Holbrook revisiting ghosts of his past to find his present

Courtesy PhotoHal Holbrook

It’s been more than three years since Dixie Carter, star of “Designing Women,” died from cancer, but her husband, award-winning actor Hal Holbrook, still maintains and spends time at her Tennessee family home. It’s just one of many facets of his life he will share in conversation Halloween night at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

“She was the heart and soul of everything she was connected with,” he says of his wife of 16 years. “We were both very opinionated,” he recalls. “However, Dixie knew when to assert herself in an argument and when not, which I didn’t,” he laughs. Earlier this year, Holbrook published “Harold: The Boy Who Became Mark Twain,” referencing his given name, which he dislikes, and the man he portrays in his Tony-winning one-man show, “Mark Twain Tonight!”

The Oscar-nominated star is older now than Samuel Clemens, Twain’s real name, by more than a decade, and has been performing his Twain show regularly since 1954.

He decided it was time to write his own memoir in part because, “I’m getting old!” he jokes. “I could die!”

More earnestly, the 88-year-old actor says his inspiration was “a drive to understand where I came from and why I ended up the way I did.”

It’s a hard question. He and his two sisters lived an emotionally deprived youth, abandoned early by their parents and raised by their challenging grandparents.

“I don’t remember being hugged by anyone until I was in my 20s,” Holbrook says. “If my parents hugged me, I was too young to remember. My grandfather was from a very upright, unemotional older New England generation. He would put his hand on the top of my head, which I can still feel now and which meant a great deal to me, but that was as much affection as I got out of him.”

Holbrook was sent to boarding school, “run by a strange, cruel person who liked to beat children in a pretty rough way.” A year with his grandmother who “wanted to make me her boyfriend” caused him to retreat further into himself. Military school came next, then a year of college before three years of World War II service. “Nobody hugs you there, that’s for goddamn sure!” he laughs.

“It set me on a course of solitary living,” he says. “As a result, I have been a loner for basically all of my life.” How that trait impacted his career and relationships will be explored when American Conservatory Theater Artistic Director Carey Perloff interviews Holbrook on the Kanbar Hall stage.

IF YOU GO

An Evening with Hal Holbrook

Where: Jewish Community Center, 3200 California St., S.F.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Tickets: $25 to $35

Contact: (415) 292-1233, www.jccsf.org/arts

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