Dinner with Hal Holbrook

Approximately eighteen years ago (gulp) , I had the honor of ASMIng on a national tour of Death of a Salesman starring Hal Holbrook and Elizabeth Franz, and many other talented actors, including Eve Rossen, Hal’s daughter.Hal Holbrook

I was initially contacted by the PSM of the tour, Rich Costabile, a NY based stage manager. I remember getting the call right after I had returned from an aborted assignment in San Francisco at ACT. While there, my body had gone into major systems failure, resulting in the ultimate removal of some major reproductive organs.

The squeamish among you are thinking – “Wow, this suddenly went somewhere I sure didn’t want it to go.” But such is life, and I remember that the call with the job offer came around the same time that my mother had come out to Los Angeles to support me post op, while I lay in the fold out bed in the living room, so I could watch TV while recuperating. I remember being grateful for her help, though at the time, her insistent wails from the kitchen about the location of things felt almost onerous – “this is help?” My memory is that I had just finished sobbing to my mother about  my lost reproductive faculties, to which she responded with helpless empathy, “Oh, Elsbeth, don’t do that.” Not because she reproved of my expressing my loss, but because she herself couldn’t bear my pain. The timing of Rich’s call may be gently corroded by the passage of so much time.

I do rememberer receiving that wonderful life affirming call completely out of the blue, and telling Rich that I was recovering from major surgery. His was an unexpected response, laughter, as  he recounted his own recent minor surgery. Never having met, we bonded in that instant about how the two wounded stage managers would be useless to Hal out on the road. About six weeks later when we met, we did bond tightly, working in concert to support a masterful production of Miller’s play, directed by Jerry Freedman and starring one of the true gentlemen of the American Theatre, Hal Holbrook.

Rich and I laughed a lot on the road with Hal, too. It was a magical 6 weeks, as we zigged and zagged across the country, starting at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Florida, and traveling  to Cerritos, and Boston, Nashville and Memphis. Foggy memory prevents me from detailing all the stops, but highlightspeabody hotel like watching the ducks at the Peabody Hotel make their way to the fountain in the lobby are vivid.

It was the first and almost last time I had toured, and leaving my husband and young son at home was wrenching, but as anyone well-worn by time will tell you, 6 weeks is a mere flutter of the eyelid in a life, and six weeks on the road ain’t nothing when you’re Hal Holbrook.

Earlier this weekend, my cell phone lit up with Rich’s name, and I was happy  to hear that he and Randy, his husband, were back out in Los Angeles, on another leg of the tour of “Mark Twain Tonight”, a job that Rich has been doing for about ten years. For Hal, it is a fifty year life journey which is beautifully captured in the documentary: “Holbrook/Twain:An American Odyssey,” which Jimmie and I saw last summer at its premiere screening during the LA Film Festival.

Rich had a generous offer. “Would you and Jimmie like to have dinner with Randy and me, Hal and Joyce on Monday night?”

“I would be thrilled,” I said, and so was Jimmie. Later we firmed up the plan to meet at Hal’s home for dinner. Joyce is Hal’s wonderful and longtime assistant; for 27 years she has supported his work and travels. I had also met her while on tour back in 1997.

Jimmie and Hal go way back. My six weeks pales in comparison with the experiences shared by these two theatre veterans. Both worked at Lincoln Center Repertory Company headed by Elia Kazan and Robert Whitehead. And over our dinner that night, they shared many funny and poignant stories about their experiences. It was fascinating to see that they shared a perception of the company as being an inhospitable environment for actors. Hal described it in architectural terms, by the long gray cement hallway leading to the dressing rooms, where one was not greeted by the others, and how he shared a dressing room with an actor who insisted on the cone of silence. Jimmie described it in more emotional terms: how he had bridled at having to check the other actors’ tights due to an added ASM duty to his contract. Hal and Jimmie,  and all of us at the table were rapt with the details of the legendary National Theatre that had been attempted at Lincoln Center.

Hal is a masterful story teller. Anyone who’s seen his Mark Twain, Tonight can attest to that. His eyes filled with tears of emotion several times during the dinner as he and Jimmie strolled down memory lane. He dabbed at them unapologetically with the French country patterned linen napkin.

I reminded him that during our time on the tour in Nashville, we had done a few student matinees. I think they were 9:00am shows. Brutal. “Death of A salesman” for 14-18 year olds at 9:00 Am on a Tuesday. Just take us outside and put us out of our misery. But this one show, we had heard the distinct cry of a newborn in the house. Hal had been really annoyed,  and asked us to check with the house manager about the crying baby, insisting that the little squawler be escorted out of the theatre. After a bit, the crying stopped and later, somewhat sheepishly, the house manager reported back that the baby had been animatronic, programmed to cry at random intervals. A student had received conflicting assignments: in health class to tend to the baby for 24 hours, and in English, to attend the performance at this ungodly hour when he should have been baby sitting. When the baby erupted with cries, the student had exited the auditorium and shoved the baby into a locker in the lobby. So much for Parenting 101. Hal leaned his head back and roared.

The evening was lovely. The table held many vases filled with yellow long stem roses, and ivory tapers infused the peach walls and our animated faces with a flattering glow. The food was wonderful, healthy and plentiful, though I felt guilty as our questions slowed Hal from eating. We all were enjoying ourselves so much.

Good news- for fans of Hal, he has been writing a book. First you have the treat of this upcoming documentary which is in the festival circuit now. It is the most important film I have seen about the life of an itinerant actor. Brutally honest and as I said to Hal, “it should be required viewing for all student actors.” And now, news of a possible book- we have so much to look forward to.

And Hal, with 11 more engagements on this year’s schedule, at nigh on ninety years of youth, shows no signs of withholding his generous tales. Thank you, Rich, for allowing us to pass the time with such an great group of folks.

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