Hal Holbrook, known by the world as an award-winning actor and his legendary portrayal of American literary character Mark Twain, will be remembered by Carroll Countians as one who walked among them and developed a heartfelt love for the place that he visited with his wife Dixie Carter from time to time.
He died Jan. 23 at his home in Beverly Hills, California at the age of 95. Dixie died April 10, 2010 and is buried at McLemoresville Cemetery. It was believed that he would be buried there as well, but no word has been received to that affect by presstime
The namesake of his wife, The Dixie Carter Performing Arts Center, located on the east side of the Court Square here, also bears Holbrook’s name over the entry doors into the theatre.
Huntingdon Mayor Dale Kelley had an idea for a performing arts center to honor his classmate and life-long friend Dixie Carter.
“I reached out to Dixie and shared my vision,” he said. “With Hal Holbrook entering the picture and taking an active role in design of the theatre, my vision came to life. Because Hal served as an invaluable consultant to the architect, I wanted to honor him with the naming of the theatre.”
The Dixie opened for its first performance on Nov. 17, 2005. with the Chuck Wagon gospel group. Holbrook performed “Mark Twain Tonight” three times at The Dixie to sellout crowds on May 2006, May 2007 and Sept. 2014.
The mayor says The Dixie Carter Performing Arts and Academic Enrichment Center, Home of the Hal Holbrook Theatre, has fulfilled an objective of revitalizing downtown Huntingdon and has given Huntingdon and West Tennessee the access and opportunity to experience the arts.
“Dixie Carter and Hal Holbrook both played a major role in fulfilling this objective and making The Dixie come to fruition.”
Hal Holbrook was born in Cleveland, Ohio, abandoned by his parents when he was two years old, and was raised by his paternal grandparents.
He graduated from Culver Military Academy. From 1942-1946 he served in the Army.
In 1954 he developed “Mark Twain Tonight,” a one-man stage show while studying at Denison University.
He was the recipient of the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play in 1966. He became widely known for his performance as Deep Throat in the 1976 film “All the President’s Men.”
He portrayed Abraham Lincoln in the 1976 miniseries Lincoln.
From 1986 to1989, he had a role as Reese Watson on “Designing Women,” opposite his wife, Dixie Carter.
His role as Ron Franz in Sean Penn’s “Into the Wild” (2007) earned him both Academy Award and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations.
In 2017 after playing the role of Mark Twain, Holbrook announced his retirement.
One of his proudest moments was when President George W. Bush bestowed the National Humanities Medal upon him on Nov. 14, 2003 in the Oval Office.
These are just a few of the numerous awards and honors he received over the years.
Former Executive Director of The Dixie Lori Nolan recalls her association with Holbrook. Serving in that position for 11 years, she had numerous occasions to get to know him personally.
She began her duties just as Dixie’s health was failing, so she never had the privilege of meeting and knowing her.
“Tasked with leading a center bearing her name, Hal soon became my bridge to Dixie’s life – who she was, what she cared about, and why she loved her home so much,” said Lori. “We all know the brilliance Hal possessed in story telling through his career portraying Mark Twain. However, if you never heard him tell a story about Dixie, you missed some of his best. I’ve never met anyone that loved a person more than he loved Dixie.”
She recalled the more she talked with him or met with him when in town, it was apparent how grateful he was that The Dixie staff and the Town of Huntingdon were working to keep her story alive through the center.
He would always say, “It’s all about the children. Dixie loved the children!”
Over the years, Lori said she came to realize just how much it was all about the children for Hal as well. He would call or email wanting an update because he loved hearing how many youth had come through the doors each year or what new programs were available to them.
“Because he knew the business of the arts so well and the struggle to continually make it all work, he constantly encouraged us in our efforts,” she said.
His gift in acting may have made his name known, but Lori says she will remember him for his heart.
“Hal Holbrook had a heart for others,” she said. “It was best on display for us at The Dixie each time he met or greeted someone. Whether it was a dignitary at a private meet and greet, a contract worker hired to help haul in lighting for the stage, or a young student who had absolutely no idea he was even a star, they were greeted with the same spark in his eye, the same amount of respect and the same deep look into their eyes as he searched for who they really were while shaking their hand.”
