At the time, the identity of Deep Throat was one of Washington’s best-kept secrets — it wouldn’t be for another 30 years or so that Mark Felt would come forward and reveal himself as the Washington Post‘s Watergate source.
In a 2015 interview with PopPolitics on SiriusXM, Holbrook said that the anonymity of Deep Throat at first made him think that there wasn’t too much to the role, and he turned it down.
Robert Redford, who had acquired the rights to the book by Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, then came to Holbrook’s house to try to convince him otherwise.
Holbrook recalled, “I said, ‘Bob, there’s nothing here. It’s in the dark. There’s hardly anything to the role. … Nobody will see me.'”
Redford, Holbrook said, then told him, “I promise you something: People will remember this role more than any other in the film.”
“I said, ‘Ah, come on.’ He said, ‘I promise you, Hal, they will.'”
He convinced Holbrook to do it. “Bob Redford was right.”
Holbrook said that he didn’t suspect Felt and in many ways had to create the character from what he thought were Deep Throat’s motivations.
“My image for Deep Throat was entirely different. We did not know,” he said. “As far as I knew, nobody knew. They say they didn’t know. The producer, Redford, everybody. They didn’t know who it was, so I accepted that. So I had to make up my own idea.”
The actor said that he approached the role as a man who is a servant of the president yet makes a fateful decision. In conversations with people in Washington, Holbrook said knew that one of the rules of D.C. was that “you do not betray a president.”
“What this man was faced was a terrible decision between betraying his president or betraying his country with what he knew, and he was doing it in a dirty garage,” he said. “We shot it in the lowest level of the Century City garage, which was being built.”
Holbrook’s Deep Throat appears as a shadowy figure who instructs Woodward to “follow the money,” a phrase apparently invented by screenwriter William Goldman.
He said that he viewed Deep Throat as a “statesman” kind of person who served not just one president but several commanders in chief of different parties. “And he was well dressed in cufflinks, and he was having to do something in a garage that was beneath him. It was revolting. But he was doing it because he was convinced he had to for the country.”
As it turned out, Felt was a career law enforcement officer for the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover and served multiple administrations, eventually rising to the position of associate director.
Holbrook was not nominated for an Oscar for the role, but he did earn a nom for Into the Wild in 2008.
All the President’s Men came at a moment in the 1970s when Holbrook was also breaking through with leading roles. They included the groundbreaking TV movie That Certain Summer, in which he played a father in a gay relationship grappling with coming out to his son, and The Bold Ones: The Senator, in a character modeled after Robert F. Kennedy. He also portrayed Abraham Lincoln in the 1976 TV miniseries, Sandburg’s Lincoln.
Listen below at the 25:15 mark.