful fodder, wonderful information for an actor to use in creating a role. When you’re doing a role that doesn’t require any of that because it’s just a person, like Ron Franz in this movie, it’s a different kind of approach. To begin with, my basic method when I get a role is—the first thing I want to do is learn the lines and get it out of the way. I want to learn the lines so well that I never have to think of the lines again because acting is not remembering lines; acting is thinking about what you’re saying. And if you’re worrying about what the next word is, it’s an interruption in the process, and it slows you down. So I get rid of the learning process quick and get it out of the way. And, I don’t know, I think every role requires some kind of a different investigation, because all these characters that you’re asked to play are different—they have a different history. I mean, you have to find out as much as you can about the life of the character and, you know, what kind of condition he’s in. I mean, if it’s a lawyer at a law firm, you know, you have to try to find out what you can about an area of life that you don’t know anything about, you know, ‘cause you’re just an actor. And the more you can find out about the way people behave in a certain profession or a certain way of life, the more interesting the role becomes for you. It’s amazing how you can sometimes, when you’re working on a role, just go out and walk down a street, a busy street—I used to do that in New York—just walk for several blocks down a street, and look at people as you go by, and you see little things they do, or gestures, or attitudes, or whatever. Sooner or later, you’ll see something that you think you can use in the role. You have to go outside yourself and look around at people, and observe people, and even in circumstances that don’t seem like it’s the right place for you to be looking for your character. You’ll find all kinds of little impulses. It’s mainly searching. And it’s not just digging into yourself, which is the basic thing you do when you’re playing a character anyway—you can’t avoid it, you know, you’re using yourself—but to go outside yourself and look for other little impulses that can feed the part. It’s hard to describe. This role, in this movie, was a kind of a different take for me because I decided that I wanted to not characterize the part at all; I just wanted to play myself. I wanted to be just as simple as I could. And the circumstances of the scenes that we did—of the whole segment in the film—the circumstances fed into that; they helped it in this particular role. Because, to begin with, I did not know Emile Hirsch. I met Emile once before we started filming, a couple months before. I met him in Portland, Oregon with Sean. Sean, and Emile, and I had dinner—I was up there doing a job when they were shooting around there—so I met Emile at dinner, and that’s all. And then we got together in the desert later to start our segment, which was about two weeks of work, and it was just the two of us. And the thing was shot mostly in sequence, so Emile and I got to know each other from day to day in more or less the same way that Ron and Chris McCandless got to know each other, you know? We didn’t know each other before we started working, and we kind of got to know each other scene by scene, the same way as they do in the movie. And, you know, that was a big help, because we didn’t put anything in the way of that—it was just who we were, and we were just talking to each other, we weren’t—at least, you know, for my part, I wasn’t characterizing anything. I was trying to figure how to handle this young man, and how to talk to him, and how to, sort of, maybe, give him some advice without intruding on him, and without being too, you know, like, “I know it all.” You know? I realized it was an individual, and getting interested in him, and it was a very man-to-man kind of relationship, and I don’t know—it just happened, without any strain or effort. And Sean is the kind of director that—he’s wonderful—he casts you in the role and leaves you alone.
