The actor Hal Holbrook died at his home in Beverly Hills on January 23, but his death was not announced until February 2. He was 95 years old when he took that final curtain call. He had a long and prolific career on stage, television, and film. He seems to have specialized in authority figures, especially presidents; he played Abraham Lincoln several times on stage and screen, plus senators, judges, and generals.
He also did well with sinister roles, most effectively as the informant Deep Throat in All The President’s Men (1976). It is a small role in a genuinely great, if rather wordy film that featured several leading character actors of the era, including Jack Warden, Martin Balsam, Jason Robards and Ned Beatty. His casting proved ideal for the mysterious informant shot in near darkness, dependent on a distinctive voice for its powerful effect.
The way most fans remember his career was his characterization of the American writer Mark Twain, which was first performed in 1955 in the New York nightclub, The Purple Onion. He went on to develop it, updating its relevance, on tours throughout the North America and Europe. He received a Tony Award for his Broadway run of the one-man show Mark Twain Tonight! (1966) and the following year he won the first of his five Emmy Awards, for the television version of the show. He performed Mark Twain Tonight! more than 2000 times.
There were many appearances in films, starting with The Group (1966), directed by Sidney Lumet. His final movie was Into The Wild (2007), directed by Sean Penn, for which he received an Academy Award nomination.
But when I think about Holbrook, it isn’t Mark Twain that comes to mind. It is an ABC Movie of the Week from 1972. That Certain Summer became the first made for television film to offer a sympathetic portrayal of gay men and, with a Holbrook and Martin Sheen, it was a big deal.
Written by Emmy award-winners William Link and Richard Levison, That Certain Summer is about divorced Doug (Holbrook), his partner Gary (Sheen), and Doug’s teenage son Nick (Scott Jacoby). Nick can’t understand why his parents divorced. He spends a summer with his father who tries to keep his relationship with Gary hidden, but Nick realizes the truth and runs away. When Gary finally catches up with his son, he tells him the truth and father and son have an emotionally wrought and frank (for television in the early 1970s) discussion, where Doug says:
“A lot of people — most people, I guess — think it’s wrong. They say it’s a sickness. They say it’s something that has to be cured. I don’t know. I do know it isn’t easy. If I had a choice, it’s not something I’d pick for myself. But it’s the only way I can live. Gary and I have a kind of marriage. We love each other.“
Doug isn’t completely successful in getting his son to understand, yet the film handles the situation remarkably well for the time. The American Psychiatric Association didn’t remove homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders until 1973. When homosexuality had been broached in popular culture previously, it was rarely ever done with such sympathy and empathy. Even with the support of then closeted gay ABC executive Barry Diller, the writers were forced to include Holbrook’s above quote that some people saw homosexuality as a sickness. There was pressure to remove Holbrook’s line saying that he and Sheen ”love each other”. The writers fought hard to keep it included.
Written by the same team who did family friendly Murder, She Wrote and directed by two-time Emmy award-winner Lamont Johnson, the film was bound to be controversial. Johnson:
”ABC said there must be no physical contact between the two men in this story. Not even lingering eye contact.”
Holbrook and Sheen were new to Hollywood and they were advised against playing gay characters. After initially turning down the role, Holbrook accepted after recognizing his own struggles as a recent divorcée. In a 2007 interview, Sheen reminisced on what a huge hit the film was and discussed his acceptance of the role of Gary.
“I’d robbed banks and kidnapped children and raped women and murdered people, you know, in any number of shows. Now I was going to play a gay guy and that was like considered a career ender. Oh, for Christ’s sake! What kind of culture do we live in? “
A decade later, he easily played a gay man who was recently divorced on the Netflix television series Grace And Frankie (2015–2021).
The sort of exasperation expressed in that quote is shared on a much wider level today than in 1972, with actors still answering questions about the effects of being out in Hollywood or playing gay roles. Both Holbrook and Sheen went on to have hugely successful careers, and young Jacoby won an Emmy for his portrayal of Nick.
Incredibly, the feedback was mostly positive in 1972. That Certain Summer was nominated for seven Emmy Awards, and it won the Golden Globe Award for Best Movie Made for Television.
“I was an actor clearly not afraid of controversy. Anything that would make the audience think was worthwhile. I wasn’t worried about whether the character was a gay person or not; the reason I turned it down, frankly, is I read the script and I didn’t think much happened in it. I just thought it was kind of tame.”
After he discussed the script with Carol Rossen, his second wife, she responded: “You’re going to get on the phone and call Hollywood and tell them you want to do this part before they give it to somebody else,” and that is what Holbrook did. He felt an emotional connection to the character in the film because at the time he had separated from his first wife and he hadn’t told his two young children about the split. Holbrook:
“It was very easy and natural for me to translate the emotional turmoil I personally was feeling into the turmoil Doug was feeling.”
The film remained important to him because it meant so much to so many people. Holbrook:
“That’s a good reason for being an actor, when you can do something decent that touches people’s hearts and their minds, so you feel like you actually accomplished something.”