Like many theater lovers, Don Shelby marveled at Hal Holbrook's signature portrayal of Mark Twain. Then he took his adoration one step further.
For much of the past two decades, former WCCO anchor Shelby has been doing his own one-man show that's as much a tribute to the legendary Twain as it is to Holbrook, whose death was announced this week. He was 95.
The two first met in 1972 when Shelby was working at a Charleston, S.C., television station. At the suggestion of the station's general manager, Shelby invited Holbrook, who was in town for a performance, on a sailing trip.
The actor, who had just won the first of his five Emmys, agreed.
During the eight-hour voyage, Shelby peppered him with questions about Twain, whom Holbrook had already been channeling on stage for 17 years. Shelby, who had dabbled as a makeup artist before becoming a journalist, was amazed to hear that it took the actor 10 hours to look like Twain as an 70-year-old.
In their last visit together, backstage at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, Shelby asked him how long it took him to prepare now that he had soared past the age of his most beloved character.
"As soon as I put on the white suit, I'm done," Holbrook told him.
In addition to his television work, Holbrook snagged small but memorable roles in critically acclaimed films like "All the President's Men" and "Into the Wild." But it was "Mark Twain Tonight!" that really captured the public's attention.
That production would earn him a Tony Award in 1966. Shelby, who saw the play 14 times, decided to tackle the role himself roughly 30 years after their sailing trip. While he used different passages and tried not to imitate Holbrook, he did borrow the way his friend delivered the word, "remarkable."
"The moment I did that, you could just see the audience relax," he said. "They were thinking, 'Now, he's Mark Twain.' In reality, now I was Hal Holbrook."
Shelby has not played Twain in recent years.
"I just came to the conclusion that I didn't want to do it as long as he was still doing it," he said.
Now that the actor has passed, Shelby will begin entertaining offers to get back into the white suit. He's talking with the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis about a regular gig once the pandemic is over.
Neal Justin • 612-673-7431