In another interview, you shared a wonderful story about something that happened on a 1981 television movie, The Killing of Randy Webster, which connects directly to Into the Wild…
Well, yeah. In 1980, I did a film—actually, I met Dixie Carter, my wife, on that film—that’s where we met, you know? We played a husband and wife of the boy who was killed by the police down in Houston, and the father particularly spent years trying to prove that his son was killed by the police with a throw-down gun to cover their mistake, and it was true, and it was the first time police in this country had ever been convicted of a throw-down gun situation. And this young man, Sean Penn, was playing a very small role—a friend of our son, you know—and it was a very small part; he had a couple little scenes, as I remember, and Dixie and I would watch him because there something unusual about him. You could see a special talent there, something really unusual, and so we took it upon ourselves to tell him so—we encouraged him. I mean, we told him we thought he was very talented, and I forget what we said to him at the time, but we took time to speak to him a couple of times, and tell him that we thought he, you know, had something special going for him. And so after the film was over, we got a letter from him—and he was a very non-verbal, kind of, quiet person; he was very retiring, very quiet, very modest—and we got a letter thanking us for encouraging him, which is a very unusual thing for someone to do, believe it or not, in this business. And I was so impressed that he did such a thing because it was such a gentlemanly thing to do, it was such a respectful thing to do—it was really just lovely. And, also, something I never forgot was the quality of the writing of the letter, because looking at this young man you never would have dreamed that he would write a letter that was so beautifully written—I mean, literarily speaking, it was a fine piece of writing, so much so that it never left my mind. So years later, when that script was sent to me, and I read it that night, and then the next day I met Sean—that was twenty-six years later—I remembered how beautifully written that letter was because the screenplay for Into the Wild that he wrote is a beautiful piece of writing. It’s a beautiful screenplay, gorgeously put together—it has a real poetic quality in places, and you can’t miss it—I mean, very impressive. The writing, like, of our scenes, you know, is so well done; it’s not overwritten, as so many screenplays are, you know? It’s not over-written. There’s a lot of space left for the audience to do the acting for you, you know? And that’s very important in creating good scenes on film, particularly.
Take me through how Sean Penn came back into your life all those years later—you were sent the script, and then how did you come to be offered the part?
Well, I got a call from my agent that a script was coming from Sean Penn to the house that night, and he wanted to meet me the next day at the bar at the Four Seasons, so I knew that something serious was coming up—I mean, directors don’t ask to meet you and talk to you unless they’re really interested in you. So I read the script—and I’m very patient when I read a script, I don’t rush through it—so it took me a long time to get to my section ‘cause it’s at the end of the story. And I stayed up late, I just read the whole thing, and then the next day I went over and met Sean. And I had seen him twice—we’d never become friends, or associates, or anything like that. Dixie and I had watched his career develop, and all his fighting [laughs], all his eccentric behavior, if you can call it that—whatever, anyways—as he was going along. You know, we watched him with great interest, because we always had a real soft spot for him, and wished him well. But anyway, I had met him a couple of times—I did a low-budget film with his brother, Chris, and at the end of that everybody had a drink with Sean—but other than that, I hadn’t seen him in all that time. So I went over and met, and the first thing I did was tell him how wonderful I thought the writing of the screenplay was, and that I remembered the letter that he had written me—I never forgot how beautifully it was written—and then he told me he would like me to play this part. And I said, “Well, I certainly would love to play it.” And he said, “Do you have anything standing in the way? We’re gonna shoot—” and he gave me the dates. And I said, “If I do, I’ll get rid of it.” [laughs] “I’ll get rid of it.” Because I really wanted to do this role. I could see that it was wonderfully simple—I don’t know how to describe it. It was just a wonderful opportunity. And the whole project, the whole story is so extraordinary, and unusual, and daring. And what he did with it on film, what he did with it, and the editing that they did with it, the re-arranging of the original sequences—it was a very daring kind of a film.
