Roughing It with Mark Twain (& Deep Throat)

Roughing It with Mark Twain (& Deep Throat)

Would you buy a used car from Deep Throat? Or a new one? How about from Mark Twain?

Initially, all that car jazz saturated this memory play starring actor Jerry Hardin. But, as I wrote and rechecked names, dates and facts, I’ve found myself hopelessly entangled in an odd, two-headed conspiracy, like something out of The X-Files. Strangely, that’s where Hardin came into widespread pop culture popularity for portraying FBI Agent Fox Mulder’s enigmatic, high-level government informant, Deep Throat (no quotation marks around that sobriquet).

Secondly, around these Trekkian parts, Hardin’s known for playing Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain, in 1992’s well-regarded "Time’s Arrow" tale, the two-parter which ended Season 5 of Star Trek: The Next Generation and opened Season 6. It’s a time travel story akin to Twain’s own A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court but set in 1893 San Francisco, also featuring Call of the Wild author-to-be Jack London as well as Captain Picard, Lieutenant Data and Guinan. Hardin (born 1929) then went on to perform as Twain in a one-man play of his own devising, derived from Clemens’ original writings.

Except, I can’t think about Twain on stage without recalling the great American actor Hal Holbrook (born 1925). First developing his Twain project while in college, Holbrook began performing as the legendary raconteur and creator of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in 1954, eventually taking his one-man show to Broadway and winning a 1966 Tony Award. Mark Twain Tonight! was filmed and broadcast on TV in 1967 (earning an Emmy nomination). It’s 60 years since he started and Holbrook is still occasionally doing Mark Twain Tonight! in various theatrical venues (even two Broadway revivals). He’s the gold-standard in Twains. And—suddenly, I did a double-take!—because I realized... before Hardin, Holbrook also played Deep Throat.

Or, rather, Holbrook essayed "Deep Throat" (with quotation marks) -- so dubbed by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein in the 1970s and alluding to the then-newish 1972 adult movie’s title. History lesson! This "Throat" was the real-life, high-level government informant who provided insider info for their Watergate Break-In/Cover-Up investigative reporting (which led to President Richard Nixon’s impeachment melodrama and ultimate resignation). Woodward & Bernstein chronicled their sleuthing efforts in the 1974 bestseller All the President’s Men which, in turn, became a hit 1976 film. That’s where Holbrook whispered from the shadows to Woodward (primarily) & Bernstein, portrayed by Robert Redford & Dustin Hoffman. Both the actual reporters and their actor imitators inspired thousands of then-college-age Communications Majors like me. To us press-happy wanna-bes, it just seemed incredibly awesome to be a journalist. Even an entertainment journalist.

The "Deep Throat" nickname was employed in both book and film, of course, to conceal the highly placed informer’s true identity—although 30 years later in 2005, he revealed himself as William Mark Felt, Sr. (1913-2008), former FBI Associate Director, once the #2 Man in the Bureau. Meanwhile in 1993, in his fictional FBI TV mythos, X-Files creator Chris Carter had dubbed his mystery man Deep Throat, alluding to Woodward & Bernstein’s "Deep Throat."

Is it conspiracy or coincidence that decades after Holbrook’s gigs, Hardin was cast as both Next Gen’s Clemens (1992) and then X-Files’ Throat (1993)? Actually, Hardin was already a known quantity in Trek casting circles; he had appeared in the first season’s "When the Bough Breaks." So, I imagine casting director Junie Lowry-Johnson and her associates naturally thought of him for Twain in "Time’s Arrow." Maybe casting Hardin was suggested by "Arrow" director Les Landau (who worked as an assistant director on "Bough") or one of the two-parter’s three writers (Joe Menosky, Michael Piller, Jeri Taylor). The truth is out there, at least regarding this specific riddle, in an interview or reference work somewhere.

Here’s what Hardin told Starlog’s Bill Florence about the Twain casting in 1994 (for issue #211): "They thought I must have played Clemens before but I hadn’t. One of the reasons I had taken the Star Trek job was that I wanted to play him."

