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Twain’s World

For 57 years, Holbrook has told it like it is – in character, of course

Mark Twain is back on the best-seller list, 100 years after his death, and at least two people are laughing.

One is Hal Holbrook, chortling merrily during a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. The other is Twain himself.

“I can’t help thinking how he must be chuckling, wherever he is,” said Holbrook, who returns to Spokane on Saturday for his “Mark Twain Tonight!” one-man show. “He pulled another one on us.”

The recently released “Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1” has been flying off the shelves, despite the fact that it was written more than a century ago and much of it has been previously published.

It’s hard to imagine any other figure from that era being able to make such a splash in 2011 culture.

Of course, Holbrook may be the one person in the universe least surprised by Twain’s enduring popularity. He has been packing in crowds for 57 years with his uncanny ability to channel Twain and make his words relevant to modern audiences.

And Holbrook says he knows exactly why Twain still draws America’s rapt attention: He tells us the truth. Now, more than ever, most people aren’t willing to tell the truth, even about themselves.

“He’s able to point out the disparity between who we think we are and who we really are,” said Holbrook. “He points it out over and over and over again, and sometimes it’s very funny.

“It’s good to be able to laugh at yourself. And sometimes, it cuts very close to the bone.”

As an example, Holbrook launched into a passage from Twain about our ability to deceive ourselves about heaven.

The pious person’s vision of heaven is that it’s a place where all nationalities, religions and races “mix together, pray together, harp together, hosanna together.”

“Yet here in the earth, all nations hate each other …,” wrote Twain, in a passage adapted by Holbrook. “Yet every pious person adores that heaven and wants to get into it. He really does.

“And when he is in a holy rapture, he thinks that if he were only there, he would take all the populace to his heart, and hug and hug and hug!”

Holbrook ends this passage with a Twain line that never fails to bring the house down: “I wonder if God invented man because he was disappointed in the monkey.”

Holbrook is convinced that truth – of the frontal, Twain variety – is especially rare in today’s media world. He said television and radio – from MSNBC on the left to Fox News on the right – are “misrepresenting the reality and the truth.”

He gets especially wound up over the way they defend their right to twist reality.

“People say, ‘Oh, well, we have the right to do that, and this is America, and this is a free country, and man has the right to voice his opinions, this is what makes America great!’ ” said Holbrook, his voice rising in indignation.

Well, it’s not making America great now! Because lying to America, no matter who you are … is not helping us out! What we need is truth and facts, to face the horrible situation that we are in.”

Clearly, Holbrook, at age 86, can still work up a Twain-like indignation at the state of the human race. Meanwhile, his own career is humming along quite nicely.

He has a recurring role in NBC’s “The Event” as a shadowy and evil “businessman” named Dempsey. He will also appear in the upcoming “Water for Elephants” with Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon.

And, of course, he continues to perform his “Mark Twain Tonight!” show. He said he bought a copy of the new autobiography and has been browsing through it for material.

“Every time I’ve opened the book, I’ve seen something I’ve used in my show at one time or am using now,” said Holbrook.

“Or which I can’t use, because you can’t just sit and read a book in front of an audience or you’ll put them to sleep.”