I’d like to seek your opinion about something to do with the characters. People I speak with who have seen the film tend to have really enjoyed it but are very divided in how they feel about the character of Chris McCandless. Some people feel he is almost unforgivably selfish, in a way, from running away from not only a perfectly good life, but also from anyone who ever came to love him, including Ron. My suspicion, though, is that you, like your character, may be more sympathetic towards him, because I’ve read that you did some adventurous and maybe irrational things when you were a younger man, as did your son, which leads me to believe that you might understand Chris’ motivations better than others…
Well, I think maybe I do, simply because most people don’t have an opportunity—or they don’t take the opportunity if it comes along—to do the kind of out-on-the-edge things that Chris did, and which, frankly, I have done a few times in my life, more than once. And it’s an impulse that a person has. The impulse can be driven by various internal forces in your mind and in your emotional makeup, but what those impulses do is they make you want to go out and risk yourself, go out and takes risks. And I suppose you’re kind of looking for something—there’s always a reason—you can get poetic about it if you want to, but usually you don’t spend much time getting poetic about it, you know? I mean, the first time I did something really wild, you know—into the wild, you might say—was I just wanted to go skiing, and I had a little money for the first time in my life, I had ten days off from a show, so I wanted to go skiing, and the only place I could ski in September was on the glaciers of Mount Rainier and Mount Shasta. I had a friend in San Francisco, so I went to Mount Shasta, and I spent four days up there all alone on the mountain—there was nobody up there. You know, I don’t know what they’ve got up there now—they’ve probably got a Dairy Queen or something—but this was 1954, and there was nothing there except grizzly bears and all, you know, whatever kind of bears there were, I don’t know, and a Sierra Club hut at eight thousand feet. And, hell, I didn’t even know how to make a fire, really, you know? So I spent four days up there, and I found right away that trying to ski on the glacier was death defying because it’s white ice, you know? I didn’t know what a glacier was—it’s hard, white ice, and if you fall you just keep sliding down until you go into a swale, which is like a ravine, and then when the snow disappears and the glacier disappears you hit the rocks. So, I mean, it’s a good way to kill yourself, you know? [laughs] So I didn’t do too much skiing; I decided I wanted to climb the mountain—it’s fourteen thousand one hundred sixty two feet. And, you know, I got up about eleven and a half thousand feet on the glacier and passed out—you know, I did the whole Jack London thing, you know, “I’ll do five more steps, then three more steps,” and the next thing I knew I woke up, and I decided that was it. [laughs] I wasn’t gonna go any higher, any more, so I went back. So, anyway, I was frightened to death, but I was driven by an impulse to do it because I wanted— What had happened that created this trip— I was on a soap opera , a television soap opera—radio and television—in 1954. And I’d had, you know—like, the main story was me for eight months or something, and then I had a couple of weeks off. And, at that time, I was trying to get a job on a good evening job, one of the wonderful, you know, big-time dramatic things in the evening—you know, Studio One and all that kind of stuff, you know, that was on television in those days, with wonderful writers and directors. And, you know, it was very hard if you were in a soap, because anybody in a soap was looked down on, you know, like it was really third-class stuff. So I’d gone down 57th Street to CBS—I was on their network—I had a meeting with the casting director. And he really resulted—he really insulted me—and dismissed me with disdain. Humiliated me. I walked out of that place, and walked up 57th Street to 7th Avenue, on the corner where there was a Cadillac agency with a big picture window on the northeast corner. And I stood in front of it, and a young couple was standing inside looking at this beautiful Cadillac roadster, you know, with the top down, you know, gorgeous car, a lot of chromium. They were walking around, and I found myself look at them and thinking, “I can’t buy a car, but I could take a vacation. I could go somewhere.” I said, “What do I want to do now more than anything else? Well, I love skiing.” I did a lot of skiing in those days. I said, “I want to go skiing.” It was September. So I went to a ski shop, and I found the only places I could ski would be on the glaciers out west or in Peru—and that was, like, seven hundred and fifty bucks, and I couldn’t afford it, so I bought a ticket to San Francisco. I went home and I told my first wife, Ruby, that I was leaving the next day for San Francisco [laughs] to go up and spend several days on the mountain; she was so flabbergasted she didn’t know what to say. So I left. But, see, what drove me to do that was somebody knocked me down, and I don’t like to get knocked down—matter of fact, I hate it when somebody knocks me down, because when I was a kid I got knocked down a lot, and I didn’t take it easy—and so when that casting director knocked me down, I decided, “Screw him. I’ll climb a goddamn mountain.” So, I mean, if you want to track the impulse there, it’s pretty simple! [laughs]
Sure. But that still begs the question: While you had a specific incident that propelled you to do that, it seemed to a lot of people who saw Into the Wild that Chris McCandless’ life wasn’t so bad, and it seemed almost irrational for him to do what he did—not only leaving his family, which is one thing, but also all these people who he met along the way, including Ron. However strong the impulse might have been, it’s almost heartless to leave all the people who love you, isn’t it?