Randy Hatch, the director of Juvenile Court, said he first met Hal Holbrook in his office while telling him that he learned about Carroll Academy after reading The New York Times series of articles written by John Branch.
One particular article titled “We’re Really Not Bad Kids” had fascinated him.
“He repeated that title at least five or six times as he looked at the Carroll Academy memorabilia on my office wall,” said Randy.
Carroll Academy, funded by the state Dept. of Children’s Services, is a day treatment program for students, ages 12-17, who are reprimanded there by juvenile court.
Holbrook added that he could relate to that particular article when he was a teenager and his only regret was that Dixie never knew about Carroll Academy. He related that she would have loved Carroll Academy.
“Mr. Holbrook absolutely admired the artwork done by students over the years that are on the walls,” said Randy.
The students and staff were Holbrook’s special guests at The Dixie for his last performance of Mark Twain. After his performance he had a reception for the students and staff, meeting each one personally. The next year he hosted lunch at The Dixie with the students performing a play on The Dixie stage for him.
He would always visit the Academy when he returned to Carroll County, speaking to them in the hallway. He even attended a Lady Jags basketball practice taking a photo with the team. In turn, the team presented him with some Lady Jags and Jaguars shirts.
“He once told me I looked like a character actor he made a movie with,” said Randy. “ I told him with a face like mine that the actor must have been a bad guy.”
Randy says he will always remember Mr. Holbrook as a wonderful friend and supporter of Carroll Academy and that he will always be a member of the Carroll Academy family and its legacy.
Frank Dodd, Technical Director of The Dixie, Home of the Hal Holbrook Theatre, had the opportunity to work with Hal Holbrook several times at The Dixie.
Prior to this fourth performance at The Dixie, Frank was asked by Hal’s stage manager if he could cover some tour dates for him. As a matter of fact, Frank wound up getting to do multiple shows as acting stage manager for “Mark Twain Tonight.”
“Mr. Hal was a pleasure to work and travel with,” said Frank. “Although he was very particular about his backstage setup, stage props, and wardrobe, he was still lots of fun. He had amazing tales, and could draw anyone’s attention while in public.”
In looking back, Frank said he could captivate an audience of any age and in any setting in recalling one of his fondest memories in San Louis Obispo, California.
“Mr Hal, his assistant, along with my son, Ezra, and my daughter, Lincoln and myself were at the dinner table and I can remember my kids, who were at a young age at the time, being mesmerized by the “true history lessons” they were receiving,” said Frank. “From that moment on, my children had much respect for him and my daughter was always known as Lincoln, Nebraska to Mr. Hal.”
Frank remembered that no two shows were ever the same. His small, worn, tattered notebook was held together with a rubber band. Prior to a show, he was always looking through the notebook over and over, speaking to himself. He would pick out a few pages from his book with pen written notes on it, signifying he was ready for the show. With every performance, Frank said he would find himself at the edge of his seat with a vast picture being painted in front of him from a one-man show.
Frank called it an honor to have worked with Hal Holbrook because he taught him a lot and the way to approach some things about his job.
“Speaking for my children, it was truly an honor for them to be associated with him as well,” said Frank. “Every time that he was around, he would ask about them. Hal Holbrook really meant a lot to us. He will truly be missed.”
Paula Atkins of Huntingdon, a member of The Dixie’s Board of Directors, recalled one of her favorite memories of Hal Holbrook that happened at he and Dixie’s McLemoresville home. Hal and Dixie; Dixie’s brother, Hal Carter and his wife, Margo: my husband, Jerry, and myself, enjoyed dinner and visiting one night.
“I was sitting next to Hal Holbrook and he wanted to know about my early life,” said Paula. “He then told me about his difficult, sad childhood and young adult life. Meeting Dixie, getting to know her family, visiting people in Huntingdon and McLemoresville brought him much joy.”
He mentioned that the kindness and goodness of the people touched him profoundly because he had never experienced that kind of love.
