Feb 26, 2021

Mourning the February Deaths of Hal Holbrook and Christopher Plummer

Both brought memorable one-man touring shows to Sacramento

By Ed Goldman
Because I’ve had a career that’s allowed me to interview some boldface names—celebrities whose names just ache to be dropped by the likes of peons like us—I sometimes have to stop myself when someone mentions Mark Twain or John Barrymore from blurting out, “Oh, yeah, I’ve met them!”

No, I haven’t. I saw two of my favorite actors, Hal Holbrook and Christopher Plummer, portray them in one-man shows, right here in River City at the Sacramento Community Center Theater.

Edgy Cartoon

Samuel, Edward and John

Those immensely talented men died early this month, both in their 90s. I suppose their advanced ages forbid me from calling their deaths “untimely,” as we often do with people who cross the Rubicon much earlier, but that usually has more to do with the affection we felt toward the departed as well as the times in which they lived.

For example, when my dad died in 1976 at the age of 60, that seemed untimely to me. On the other hand, I can recall his commenting when he was in his 40s (in the 1950s) and the uncle of one of his friends died, “Well, after all, he was almost 58.” Most people died earlier back then.

Perhaps because Mr. Holbrook was already older than Twain was when he died at 75, in later incarnations of his one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight!”, the actor dipped into Twain’s “Letters to the Earth” and autobiography, both of which were published posthumously and therefore never part of Twain’s speaking tours (which was the show’s conceit—that as we found our seats we were being ushered into the past to catch one of his lectures). 

The words were darker, the humor more elusive, the connections between the past and our present-day dystopia more implied. It was as though the actor decided to present not just the author’s but also his own valedictory, using his remaining time on the planet to settle some philosophical scores (though Holbrook, from all accounts, apparently led a fulfilling life except in his early years). 

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Meanwhile, seeing Mr. Plummer, also a man older than his avatar, impersonate John Barrymore—the great, self-destructive actor who’d started out as a cartoonist—was a revelation. He only passingly resembled him and was in far better physical shape. But he did the show before a sold-out audience at the cavernous theater without the benefit of a microphone, just as Barrymore himself would have given his greatest stage performances. That was probably the point of not using one.

This show’s purely fictitious gimmick was that late in his life, Barrymore rented a theater to perform the one-man show we’re watching to convince Hollywood and Broadway that he still had his professional chops—and equally as important, that he could remember his lines. As you can imagine, Barrymore/Plummer devolves before our eyes as the play goes on.

Most people remember Plummer as captain Georg Von Trapp from the wildly successful film adaptation of “The Sound of Music,” which he wasn’t wild about though it made him a star. My cousin, the writer Julia Antopol Hirsch, verified that he had a silly side, in her book, “The Sound of Music: The Making of Americas Favorite Movie.” She tells me that in the love scene between Plummer and star Julie Andrews, “They laughed because an arc light, which used a carbon filter, made a noise like a ‘raspberry’ every time they came close to kiss. That’s why (director) Robert Wise finally said, ‘Just shoot them in the dark.’ Hence, the silhouette scene.”

Julia Antopol Hirsch

I like that story because I always enjoyed Plummer’s funny performances—as well as the semi-villains he essayed, such as when he played book editor Jack Nicolson’s slickly ruthless publisher in ”Wolf”—or, just four years ago, J. Paul Getty in “All the Money in the World.” The latter is a role he acted in just nine days, replacing every single scene Kevin Spacey had filmed in the same part before his career went publicly to pieces over sexual harassment allegations. Getty, about whom I wrote a semi-biography for Random House, was just as sinister as he (and Plummer) looked. Yet he still gave him what I consider barely deserved humanity

It’s gratifying that much of Plummer’s and Holbrook’s work has been preserved on film and tape, even some of their theatrical triumphs. But I do wish they’d have had the chance to do more. I suppose that’s a wish you’d call untimely.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).