THREE OAKS — Taking the stage as Mark Twain, actor Richard Henzel doesn’t set out to make audiences feel like they’re meeting the legendary writer of “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn.”
Rather, he wants to make them feel as if Twain is meeting them.
“I’ve tried to recreate an experience of Mark Twain meeting you,” he said, “not just you seeing Mark Twain. I think when people experience famous people or beloved characters, it’s more important for them to be known (by the character) than to know (the character).”
That’s the experience Henzel plans to bring when he performs his one-man show, “Mark Twain in Person” at The Acorn Theater.
He has been performing the show for more than 50 years. The audience will get to question the famed personality about his life and works, and learn a little about the times and experiences of Twain.
“I want people to feel like he sees them,” Henzel said.
The Second City improv veteran said one way he accomplishes this is by having conversations with the audience. He has more than 61/2 hours of material, and years worth of research into the character, including regular interactions with Twain biographer Carolyn Thomas Harnsberger and attendance at conventions for Samuel Clemons (Twain’s real name), so he’s prepared for almost anything.
He said it works best when he starts a dialogue with someone in the front row, and he or she becomes so involved they forget about the other people in the audience.
It also works well when unexpected situations arise.
“Once, I had a conversation with a little wiener dog in a theater called the (Red) Barn in Saugatuck,” he said. “And that’s a good place to have a conversation. The dog wandered in there and walked up to me and I said, ‘Do you got a ticket?’ and he shrugged and left, and I said, ‘No one gets in without a ticket.’”
Henzel started performing his routine in college in 1968. He said he was inspired when he heard the audio of Hal Holbrook’s performance as Mark Twain during a TV broadcast in 1967.
Henzel later performed parts of Holbrook’s show during his high school drama class, and his teacher encouraged him to further develop the performance. The following summer, Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, hired him to perform 40 short shows a week as Mark Twain, paying him $55 a week plus room and board.
When college students started organizing street protests against Vietnam, Henzel initially joined them, even when his groups became outnumbered by counter protesters. But Henzel later found he could share his ideas best performing as Mark Twain in dormitories, universities and churches.
“There, I could preach about race and war and injustice with my hair sprayed white and not be arrested or beaten up,” he said, often drawing material from such sources as Twain’s fictionalized Civil War memoir, “The Private History of a Campaign That Failed.”
Although he no longer brings politics into his shows, he said he still likes to share stories about Twain.
“In the last few years, I decided I would be serving mankind better by making them forget about the news right now and just have a good time,” he said. “I’m not as bitter or angry.”
Some of Henzel’s credits include Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1990s TV series “The Untouchables,” a SWAT officer in “The Blues Brothers,” and the voice of the clock radio in “Groundhog Day.”
The show is being brought to the area by Harbor Country Opera and Robert Swan of Rolling Prairie, Ind.