Well, you know, I think the reason a lot of people have difficulty accepting what he did is that they don’t really understand how deeply he felt about the way of life that he was being asked to follow. I mean, that’s something that I can relate to. We have a bigger, more superficial way of life in this country. For me, the way of life right now in this country—we’re not serving people, we’re serving ourselves. We’re very selfish. We’re all wound up in little toys, you know? Laptops, blogs, looking at screens. People don’t really talk to each other anymore; they just jabber. There’s a superficiality that has taken over our society, particularly in the last twenty or thirty years, and it’s helped and inspired by the so-called ‘electronic revolution.’ [laughs] You know, the joke is that this is a communication revolution, but there’s less communication between human beings. Human beings are not taking time to just look at each other, and talk to each other, and get simple and basic, and that’s very much a part of the society you and I are living in right now—I gather you get a sense of it yourself. And this young man was deeply affected by that, and that is what most people don’t, perhaps, understand, because they don’t feel it themselves, because they’re not looking deep enough, maybe, or they don’t want to, or whatever. This young man was deeply affected by the society and the way of life that he saw surrounding him, and closing in on him, and the path that he was asked to follow. He did not want to follow that. He wanted to seek something simpler, and cleaner, and more basic, and more personal, that he could personally feel related to, and that is what he did.
I felt that despite their differences in age and other things, your character understands Chris better than anyone else. Watching that wonderful scene in the jeep—I heard you guys did it in one take, which is unbelievable—I got the sense that if your character was a little younger, he might actually have gone along with Chris on that journey…
Well, he might have! You know, Ron Franz was knocked down badly when he lost his wife and son in that terrible way, and when he got out of the army he decided to hide out. He isolated himself. Maybe, in the beginning, he thought this was kind of a searching idea, but it didn’t end up being that way. He isolated himself on the edge of the Salton Sea, and he became stuck in one place. And this young man comes along and excites his imagination because the young man is gonna travel, the young man is looking for something. I never took much time to analyze the role that way; I just responded to what I saw going on with Emile, and whatever was natural in me—I mean, I don’t have to work hard to dig up these feelings, as you can tell. [laughs] These feelings are all right under the skin for me, you know? All these feelings that I have— I mean, I can get very grouchy about the world I’m living in because I’m dissatisfied with it—I’m not dissatisfied with the life I have here with my wife, a wonderful, dear, wonderful, wonderful woman; I’m dissatisfied with the way I see the world going. I don’t just mean the war in Iraq; I mean everything. I’m eighty-two years old. I’ve lived a long time. You know, I’ve made all kinds of mistakes—every mistake you can think of, I’ve been there and done that—you know, I’ve been there and done that! But you can’t get to be eighty-two years old with your brain still working and not realize that a lot of the stuff that’s changed in our way of life along the way of eighty-two years—it ain’t working. There’s something wrong somewhere. There’s a combination that’s gotten outta whack. And I’m bothered by it. Thank God I have the Mark Twain show because I can go out and machine-gun, you know, some of the idiocy I see in the world because he’s got all the bullets there in his writing, you know what I mean? So I think what Chris McCandless did was heartless, as far as his family is concerned. It was heartless—it’s true. The thing is the film is very challenging because it’s not an easy take. There is no real specific answer of right and wrong in what he did. Yes, it was heartless for him to go and never contact his parents—very heartless. But you have to realize that means there was some kind of a deep, submerged anger going on there, you know? There had to be. But that anger was fueling something else: he sought a kind of freedom. He sought freedom.
Is that also why your character would climb that hill, even though it’s irrational?
Yeah. You know, I mean, you know, I’m not dead! You know? I mean, some kid would say, “Oh, you’re just an old guy.” “Screw you, I’m not! Get outta the way!” You know, I’m not gonna lay down and die—I mean, when I’m forced, up against the wall, you know? [laughs] So there’s a fire still burning in this guy. And he knows that this young man is headed for terrible risk and that he may not make it.
