First Graduate of the Year
February 2, 2021
“There are places on this campus where I have lived…and died … and out of that I got me.”
– Hal Holbrook ’42
Culver Academies first Man of the Year, actor Hal Holbrook, has passed away. Holbrook died Jan. 23 at his home in Beverly Hills, California. His death was confirmed by his assistant Joyce Cohen on Monday. He was 95.
Holbrook was the first Man (now Graduate) of the Year in the fall of 1967. The announcement of his selection came after his “Mark Twain Tonight!” television special was watched by 30 million households in March.
In making the announcement of Holbrook’s selection, Supt. Delmar T. Spivey wrote that Holbrook’s career – even 54 years ago – was based on the committee’s criteria that his "personal achievement has brought honor to himself and Culver.”
Holbrook was introduced to the theater his first-class year at Culver. He needed an extra credit hour for graduation. He was told there would be no homework and that “Col. (C.C.) Mather was a great guy. He was. He had a great talent for just being human. He opened me up.”
That led to a prolific career in theater, film, and television. But the one role that he created in 1954 and played until 2017 became his trademark: Mark Twain. Holbrook toured with his award-winning one-man show for 63 years, portraying America’s best-known writer and satirist. Holbrook performed the show in all 50 states, internationally, on television, and twice on Broadway.
During his career, Holbrook won five Emmy Awards, a Tony Award for “Mark Twain Tonight!” and was nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Into the Wild.” He is known for his portrayals of some of America’s most pivotal characters: Twain, Abraham Lincoln, and Lincoln ally Preston Blair. In “All the President’s Men,” he played Deep Throat, the source that led Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to break open the Watergate scandal.
Holbrook came back to the Culver campus on several occasions. In 2004, he and his wife, actress Dixie Carter, returned for his induction into inaugural class of the Arts & Letters Hall of Fame. He performed “Mark Twain Tonight!” twice, in 1962 and 2014.
During his final visit, theatre students watched a special showing of “Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey,” a documentary directed by Scott Teems. The film takes viewers behind the scenes with Holbrook for an intimate look at Twain’s continuing influence on American culture and the actor who portrays him. Following the movie, Holbrook talked with students, asked questions of them, and answered theirs.
The following night he performed “Mark Twain Tonight!” in front of packed Eppley Auditorium audience. After his performance, Holbrook came back on stage, took his bows during a standing ovation, and exited. Then the CMA cadets spontaneously started to sing “The Culver Song.” Members of CGA quickly joined in and all the students cheered at the conclusion.
The rush of emotion that washed over the audience can only be described as a classic Culver Moment.