My dear friend and fellow stage manager, Rich Costabile called on Sunday, 10:00 on the nose as any stage manager worth their salt knows not to call before 10:00am. I was wrapping up my weekly chat with Bob and Susan, Bob fully engaged in a colorful recitation that I was totally enjoying. I let the call roll through knowing I could call Rich back in 10 minutes.
Then it struck me. Why he was calling? Not to chat about his and Randy’s annual Journey to the Sun, which they’ve done the past few winters, sunbirds fleeing to the south.
It had to be about Hal.
Quickly, I aborted Bob’s story with my theory of why he was calling and exited the call. I dialed Rich, the phone trembling in my hand. He picked up.
Els, I’m on the phone with someone. Can I call you back in 10?
I listened to his voice message he’d left when I hadn’t picked up. Yes, it was about the journey to the sun, but…
We have some news to share.
I’d met Hal through Rich, back in 1995 when he called me to ask if I’d go on a tour of Death of a Salesman, starring Hal Holbrook and Elizabeth Franz. A seven week tour ricocheted all over the country with week-long stops in seven cities: Coconut Grove, Nashville, Memphis, Boston, Ft. Worth, Denver, and Cerritos.
Rich had reached out to me during my recuperation from a total hysterectomy. I remember sitting in the messy blankets of my fold out recovery couch in our living room in North Hollywood, laughing with Rich, whom I’d just met by phone five minutes before after awkwardly sharing my medical news. Rich, too, had just had a surgery, so we joked that neither of us would be much help unloading the truck but we bonded in that instant of shared physical vulnerability.
Again, my memory faulty here, but I believe Rich had begun working with Hal for a while as his stage manager for Mark Twain Tonight, the show that Hal toured all over the country for close to fifty years. Or maybe this was the beginning of their long collaboration, but either way, Rich described Hal lovingly, and when I met him backstage in the first stop on the seven city tour, I was struck by the focused and meticulous way he was unpacking his traveling trunk, a device he had designed himself to carry all that he needed in an orderly way. He greeted me warmly when Rich introduced us.
We rehearsed in Coconut Grove, Florida first. The director, Jerry Freedman was a talented and good natured LORT Director with whom Rich had worked in Cleveland, Ohio originally. The rehearsals were brief. Having never toured at all, this whole process was eye opening for me, but most so was the rigor of Hal’s practice and his kind and compassionate way with everyone he encountered. There was no star turn here. He connected with people with respect and directness, a quality in him that we all revered. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the extent of his and my husband’s affection for each other. They’d both been members of Lincoln Center Repertory. Twenty years after our brief tour together, at dinner in Hal’s home, he lambasted the architecture of the theatre, the cold sterility of the cinder block halls of Lincoln Center, and how miserable he’d been there. And how much he’d looked up to Jimmie. When Jimmie finished his memoir, he asked Hal to read it first with the request that he write the forward, which Hal did.
Hal died peacefully on 1/23/21. Now the eve of February 1st, no news on the internet in sight, I realize that there are more ways to control our stories than we are led to believe. I wanted to take a moment to pay tribute to Hal privately before everyone knows how great our national loss is.
Hal had a difficult life. He was abandoned by his young parents at the age of two, raised by his paternal grandparents but sent to military school at age 8. I don’t think one can overstate or understand the effect of such a loss on a child. Hal’s overcoming of that initial parental penury was a life long scar he bore. It annealed him into a resilient man and actor. The artistry of his craft he learned along the way, touring as a young married couple performing Shakespeare with his first wife, Ruby. He was self taught in all things theatrical, learning from the audience and the road what worked. He began a life long practice of keeping notes about what material of Twain’s stories he used in each city, and would study them upon returning to play in that city again. I think we’d all pay a fortune to see those notes. We caught a glimpse of them in the recent documentary “Hal Holbrook: An American Legend” which I hope will be released more broadly now that he is gone.
In February 2015, Hal came to USC to see the work of our 3rd year MFAs, staying after the show, The Servant of Two Masters, to meet them and take pictures. It was a huge thrill for them and for me to see him surrounded by young, diverse, eager faces with a true appreciation for his acting legacy.
When Jimmie’s book party happened in December of 2016, Hal was there, one of my favorite pictures was of him and Jimmie and Charlotte Rae in a warm embrace at the door to our recreation room. Almost a pre-play huddle. He was so gracious that night.
We had two dinners out with Hal in the last years before Jimmie died – both at the Pacific Dining Car – one at the downtown one, one in Santa Monica with Rich and Randy, both times of course, with Joyce, Hal’s long time assistant. Hal’s hearing loss was great in his last years, and I had requested a private room where he and Jimmie shouted companionably back and forth at each other, Joyce leaning in close to repeat in Hal’s left ear almost every phrase.
I asked Hal to speak at Jimmie’s life celebration. He was frail but cantankerous, lovingly paying homage to Jimmie’s ability to be a team player in an industry that didn’t ask that of its participants. He railed against our nation’s inability to create a national theatre. Through it all, he shared a self-deprecating sense of humor about his aging and a sense of passion that stirred the witnesses there.
My last visit with Hal and Joyce was about 18 months ago, at his beautiful home. The three of us sat out on the terrace overlooking the valley. Hal talked about the time as a young boy when his father came to visit him, and picked him up in the car and they drove to the very edge of the valley’s then sparsely populated area to the house where he’d been born. Hal was visibly moved, lost in his revery at the end of his long and event-filled life.
Hal was always kind to me. He and Joyce invited me out to dinner one night in the first long painful year of my loss of Jimmie. Just to check up on how I was doing. He talked about losing Dixie Carter that night and how painful her loss had been for him. I took solace from hearing Hal speak about Jimmie’s talent as an actor and his high regard for him as a man. That evening will probably always be the strongest memory for me of who Hal truly was. He checked in on people.
Such a long time to keep such a secret from the world. But I’m grateful to his family and to my dear friends, Rich and Joyce for the pause to reflect on my memories of Hal’s import on me and on Jimmie.
RIP Hal Holbrook. I can see you in that same heavenly huddle, Jimmie and Charlotte greeting you at the door and pulling you into their arms.