To Be an Actor

For three years at Culver [Military Academy] I had run the mile. From those early days as a plebe—when Mike Carpenter had taken me on road trips even though I finished a lap behind—to my third year on the team, I had trained hard and was now in contention for first place. There was a runner from Iowa named Baxter with a great stride and a killer finishing kick, and I had come in second to him the year before, running my best time for the mile in just over 4 minutes and 35 seconds. In 1934 Glenn Cunningham had set the world record at 4 minutes 6.8 seconds.

* * *

Baxter had done 4:29. Before the acting bug bit me I had dreamed of being another Glenn Cunningham. I had the long legs and the thin frame that seemed to be a standard for most milers and I gained confidence in how to pace myself. Mike Carpenter was counting on me to come through for him in my senior year.

Then in the spring Major Mather cast me in a leading role. It would require a great deal of rehearsal and I was not going to be able to train for the mile and do the play. It was the toughest decision I had ever faced and to this day I can feel the heat of it. For the first time I was about to make my own choice about the future path my life would take. The acting bug was new, the bite might not last. If I chose it, I would be turning my back on the dream of winning for Mike Carpenter and turning toward a dream that had no clear shape.

We were on the edge of the quadrangle outside the Canteen, where cadets at liberty got Cokes and hamburgers, when I told Mike Carpenter I would have to quit the track team to rehearse a play. I hoped to make it a private confrontation, but cadets drifting out of the Canteen were caught in the coils of tension winding around us. Mike was tall. The tip of his nose and patches of his face turned white when he was angry. They were white now. A crowd began to gather.

"You're yellow."

"No, I'm not— "

"You're yellow. You're a coward—"

"I'm not a coward. I know this is the right—"

* * *

"You're a quitter! A yellow-bellied quitter!" He walked away.

I felt only naked, naked shame. How could I have thought the wound would not go deep in him? I stood nailed to the ground. The cadets around me silently drifted off. Was I a yellowbelly? Did I quit because I was losing confidence that I could beat Baxter?

* * *

I wish I could go back sixty-nine years and watch the turning point of that choice inside my head. Was I a yellowbelly? Or was it an escape? The choice to join the weirdos. To be an actor. * * * I chose to belong to a bunch of people who were eccentric and daring and fun to be with, show people who had taken me in. And there was something irresponsible about it, too. Doing the unexpected, hanging off the railroad trestle, showing off. Watch me now! Acting may have been the high board.

I put the guilt and self-loathing to use in the play. I'd been given the role of the maniac in a Grand Guignol drama from the French called "Murder in the Foyer." I wore a great black cape and used it like a scythe, and all the anger and suppressed emotions inside me gathered together in a crazy ball and erupted in the climax of the play. At that point I had my hands around Ollie Rea's neck and I was choking him to death. In rehearsals I often got carried away and had to be warned to ease off because Ollie's neck was turning a little purple, so he was on edge when opening night came.

* * *

As I advanced upon him, I could see concern and even fear in his eyes. "Here comes that damn Holbrook again," he was thinking. "I've survived the rehearsal period, but what about tonight? * * * I had put my hands around his neck and begun to squeeze, trying to follow instructions about not shutting down his windpipe, but Ollie was taking no chances, not on this night with an untrained actor smelling stardom and blood. He clawed at my hands with a desperation way past acting, sweating to release the pressure on his Adam's apple before it was crushed to dust. Ollie was normally a rather elegant and sophisticated fellow, but this was not time for appearances, or style. When he was down to a last, small puff of air he gasped, "Holbrook! It's only a play!!!"

"Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain," by Hal Holbrook, will be published Sept. 20 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, and is here reprinted with the kind permission of the author and publisher. Holbrook appeared in "All the President's Men," "Wall Street," and "The Firm," but may be best known for his signature solo show, "Mark Twain Tonight!"