LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - In 1981 when Hal Holbrook was working on the TV movie “The Killing of Randy Webster,” a quiet, young actor on the set drew his attention.
“You couldn’t help but notice him,” Holbrook says. “He was obviously talented.”
Sensing a certain unawareness — even doubt — in the young actor about his own talent, Holbrook and his wife, Dixie Carter, made it a point one day to let him know just how good his acting was. Some time later, they received a letter in the mail from the young man thanking them for their words of encouragement.
“It was so beautifully written. I have never forgotten it,” Holbrook says.
Twenty-seven years later, Holbrook has even more reason to recall that letter and is returning his gratitude to its sender as he racks up critical praise and Oscar buzz for his role as widower Ron Franz in “Into the Wild.” It’s a part that was offered to him by the film’s director-writer, Sean Penn — Holbrook’s correspondent from years earlier.
“You don’t get in contention for awards in this business if you don’t get the role — you have to get the part,” Holbrook says. “This role allows people to see me in a way they’ve never seen me before. But to give me this, Sean has given me a gift.”
Holbrook, long associated with playing the distinguished older man usually involved in some sort of conspiracy (“The Star Chamber,” “Capricorn One,” “All the President’s Men”) or a historical figure (“Sandburg’s Lincoln”) or politician (“The Senator”), is no stranger to receiving accolades for his performances. He has won four Emmys and collected numerous other Emmy nominations for about 50 telepics and miniseries while performing his one-man show “Mark Twain Tonight!” onstage for more than 53 years.
“I’m indebted to the Mark Twain character that I’ve done for so many years, and it’s a great relief to get on the stage and play him,” Holbrook says. “But I never wanted it to get in the way of being an actor, and I have never thought of myself as being a star. I just wanted to be the best actor I could possibly be.”
It was while performing the show in Fairbanks, Alaska, that he became familiar with the story of Chris McCandless and the Jon Krakauer book “Into the Wild.”
An accomplished sailor and veteran outdoorsman, Holbrook says he related to the real-life McCandless.
“I have done a couple things myself where I put my self way out on the edge in the wilderness,” Holbrook says. “I climbed a mountain by myself and was up there for four days alone — I’ve sailed across the ocean in a 40-foot sailboat — so these emotional experiences were very easy to tap into.”
As far as playing Franz — the last person that McCandless (Emile Hirsch) becomes close to before heading for Alaska — Holbrook credits Penn’s writing and Hirsch’s acting to the subtleties that were reflected in the relationship between the two men, subtleties he says often are found in the silences between the lines.
“As much as he wants to give advice, he knows he can’t intrude on this young man’s space — man to man, there’s a kind of respect there, but it’s hard for the old fellow not to say certain things,” Holbrook says. “Sean wrote those scenes really well — he didn’t overwrite them.”
For Holbrook, 83, who usually finds himself dressed in a suit for an onstage role, this role of an everyman with his vulnerability and human emotions felt closer to him than any other he has played.
“I’m a character actor — I’ve played a lot of different characters from Lincoln to Twain to a homosexual — a lot of different characters that are not me,” he says. “I don’t know — I didn’t try to do anything. I didn’t try to act in this movie. I just talked to Emile and Emile talked to me. It has meant more to me than any role I’ve played.”