“I left with a greater understanding of the man behind the actor,” she said.
“But I’ll see you in the sky above, in the tall grass, in the ones I love. You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.” – Bob Dylan
Susan Cary has been affiliated with The Dixie Carter Performing Arts Center since about 1997 when approached by Mayor Dale Kelley to serve on the original planning committee for his dream venue.
“As a board member and patron, there have been many memorable moments and opportunities that I could share,” she said. “Following is my fondest recollection of any time spent in what I consider “the jewel” of Carroll County.”
“May 2014 was the long awaited Release Party for Dixie Carter’s final CD, “The Heart of Dixie”. In the afternoon, while DPAC was abuzz with preparation, Hal Holbrook sat quietly inside the Theatre which bears his name. I had the privilege that day to sit with he and a couple of staff members who had become his friends over the years.
“We sat listening in rapt attention as he shared anecdotes about his beloved Dixie. She had been gone for just over four years. Those years had taken a toll on his health and even his heart, figuratively speaking.
“There was a moment during sound check that the music seemed to swell. Dixie’s voice, singing Bob Dylan’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” filled the auditorium. Mr. Holbrook grew silent. He lifted his face a little, eyes closed and just seemed to let the sound of her voice pour over him. Tears filled our eyes as we watched what was a very personal moment – this elderly gentleman cloaked in missing the love of his life. Tears leaked from his eyes as we all sat silently.
“The moment passed. We visited for a few moments and I departed in a hurry, late I’m sure for the next stop.
“The event that evening went off without a hitch. A packed house welcomed all of the Carter-Holbrook family members.
There were kind words shared by many about the legend, Dixie Virginia Carter. Photos of a smiling Hal Holbrook with many of our community were snapped as keepsakes of the evening. I even have mine somewhere…
“But the treasure from that day- the treasure of all my years of acquaintance with this family- was that quiet moment. What a gift to witness true love on the face of a gentleman and know that death does not take that from us.
“Thank you, Hal Holbrook, for becoming our friend and our partner. Thank you for sharing your talents, your time, and your love with our community. We are lonesome for both you and Dixie.”
McLemoresville Mayor Phil Williams
McLemoresville Mayor Phil Williams has lots of memories of Hal and Dixie when they visited Dixie’s hometown.
“When we were notified of Mr Hal Holbrook’s passing we were saddened because he has meant a lot to our Community,” said Williams.”Dixie and Hal were such a happy couple.”
He recalled they would visit folks at the town’s 4th of July celebration or the Cotton Festival if they were home at the time of the festival, and would also attend church services at the First United Methodist Church when they were in town.
The mayor called Mr. Holbrook a super nice man.
“ I remember the war movies as well as his many others,” said the mayor.”Just a magnificent actor.”
There are so many memories of the things that Hal and Dixie did. Many people remember when Mr. Robin Leach came to McLemoresville and directed Homes of the Rich and Famous.
“We were so glad to have Hal and Dixie as temporary, yet permanent citizens,” said Williams. “They were always appreciative of the assistance provided to them by local residents Mr. Bill Hargrove, Mrs Janice Vinson, Mrs Joyce Blow and Mrs Allison Coleman. Hal and Dixie were loved by everyone in our community and area. We will certainly miss them. God bless the family.”
He was a tremendous actor who dedicated his life to perfecting his craft. Every detail in his performances was deliberate and meticulous.
“This is also how he saw our venue and because of his guidance The Hal Holbrook Theatre is one of the most intimate performance spaces out there.,” said Angela. “Every artist that is lucky enough to perform on this stage remarks about how close they feel to the audience.”
In recent years, when Hal would visit this area, his love for Dixie Carter was evident. Through this heartfelt emotion he would spend time with locals as he sauntered through town talking and telling stories to whomever he met. He was a great storyteller and could captivate his listener like no other. After Dixie passed away, Hal brought to The Dixie a CD that he made featuring some of her previous live musical performances. He sat in the theatre as the entire CD played and told us, sometimes through tears or laughter, the story of every song.
“Their love for each other was a prominent force you couldn’t help but appreciate,” said Angela.