As for doing that two-parter, "I had a ball!" Hardin exclaimed, informing Florence, "I enjoyed the acting challenge of taking Clemens, a very outgoing, bright man, and dumping him on a spaceship in the 24th Century. One doesn’t get to play that kind of thing very often, where you have absolutely brand-new experiences and new kinds of people and creatures to deal with. In addition, Samuel Clemens is the kind of character that appeals to me. He’s a little bit larger than life and very opinionated, which I find great fun playing."

On the TNG set, captivated by the actor’s performance, both Landau and an undisclosed producer suggested Hardin do a Twain stage show. Initially hesitant, Hardin grew to like the idea and prepared a theatrical piece. Landau volunteered to direct it. Trek makeup wizard Michael Westmore (who designed Twain’s old-age makeup for the episodes) and hair designer Joey Zapata (Twain’s wig) also conspired to add their talents to the project. That’s how Hardin’s show (seen in Virginia, California, elsewhere and at selected SF cons) began.

Like the dual(ing) Throats, Twain himself was a bit of a conundrum, a man with two identities. History lesson! Born in 1835, a mere two weeks after Halley’s Comet once-every-75-years swing by Planet Earth, Clemens went through several professions (including newspaper journalist), eventually adopting the nom de plume Mark Twain for his many articles, short stories, novels and lectures. Following Charles Dickens’ death in 1870, Twain reigned as the most famous author on Earth until his own passing in 1910 just one day after Halley’s Comet returned (a demise he had sardonically predicted). A science-fictional coincidence or something more?

Most of us have sampled Twain’s work in high school or college, perhaps even his two books which deal with twin lookalikes (The Prince and the Pauper, Pudd’nhead Wilson) or the dark fantasy The Mysterious Stranger. And here’s where I feel compelled to confess: I was (also) an English Major. Yes, I was a double major at Bethany College (Communications, English), incarnating a similar duality (the Woodward & Bernstein tradition, the Twain strain). I am driven to both unearth secrets and explicate poems.

Twain (who, by the way, believed in the paranormal) is really the great American writer everyone can enjoy. Of our classical giants, I love Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, William Faulkner, John Steinbeck and (curiously) Sinclair Lewis, and I like most everyone else. Except...well, I detest James Fenimore Cooper (subject of Twain’s supremely snarky essay "The Literary Offenses of Fenimore Cooper"), despise F. Scott Fitzgerald and loathe whale-happy Herman Melville—for these latter two "felonies," I could get the electric chair in any English Department in the country. (Don’t remember Melville? Uncredited, he wrote additional dialogue for The Wrath of Khan. That’s an English Major/Trek Fan joke, son.) But Twain? He’s dark and bitter, sweet and funny.

Have Holbrook and Hardin ever met? They do both appear in The Firm (which Carter says inspired Hardin’s X-Files casting). I’ve never seen the movie; I choose not to know. But again, a double-take. Oddly, I’ve actually encountered both actors separately and twice each. I kid you not.

In August 1981, I visited the set of Creepshow (along with my college pal John Sayers) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and watched George Romero direct Holbrook, Fritz Weaver and Adrienne Barbeau in "The Crate" segment of Stephen King’s original screenplay. I interviewed all except Holbrook (busy working, though we met). Strangely, he had been a college friend of my Creative Writing professor David Judy (director of plays and musicals at Bethany, some of which had starred Sayers). Three months later, I caught up with Holbrook in Chocolatetown, U.S.A. (a.k.a. Hershey, Pennsylvania) where he was about to again do Mark Twain Tonight! After a Hershey Theatre press conference, he gave me a few quotes for my Creepshow set piece.

As for Hardin, he was part of the weirdest "convention" I’ve ever attended. Con promoter Jonathan Harris (another double, not the Lost in Space actor) flew Hardin in from Los Angeles to Pennsylvania (either Wilkes-Barre or its nearby twin Scranton) to appear Sunday at... an automobile dealership. At last, all that car jazz promised earlier.