And that’s the last scene in the jeep, right?
Yeah. And in that scene in the jeep, you know— I didn’t think that deep about it because it was just natural. In a way—it sounds funny—but it was an easy scene to play because it was just beautifully written, because it was underwritten, and it was very true. And the essence there is that I know I’m gonna be turned down. That’s what’s underneath it. I know I’m gonna be turned down.
So why ask?
I can’t stop myself. I know I shouldn’t have said what I did, but I had to say something—I couldn’t stop myself. I knew I was gonna get turned down. And I think that’s what plays under what the character’s doing there. It makes it something we can all—I don’t know how to explain these things. [laughs]
A lot of people—especially your fellow actors—are shocked when they learn that despite the fact that you have given so many great performances on film, you have never even been nominated for an Academy Award. This year, many people believe not only that that, at the very least, is going to happen, but that you also stand a great chance of winning—which, not that anyone’s counting, would make you the oldest actor to win an Oscar in history. What would that outcome mean to you at this stage? I’m sure you don’t need the validation to know that you’ve done great work, but what would it represent to you? And is it something you allow yourself to get hopeful or excited about because it does seem like a very real possibility finally?
Well, it would be one of the greatest things that ever happened in my life, frankly, Scott, because I’ve lived a long time, I’ve been actor for sixty-five years, and to be recognized at this stage of my life and my career—especially for a role like this, that has nothing to do with the Mark Twain imprimatur, the mantra, or whatever they say, that word, you know, that’s been attached to me all these years, but for something so different. It would mean more than I can say. It would be—just—it would be a miracle. It would be a miracle. And it’s very hard to keep your head straight at a time like this, when these possibilities are being brought forward, you know, when you know that there’s a possibility, because you get into a kind of a thing that takes you away from what you really did. And what we have to remember, when we’re in this kind of a whirl— You’re sucked into, you know? You can’t help it. You go over, in your mind, at night, sometimes, when you’re trying to go to sleep, what you might say if you won, because it becomes very important—the people you want to thank, what you want to say—you want to say it right. You know, I really want to thank people, you know? And you get into a whirl, but it’s very important to remember that what you did was a good piece of work that you can be proud of, that people really took to their heart. That is what’s important. Winning or losing is not as important as that. And yet it’s very difficult because, as I say, you know, you get sucked into it. I mean, you look around, you go through the news. I just went through, I don’t know, the LA Times, the New York Times—we get ‘em both in the morning—you know, it’s one page after another. Full-page ads. All these pictures that have been opened in the last few weeks or months, you know, the new ones—Sweeney Todd. And all these actors that are up—high-powered actors—that are up for awards, and I’m against some of them, you know? I mean, the chances of squeezing through this powerful crowd with an award is a miracle! [laughs] It’s a miracle, Scott.
Well, not that you need advice from me, but I guess the one thing I would say is that—as you hinted at—it’s not the measure of an actor whether or not they’ve won an Oscar, because so many of our greatest actors—Cary Grant, and the list goes on—never won an Oscar. And you’re right that it’s so political, and so much about glad-handing, and who can take photos with the most number of people, or do the most things, and so it often ends up being that the best performances or the best films are not the ones recognized. So while I am hopeful for you here, and while I know that it must be very exciting, I hope you won’t allow them to define how good or not good you are, because people in the real world are not the same people in the Academy, and many of them have already awarded you with a real place in their hearts that a lot of people who do win Oscars will never have. So, for whatever it counts, I just wanted to say that…
Well, thank you. I really appreciate you saying that, and I think you’re absolutely right. And I do know—I do know, from the way people stop me on the street now and tell me about what they feel about this performance. And it means everything in the world to me.
Well, I want to thank you for the interview and for so many performances—I know that when I think of Deep Throat, I don’t think of Mark Felt; I think of Hal Holbrook!
Thank you, Scott.