Hal Holbrook has never been afraid of tackling tough subjects in his TV and film roles.
“I sort of like controversial things,” said the 87-year-old actor, best known for his celebrated one-man show Mark Twain Tonight!, which he has been performing since 1954.
Holbrook, an Oscar nominee for 2007’s Into the Wild, is appearing in two films exploring social issues of the past and present. He plays Republican politician Preston Blair in Steven Spielberg’s sweeping epic Lincoln, which focuses on the 16th president’s dogged determination to end the Civil War and pass the 13th Amendment to end slavery. (Holbrook, by the way, won an Emmy playing the president in the 1974-75 NBC series Sandburg’s Lincoln.)
And in Gus Vant Sant’s film, The Promised Land, opening Friday, Holbrook portrays Frank Yates, the conscience of an economically strapped farming town whose citizens are being asked to sell the drilling rights to their land to a natural-gas company.
Promised Land, which stars and was written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, harks back to some of the thought-provoking films Holbrook made some four decades ago, including his role as the Deep Throat character in the 1976 political classic All the President’s Men.
For Damon, Holbrook was the perfect embodiment of Frank Yates, a high school teacher who objects to “fracking,” the process of obtaining natural gas that creates fractures in rocks and rock formations by injecting fluid into cracks.
“We needed somebody who could be simple, commanding and believable and speak of what the country used to be,” said Damon. “Because the movie is about where we are now and where we are headed.”
Yates, Holbrook said, “was as much me as you can get. We are on the edge of a very serious decision about the direction of the country. It goes back to what Mark Twain observed and wrote about at the end of the 19th century and 20th century.”