BEVERLY HILLS, California – Hal Holbrook, an Emmy and Tony Award winning actor who lived part-time in McLemoresville, Tennessee, in Carroll County, died on January 23, 2020. He is buried next to his wife Dixie Carter in McLemoresville Cemetery.
Hal who was one of the great artisans of the stage and screen. He was best known for his performance as Mark Twain, for which he won a Tony and the first of his ten Emmy Award nominations. Aside from the stage, Holbrook made a name for himself primarily on television, starring as Abraham Lincoln, Senator Hays Stowe on The Bold Ones: The Senator (1970), and Capt. Lloyd Bucher at Pueblo (1973) memorable. All of these roles earned him Emmy Awards, and Pueblo (1973) earned him two for Best Actor in a Drama and Actor of the Year Special. On January 22, 2008, he became the oldest male performer ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for his supporting role in Into the Wild (2007). He starred with Clint Eastwood in the Dirty Harry films and Tom Cruise in The Firm, which was filmed in Memphis. Cruise accompanied Carter and Holbrook at their McLemoresville home while filming.
Hal was born in Cleveland, Ohio on February 17, 1925 to Eileen (Davenport), a vaudeville dancer, and Harold Rowe Holbrook, Sr. He grew up primarily in South Weymouth, Massachusetts with his paternal grandparents, Holbrook, and attended the Culver Academies. During World War II, Holbrook served in the Army in Newfoundland. After the war, he attended Denison University and graduated in 1948. During his time in Denison, Holbrook’s senior honors project involved Mark Twain.
Huntingdon Mayor Dale Kelley said it was a sad day for me, the staff at Dixie and the town of Huntingdon. Dixie Carter, the namesake of the Dixie Carter Performing Arts Center, and Hal provided many opportunities for young people in terms of the arts.
When The Dixie was under construction, Mayor Kelley said he reached out to Mr. Holbrook in Dixie’s hometown of McLemoresville to have the theater named on his behalf. But it took Dixie in her charm to convince him that it would be okay.
Holbrook was actively involved in overseeing the theater’s development and providing insights into the design of the stage, lights, and sound system, Kelley said.
Dixie and Mayor Kelley graduated from Huntingdon High School in 1957. She pursued a career in theater, television, and film. One of her most memorable was Julia Sugarbaker at Designing Women.
Dixie always remembered her hometown of McLemoresville and Huntingdon. She supported The Dixie by offering guest appearances and performances to paying viewers. She often visited them with children when they were studying for children’s musicals or theater productions.
Holbrook learned about Carroll County’s Carroll Academy and a school for students who have gotten into trouble or are victims of problems that were not caused by themselves. The school has been recognized nationally for its work with difficult youth. Hal loved the students and the school. If he was in the county he would visit. During his shows at The Dixie, he made sure that students could attend.
Phil Williams is the Mayor of McLemoresville, home of HL Carter and his children, including Dixie.
Williams said Hal and Dixie were good friends of his.
“He was a good friend and a good man,” said Williams of Holbrook. Dixie and Hal made it their goal to visit McLemoresville on July 4th, the Cotton Festival in October, and for Christmas.
Hal loved the city and the people, said Williams. During the downtown cake run on July 4th, Hal stood in line, hoping to win a cake. If he won, he would jump solemnly. He loved sitting in the former Younger’s Grocery (now Hometown Grocery) and visiting Walmart.
“When they were home, people didn’t bother them,” Williams said. Every Christmas the family sent poinsettias and lilies to First United Methodist Church in McLemoresville. When they got home, they went to church there. Occasionally Dixie would sing.
They had staff to look after them at home and to look after them at home when they were away. Bill Hargrove, Janice Vinson, Joyce Cole, and Allison Coleman looked after the house, and Holbrook and Carter in Dixie’s children’s home.
Williams said talking to Holbrook was like talking to an old friend. He would call and ask questions or just talk. Sitting on the porch enjoying the quiet life down south, they called Williams to fix the pool.
Lori Nolen, the former executive director of The Dixie, offered these observations.
I came as the executive director of The Dixie just as Dixie Carter’s health was waning and I never got the privilege of meeting and knowing her. Hal was hired to run a center bearing her name and soon became my bridge into her life – who she was, what interested her, why she loved her home so much. We all know the brilliance he possessed at storytelling through his career playing Mark Twain, but if you’ve never heard him tell a story about Dixie, you’ve missed some of his best. I’ve never met anyone who loved someone more than Dixie.
The more I spoke to Hal or met him around town, the more obvious it became that he was grateful that The Dixie / The Town of Huntingdon staff were working to keep their story alive at the center. He always said, “It’s all about the kids. Dixie loved the kids! “Over the years I realized how much Hal was about the kids too. He would call or email for an update. He loved hearing how many teenagers walk through our doors each year or what new programs were available to them Because he knew so well the business of the arts and the struggle to make it work, he kept encouraging us in our endeavors.
His talent as an actor may have made his name known, but I will remember him for his heart. Hal Holbrook had a heart for others. It was best for us at the Dixie to be seen every time he met or greeted someone. Whether it was a dignitary at a private meet and greet, a contract worker hired to get the stage lights, or a young student who had absolutely no idea he was a star at all, they became Greeted with the same spark in his eye, the same respect and the same deep look into their eyes as he sought who they really are while shaking hands with them.
What else do you need? I mean, it was hard for me not to go into all the things and stories I have:
-He responds to the children’s choir singing Glen Campbell songs.
– he sent us photos of Dixie after her death and he saw the photo exhibition for the first time
– He invited Mayor Kelley and me to McLey the last time he was here to visit him on the porch
-He broke his hip and came back to the Dixie for the first time after his recovery and what he said to me
-He always wanted to know what project Dale was working on. That was always part of our conversations when we talked. He knew how the Dixie fit into the growth of the area and what role it could play in the economic development and social / economic upturn of children who grew up with the opportunity. It was important to him. Also, why he helped Jason Isbell send a personal video message about his theater playing at Dixie’s performing arts center – he said in it that he thanked him for helping The Dixie grow by letting himself be decided to play there.
As a personal note from this writer, Dixie and Hal were special. Dixie’s joy was loving children. Whenever she had her yard sale at the former Carter store in McLemoresville, she would tell each child about the movie props she had for sale. She knelt down, looked the child in the eye, and then reduced the price for that child only. It was a special moment. She also got a hug to close the sale. At The Dixie, she took the extra time to meet with young children who were into the performing arts. Her smile and warm heart were evident when she told everyone she was proud of her.
Former Banner employee and gifted writer, Deborah Turner and I had the pleasure of visiting Dixie for Christmas. She and Hal and her father Hal were there. Senior Hal had a tie despite having no plans to leave the house that day. Dixie talked about Christmas past, grew up in a small town, knew everyone and dreamed of a career in the performing arts. She said she listened to the radio and wondered how these singers got into this radio console. She took the time to share her love for Christmas, God, and her neighborhood friends.
Mayor Kelley said The Dixie is the enduring legacy of two people who truly loved the performing arts and the people of the area. No one will ever know what the real impact the two have on the people of the area.
He hopes there may be a memorial service for Hal here in the spring.