After driving over from New Jersey on Saturday afternoon, we picked up Hardin at the airport there in (appropriately) Harris’ X-Files-like black SUV with tinted windows. Harris suggested we drive by the dealership to check out the venue. We did and, turning—suddenly damn near got clobbered by another speeding automobile. This was, unbelievably, the fourth or fifth time (but who’s counting?) that I had been passenger in a vehicle with a Trek actor and we had a near-accident experience. I can still imagine the horrifying headline: "Trek Star, Others Killed in Car Crash." I would be the Second Other.

That was, uhmmm, sobering. We pulled up at Hardin’s hotel. He invited us in. We carried the luggage. What a comfortable first floor suite it was—with a balcony fronting a storybook scene: babbling brook amid wooded glade. Inspired by this enchanting view, Hardin related a folksy tale about his neighbor who would sit drinking on a similar back porch and take pot shots at nearby forest fauna. It was an eerie yarn, but do remember Deep Throat’s last words to Mulder (in "The Erlenmeyer Flask"): "Trust no one." English Majors call this foreshadowing. You’ll see later.

There’s a long tradition of car dealerships hosting meet-and-greet celebrities (often famed athletes, TV stars and local news personalities) for autographs, photo ops, free hot dogs and complimentary lemonade. The purpose: To tempt hungry hordes of possible customers onto the premises. This, of course, was the goal here in Pennsylvania, a state which bans car "sales" on Sunday. Legally, buyers can shop around, look but also touch, yet financial details and change of ownership paperwork must be dealt with on another day to honor the letter of the law.

Recall my opening queries: Would you buy a used (or new) car from Deep Throat or Mark Twain? Turns out probably not. Lookie-loos, potential purchasers and genre fans did attend the dealership’s "sci-fi mini-con." But not that many. My presence was completely superfluous. I repeated four, different, rotating 15-minute VHS-and-slide upcoming genre TV/movie trailer shows, whose effectiveness was destroyed by the lack of window curtains in the glass-lined showrooms. We tried Scotch-taping paper and cardboard to the windows but sufficient darkness (or a timely, Connecticut Yankee-ish total eclipse of the Sun) eluded us. Meanwhile, Hardin signed and photo-opped away for hours at a nearby table.

At a conventional SF con in a hotel a year or two later, I met up with Hardin again. I reintroduced myself, but he apparently didn’t recall that auto show. And remember Hardin’s folksy yarn three graphs ago? I even inquired about that oddball neighbor’s latest woodland shooting antics. Hardin didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.

Was he a doppelganger? A mysterious stranger? Some sort of shapeshifter who wore a familiar face but lacked the same memories? Evidently not. I had tried to forget that dreaded dealership debacle myself (with, obviously, little luck). Maybe Hardin had actually succeeded.

These incidents (which I am somewhat certain did occur) reminded me anew of The X-Files. "In many of the episodes," Hardin had reported to Florence in that Starlog interview, "it’s still questionable whether these paranormal things really were paranormal. We don’t know at the end whether the event really did happen or if it was just someone’s imagination, or interpretation, about what happened. That’s a very interesting and powerful way to play it."

But here’s what was most memorable (to me) about that second con: On Saturday night, Jerry Hardin performed his one-man show, live on stage, in Westmore makeup, Zapata wig and white suit, as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, a.k.a. Mark Twain. And he was remarkable.

___________

David McDonnell, "the maitre’d of the science fiction universe," has dished up coverage of pop culture for more than three decades. Beginning his professional career in 1975 with the weekly "Media Report" news column in The Comic Buyers’ Guide, he joined Jim Steranko’s Mediascene Prevue in 1980. After 31 months as Starlog’s Managing Editor (beginning in October 1982), he became that pioneering SF magazine’s longtime Editor (1985-2009). He also served as Editor of its sister publications Comics Scene, Fangoria and Fantasy Worlds. At the same time, he edited numerous licensed movie one-shots (Star Trek and James Bond films, Aliens, Willow, etc.) and three ongoing official magazine series devoted to Trek TV sagas (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager). He apparently still holds this galaxy’s record for editing more magazine pieces about Star Trek in total than any other individual, human or alien.

Copyright 2014 David McDonnell

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