Mark Twain was a central figure in American culture when Hal Holbrook began portraying him in the 1950s.
Holbrook, who won acclaim for a range of TV, movie and theater roles including "Deep Throat" in "All the President's Men," died at age 95 Jan. 23 in his Beverly Hills home, according to media reports.
His portrayal of Twain was a TV and theater sensation, bringing back to life for postwar audiences a 19th century cultural titan.
Twain, the author of "Huckleberry Finn" and "Tom Sawyer," was a superstar lecturer in the late 19th century, delighting audiences with his sardonic barbs exposing human frailties.
His witticisms endured for decades; educated Americans once knew a variety of Twain quotations, some falsely attributed to him.
Beginning in his 20s, much younger than Twain at the height of his fame, the World War II veteran Holbrook revived the writer's act, donning a wig, false moustache and white linen suit.
Holbrook went on to play Twain for more than six decades, winning a Tony award for a Broadway production. As Holbrook's New York Times obituary noted, he needed less makeup to perform the role as he grew older.
The five-time Emmy winner received an Academy Award nomination in 2007 for his performance in "Into the Wild." At the time, he was the oldest actor to receive an Oscar nomination. Along with Twain, he played Lincoln several times.
In one of his best-known roles, Holbrook shone as "Deep Throat," the long unnamed source for Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. "Deep Throat" was later identified as FBI official Mark Felt.
In "Magnam Force," Holbrook was the vigilante boss of police inspector Clint Eastwood. Holbrook also appeared in "Wall Street" as the old-school stock broker Lou Mannheim.
Familiar on TV commercials, Holbrook with his resonant voice was one of those American Dads who exemplified an honest and fair-minded but pragmatic American masculinity.
As Twain, Holbrook spawned a mini-genre of one-person theater. I myself have seen portrayals of William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker and Patsy Cline. Surely, someone has played Charles Dickens, and Lincoln.
Along with Twain's witticisms, the appeal was Holbrook's uncanny ability to realistically channel Twain. Twain acolytes after seeing the performance believed that the writer had come back to life. Wide cultural familiarity with Twain's work boosted Holbrook's renown.
But younger generations no longer know Twain's books. He's one of the deadest members of the Dead White Males club.
In recent years, "Huckleberry Finn," considered by Hemingway and others the first great American novel written in the country's vernacular language, has been removed from school reading lists.
As kids turn to video games and social media sites, they no longer read books of any kind, much less classics.
Although the young Huckleberry's friendship with the escaped slave Jim is a testament to their shared humanity, the book has been attacked as racist because of its frequent use of the word "nigger."
Black and liberal intellectuals condemn the account of Huck and Jim's raft journey down the Mississippi River as a totem of white supremacy.
Holbrook's portrayal of Twain was more than a novelty. Critics saw the performance as innovative theater. Holbrook in drawing upon the deep well of Twain's work was the show's playwright and actor.
In an endearing letter to the editor in The New York Times Wednesday, novelist Anne Bernays says that her late husband Justin Kaplan was inspired to write his celebrated biography of Samuel Clemens/Twain by watching Holbrook's performance.
It's doubtful that Holbrook's work would be produced now. Holbrook's death marks the fading of a generation that knew and revered Mark Twain.