The esteemed stage, screen and television actor received a Lifetime Achievement award at the 2009 Nashville Film Festival.
The C&I crew would like to extend sympathy and condolences to the family, friends and fans of award-winning actor Hal Holbrook, whose recent death was announced Monday evening.
Back in 2009, we interviewed Holbrook at the Nashville Film Festival, where he received a Lifetime Achievement award before a festival screening of That Evening Sun, the filmed-in-Tennessee drama in which he gave a career-highlight performance as an aging farmer who won’t give up on his pride or his property. We spoke about his decades-long career, his partnership with wife and frequent collaborator Dixie Carter (who passed away in 2010), and his ties to McLemoreseville, Tennessee. Here are some highlights from that 2009 conversation.
Cowboys & Indians: You’ve been receiving rave reviews and Oscar Buzz for your performance in That Evening Sun as Abner Meecham, an aging Tennessee farmer who goes AWOL from a nursing home to reclaim his land from a long-time enemy. What was the biggest challenge you faced while playing this guy?
Hal Holbrook: Not making him sympathetic. Not asking for sympathy for the character. That was the toughest part. My instincts were to make sure the audience understood the emotional trip he was on. But that would have altered the balance of the picture. And I have to give a great deal of credit to Scott Teems, the director. Because I had a lot of arguments with him about it. But he was convincing. And [co-stars] Ray McKinnon and Walton Goggins – who were not only actors in it, but producers as well – they also helped me to understand. And to make sure to keep it – well, dry, or whatever the hell you want to call it. And not to request sympathy for Abner.
C&I: McKinnon plays Lonzo, the younger fellow who has moved with his family onto Abner’s place. Abner describes him as “white trash,” and worse. But he’s neither written nor played as a complete villain.
Holbrook: And that also helped balance the picture more. So that this was a struggle between two very tough, very angry men who came from different parts of the tribe, you might say, in Tennessee. And they were not going to give way to each other.
C&I: You’ve said that, even now, at this point in your career, you’re still learning about film acting. What do you mean by that?
Holbrook: Film work is so subtle. You have to remember that. I keep going back to the first film I ever did – The Group, with [director] Sidney Lumet. It was my first movie – I was a stage actor – and after a couple of days, I asked: “Sidney, could I watch the rushes, to see what I’m doing?” And he told me, “I don’t like actors to watch rushes, Hal. Why do you want to do that?” And I said, “Well, that scene I did with Jessica Walter – it just didn’t feel good.” So he said, “OK, I’ll let you watch once, that’s all.” So, during lunch, I went to watch the rushes on this scene. And afterwards, Sidney asked me: “What did you think?” And I said, “Aw, Christ, I was acting.” And he said, “Yes, you were. But we can cut around that, Hal. What you have to understand about film work is, the camera can read your mind.” Now, it’s easy to say something like that. But to believe it – and to trust it – is a whole other story.
C&I: So you think you’ve finally begun to believe that less really is more?
Holbrook: [Laughs] Yes. And it’s a wonderful release, because it makes it much easier. I mean, don’t get me wrong: That Evening Sun was not easy. That was a tough job, I worked very hard on it. To begin with, I wanted to be very authentic with my accent. Because, of course, my wife [actress Dixie Carter] comes from Tennessee… And I have a great deal of love and respect for my relatives by marriage down there.
C&I: And you think you would have caught grief from your in-laws if you’d gotten the accent wrong?
Holbrook: No, actually they would have been very kind and easy on me. But they would have been disappointed. That’s the kind of people they are. They’re not like people up North, where they smash you over the head with the truth. They try to respect your feelings, because you’re a member of the family. If you’re a member of the family, you can do anything. No matter what you do, you are OK. [Laughs] And anybody who says you’re not will get shot dead or knocked down.
SMALL TOWN COUPLE: At the time, Hal Holbrook and Dixie Carter maintained a home in McLemoreseville, Tennessee, Carter’s birthplace. It’s a small town — “Two gas pumps and a cannon,” as Holbrook affectionately described it — but “it’s a place far away from Los Angeles” that “gives us a whole different view of life when we're able to come here and enjoy the wonderful, wonderful kind of people that live here.”
TWAIN AGAIN: Holbrook already was 84 in 2009, but he was still touring with Mark Twain Tonight! – the one-man stage show he’d been doing off and on since 1954. (Indeed, he didn’t stop portraying Twain on stage until he “retired” the role in 2017.) In Nashville, he noted the big difference since he started out: “I don’t have to apply as much old-age make-up.”
Here is a 2013 interview with Hal Holbrook conducted at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.