Hal Holbrook recently spoke with Paste about Mark Twain when we named the great American author our 2010 Man of the Year in Nonfiction. Holbrook, of course, has portayed Twain in the one man show Mark Twain Tonight! for over half a century, and currently, That Evening Sun director Scott Teems is in production on a documentary, Holbrook/Twain, that explores the cultural touchstone. At one point, the conversation turned to Holbrook’s late wife, actress Dixie Carter. His reminiscences were so sweet that we pulled them out for a short Valentine’s Day special.
Paste: I understand the Twain documentary was a longtime dream of Dixie’s, right?
Hal Holbrook: Yeah, Dixie very much wanted to see that done, and it was her idea to do it. It’s a wonderful idea, to do a documentary about a show that has really been a part of the American scene for all these decades. I don’t know if Scott [Teems, the Holbrook/Twain director] told you, but she had this idea to open it with a map of the United States. And you could have a different colored ribbon for each decade I’ve done Twain—blue for the first decade, red for the second, and so on. And you could take the first decade and trace the blue line through all the towns I played, and then go the the next decade in red, and so on. And by the end of five decades you would have covered up the entire United States!
Paste: Sounds like she should have been a director.
Holbrook: She could have made a wonderful director. She was so tremendously intelligent, so well informed. You know, my wife, my beautiful, beautiful, sexy-looking wife, you know what she read in bed every night before she’d go to sleep?
Holbrook: And that Russian guy—what the hell is his name?
Holbrook: Yes, Dostoyevsky! And Proust!
Paste: Wow. Like the saying goes, all that and brains too.
Holbrook: That’s right, all that and brains too. It’s amazing because she comes from this little town, McLemoresville Tenn. She’s buried up there on the hill right above our house, the Carter homestead, where everybody was born, right across from the little church we go to. I’m going to be buried right next to her. She went to school at this little school right next to the graveyard. And that girl was more educated, and knew how to use the English language, better than anyone I’ve ever met! And she learned it in that little tiny country school. [laughs] Makes you think. Makes you think, man.
Paste: Well, I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but I know that everyone that knew her just glows when they talk about her.
Holbrook: She was a great human being. She was so kind. That’s the thing: She was so kind to everyone. That’s what they remember about her. She used to drive me crazy in the airport, Michael, because we’d be trying to catch a plane and people would stop her at the concourse on the way to the gate. And I’m trying to get to the gate on time, and she would stop and ask them where they came from, and who their mother and daddy were, and all this. And I’m thinking, “Good Lord alive, we’re going to miss the airplane, come on Dixie!” [laughs] She would just take her time.
Paste: Nothing more important than the person in front of her.
Holbrook: That’s right.
Paste: Now, was she a Twain fan?
Holbrook: Well, because of me. Anything I did was great. That’s another thing about Dixie, she made you feel anything you did was wonderful. You know, I come from the North, and I had not gone around with a Southern girl. And after I had been with Dixie for some years, I said to Joy Bell, and that’s only the first two names, as you well know, coming from the South, “How is it that Southern girls seem to know how to treat a man so well?” And she said [putting on a broad Southern accent], “Now Haaaal, you know that when we are young, we are taught that it is up to us to make a man feel goooood about himself.” [laughs] And you know, that’s it! They make you feel good. She made me feel like a million dollars.