American actor Hal Holbrook broke into performing as a monologist at various esoteric nightspots in San Francisco and Greenwich Village. Holbrook worked on stage in the early 1950s and appeared on the CBS TV soap opera The Brighter Day. He might have spent the rest of his career as a talented but unremarkable performer had Holbrook not decided to bank upon his lifelong fascination with humorist Mark Twain. Donning elaborate Twain makeup and costume and memorizing several hours' worth of the writer's material, Holbrook put together a one man show, Mark Twain Tonight. After touring in small towns, Holbrook brought Mark Twain to an off-Broadway theater, scoring an immediate hit which led to some 2000 subsequent appearances as Twain (one of these in a 1967 CBS one-hour special) and a top-selling record album. The fame attending Mark Twain Tonight enabled Holbrook to flourish as a starring actor in numerous non-Twain projects. Among Holbrook's films are The Group (1966), Wild in the Streets (1968), Magnum Force (1973), The Star Chamber (1987), Wall Street (1987) and The Firm (1993); in 1976 the actor portrayed the shadowy amalgam character "Deep Throat" in All the President's Men. Holbrook has also stayed busy in TV, starring on the weekly series The Senator (1970) and appearing several times as Abraham Lincoln in various network specials.
A multi-Emmy winner, Hal Holbrook spent much of the late 1980s and early 1990s appearing as a regular cast member on the CBS sitcoms Designing Women (from 1986 to 1989, alongside real-life wife Dixie Carter) and Evening Shade (1990-94) in the role of Burt Reynolds' father, Evan Evans. Holbrook's big-screen activity also crescendoed during the 1990s and early 2000s; among many other assignments, he resumed his frequent typecast as a shady businessman with a deceptively paternal exterior in Sydney Pollack's blockbuster Grisham thriller The Firm (1993), provided an animated voice for the children's fantasy Cats Don't Dance (1997), and nastily evoked the prejudices of a bigoted commanding naval officer named Mr. Pappy in the military drama Men of Honor (2000). Holbrook also drew on his vast knowledge of Mark Twain as one of the participants in the epic-length documentary Ken Burns' Mark Twain (2001). The distinguished thespian received a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his work in Sean Penn's critically-acclaimed drama Into the Wild (2007). He starred in the 2009 drama That Evening Sun, and had a major part in the 2011 adaptation of the novel Water for Elephants. In 2012 Steven Spielberg cast him in his long-gestating biopic Lincoln.