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Culver in the spotlight for stage, movie legend Holbrook

March 17, 2012

--Autobiography emphasizes impact of CMA--

With the possible exception of legendary New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, few graduates of Culver Military Academy have acheived the legendary status of Hal Holbrook. And like the late Steinbrenner, Holbrook has never hesitated to sing the praises of the school, even
describing his beloved grandfather’s insistence that he attend
Culver Military Academy as “saving my life.”

That’s one of many Culver-related scenes in “Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain” (published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), a new autobiography Holbrook has noted is “act one,” ending as it does at the first 34 years of his life. The book paints a picture of those years as repeatedly touched by the Culver experiences of the famed
actor, who graduated here in 1942, was named Culver’s first-ever “Man of the Year” in 1968, and inducted into Culver’s Arts & Letters Hall of Fame in 2004.

Holbrook, of course, would go on to international acclaim for his work onstage and in film, arguably culminating in an Academy award nomination for his work in 2007’s “Into the Wild.” Along the way, he became most famous for the role of author Mark Twain, a role he perfected before millions over the course of more than a decade performing it onstage as well as before 30 million television viewers on the CBS special, “Mark Twain Tonight!”

He has received Emmy and Tony awards, among a lengthy list of honors, and portrayed a host of historical figures, including a famous role as informant “Deep Throat” in the 1976 Hollywood version of “All the President’s Men,” besides his service in World War II. The Internet Movie Database calls him “one of the greatest craftsmen of stage and screen,” and he has had recent guest roles on such TV programs as “The Sons of Anarchy” and “The Event.”

In his book, which was released last fall, Holbrook describes
an often heart-wrenchingly painful childhood and the promise his dying grandfather — one of the few great lights of Holbrook’s youth — elicited from him that he at tend CMA. He also details his arrival at the school, a “massive world of brick buildings resembling fortresses with openings on the roof for people to shoot at you,” and his embarrassment at his grandmother’s introduction of him to the first cadet they encountered as “Harold, my blue-eyed baby boy.”

Described also are the actor’s Culver-based introduction to music, culture, and the theatrical world which would become his mainstay in life, besides a host of specific incidents here, humorous, the inspiring, and the painful, including doubts and self-questioning he still ponders as to his decision to quit running at Culver in favor of the theater.

“When Holbrook was a student at Culver,” wrote Robert Reichley, then editor of Culver Academy’s Alumnus magazine, in 1967, “he admits he was not strong academically and neither was he ecstatic about the military program. He ‘found’ the theater in his senior year, and like Broadway director Joshua Logan, ‘27, novelist Ernest Gann, ‘30, and some others, he credits the late Charles Mather, then director of theater at Culver, for his introduction to the performing arts.

“‘I went to those cultural programs with a chip on my shoulder,’” recalls Holbrook. ‘It wasn’t manly among our generation to show a sensitivity to music or drama. But I needed an extra hour of credit toward graduation and I found it in the theater. I was told Colonel Mather was a great guy. He was. He had a talent for just being human. He opened me up.’”

“‘It was a combination of suddenly finding something you felt you could succeed at,’” continued Holbrook, “‘and at the same time finding a society of one person or a small group of people with whom you had some connection. I didn’t even mind having a minor role, because no one expected me to climb Mt. Everest to be associated with them.’

“When Holbrook graduated from Culver,” continued Reichley, “his grades made his entrance to college doubtful. But the president of Ohio’s Denison University had visited Culver and heard Holbrook read the Scriptures in chapel. He told Denison’s professor of theater Edward A. Wright about Holbrook, cautioning that he doubted Holbrook’s marks were good enough to be admitted to the university.... When Holbrook graduated after the war, Denison President K. I. Brown gave him a special citation for his academic record.”

Holbrook, discussing Culver Academies on the school’s website (culver. org), writes, “I had a small private reunion with Culver a couple of years ago. I was playing Mark Twain in South Bend and had a day off, so I drove down to Culver, unannounced. I came in on that road over by the golf course and memories of running in the two-mile cross-country race at the half time of the football game every fall for four years came flooding back upon me. So I turned onto that small road between the end of the playing fields and the big hill to the golf course and got out of the car.

“That big hill (there used to be a ski jump on it) was a major challenge during the cross-country race. Soon after the start you had to get up it. That was tough enough, but the hardest part was coming down that hill just before you hit the little road and the final several hundred yards of supreme effort to the finish line.

“... Memories of how it felt crossing that road and facing this last desperate effort came surging up in me and I found myself suddenly very moved, standing there alone so many years later. I realized that where I was standing was a hallowed place for me. That it represented that crucible of fear, of self-consciousness and doubt, of hope and of lonely effort that is at the heart of every boy trying to grow up. It hit me hard, just thinking of how difficult it was to grow up and how we tried to do it well...”

Copies of Holbrook’s book are available for purchase locally at the Culver Academies Museum and Gift Shop (culver.org/museum for hours of operation), 102 S. Main Street in downtown Culver, and at the Campus Store under the dining hall, on the Culver campus. Copies with signed bookplates will be available in coming weeks as well.

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