I can identify actors and actresses solely by hearing their voice in a commercial. It’s not a marketable skill, but it impresses my wife and kids. I can only exercise it near a television or radio, but it paid off one night in a crowded airport.
I was waiting for a flight home to Bloomington, Illinois. A book open on my lap. I’m an avid reader and take advantage of air travel to indulge myself. I am undisturbed by noisy airports, droning pre-flight safety lectures, and even chatty passengers with megaphone voices.
On this particular evening, though, a distinctive voice came between me and the page. A man was talking on a cell phone. It wasn’t the usual “I’ll try and project my voice thousands of miles” kind of call. This man was talking casually. But my celebrity enhanced hearing had homed in on him. Before I even turned in his direction, I was certain who owned the unmistakable voice. It was actor Hal Holbrook. The man who stood in the shadows of a Washington, DC parking garage in the movie All the President’s Men and delivered the iconic line, “follow the money.” The advice of Holbrook's secret source, to Robert Redford's Bob Woodward, that the truth to Watergate lies at the end of a money trail.
Holbrook was flying to Bloomington to perform his legendary one-man play, Mark Twain Tonight! I knew this because I had tickets to a performance.
I get a charge out of seeing celebrities in person. Not at a scheduled appearance, but out in the wild with the rest of us. On city streets and in restaurants and airports. But I’m not the fan who asks for autographs and pictures. I don’t need physical evidence of the contact, like a hunter mounting their kill on a wall. I’m satisfied with the memory and the story. But this wasn't a momentary encounter. Holbrook and I were corralled at an airport gate. Maybe this was a chance to break my rule and talk to him. We had something in common. I was an actor myself now, having made my community theatre debut only two months before. We might be able to talk about the craft. The seats to his left were empty. I made my move.
I didn’t want anyone who might have also recognized him to catch me committing a blatant act of celebrity stalking, so I masked my approach. I tucked my book into my briefcase and wandered into the main aisle, briefly checked a flight monitor, looked to my left and right as if considering a stroll, took casual notice of the empty seats closer to the gate than the one I walked away from, and headed there. I gave him his personal space and left a seat between us, and sat down. Then I placed my briefcase on the empty chair to block any potential interlopers. He was still engaged in his phone conversation. I took my book out and opened it. It wasn't a performance worthy of the Oscar nomination and the Emmy and Tony wins he earned, but I was proud of it. He finished his call and went about doing what people waiting for a flight do; sorting through and arranging itineraries, tickets, and various personal items.
This is the part of the story where I share what happened next. How I engaged Hal Holbrook in conversation, and he explained how he developed the iconic Deep Throat character in All the President’s Men. His description of what it was like to play Dirty Harry's nemesis in Clint Eastwood's Magnum Force, and how he chuckled when I offered how OJ Simpson murdered his performance acting across from him in Capricorn One.
But those conversations never occurred. Once I sat down, I decided to follow my rule. As an actor myself, would I want someone to sit next to me and interrupt my reading to tell me how genuine my performance as an undercover British policeman was in Agatha Christie's Mousetrap?
Instead, I continued in my role of air traveler. I casually looked to my right, acting for the terminal audience watching us as if this was my first discovery that I was seated next to Hal Holbrook. Then, masking any surprise at finding him there, I simply said, "Good evening Mr. Holbrook." He lifted his head from his papers, looked at me, and responded in kind. "Good evening," he said. Then he returned to his busy work.
I reopened my book and pretended to read, but instead, quietly reveled at my proximity to a Hollywood star. A few moments later, our flight was announced. Some of us stood, including Hal (I can call him that now after spending some time with him), and waited for our boarding call. After one of the many muffled flight announcements common in airports, he asked me if it was for us. I assured him it wasn’t and when our plane began boarding, let him know. He thanked me and headed for the jet bridge door. I passed him in his seat near the front of our commuter flight as I walked to mine in the back of the plane.
When I exited the plane in Bloomington and entered the terminal, he was gone. The next time I saw him was when he stepped on stage the following night, not as an 83-year-old man juggling his luggage and papers while waiting to board a plane, but as Mark Twain. His costume and makeup had erased all evidence of my fellow traveler.
Last week when I learned of his death, I thought of our brief encounter. I smiled as I remembered sharing the world's stage with him in our roles as air travelers, on a night when I decided to follow the voice.