LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Hal Holbrook has made his name playing famous historical figures. He won an Emmy for his portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in a 1974 TV miniseries, accolades as "Deep Throat" in 1976's "All the President's Men," and a Tony as Mark Twain -- a performance he's been giving now for a half-century -- in "Mark Twain Tonight!"
Hal Holbrook, 83, is nominated for his role as Ron Franz in "Into the Wild."
But playing Ron Franz, the thoughtful, down-to-earth 81-year-old who bonds with a youthful adventurer in "Into the Wild," was an opportunity he dared not miss, he says in a phone interview.
"This was an opportunity, and a rare one for me, to just play myself, to not do Abraham Lincoln or another character," Holbrook says in his familiar rich baritone. "I didn't want to research anything. I had a very personal reaction to the role."
Holbrook's gut feeling has led to some of the best reviews of his career and a first for the actor: a nomination for an Academy Award. At 83 -- his birthday was last Sunday -- he's the oldest man ever to be nominated for best supporting actor.
The Oscars are scheduled for Sunday night. "Into the Wild" is due out on video March 4.
Holbrook says he's familiar with the kind of adventurousness exhibited by Christopher McCandless, played by Emile Hirsch in Sean Penn's film.
Holbrook has gone into the wilderness himself. He's also sailed the open sea in a small boat, accompanied by little more than a sextant and a map. "No electronics," he says.
He's even traveled in McCandless' tracks, taking a trip to Alaska the year after the self-named "Alexander Supertramp" died.
"They were still talking about him, whether he was crazy," Holbrook recalls.
Holbrook, who'd also read Jon Krakauer's book about McCandless' journey, says he was sent the script "out of the blue" and told that Penn wanted to meet with him the next day. The director, upon discussing the part with him, offered Holbrook the role.
Holbrook has nothing but praise for Penn's work on the film.
"To work with Sean Penn might be the best experience I've ever had with a director," he says. "He's so trusting. There was none of this 'Let's discuss the back story' -- he trusts you. He'll take whatever you give him, and begins to open up your sense of freedom. He gives you space to explore whatever the scenes bring out of you. Sean was wonderful."
Holbrook also has high praise for Hirsch, who lost 40 pounds for the role. "[His performance] was a brilliant piece of work. ... An actor takes his performance from other actors, and in this case it was easy," he says, adding that "I'm astounded he wasn't nominated -- he deserved it more than anybody." Read Hirsch's view of "Into the Wild."
But Holbrook also paid tribute to a person seldom considered by the audience: the film editor, in this case Jay Cassidy. By changing the sequence of two scenes, Cassidy gave the film an added power -- which made all the difference to how his performance was perceived, Holbrook says.
"I have never been more aware of an editor's genius as I have in this particular film," he says. Referring to the film's back-and-forth chronology, which he calls "a very daring piece of work," he marvels at how Cassidy and Penn fit the pieces together. "It's quite an achievement," Holbrook says. "The effect it can have on a performance is profound." Cassidy's work earned "Into the Wild" its only other Oscar nomination.
Holbrook has had a busy couple months, with his performance nominated for critics' awards as well as a Screen Actors Guild Award.
The activity has taken the steadily working actor away from a personal project: his memoirs. "Trying to fit all these things in -- it ain't easy," he chuckles. "I had to stop [writing] for the last month or so."
He doesn't give himself much of a possibility to win: Slim and none are my chances," he says. Still, he treasures the experience.
The Oscar nomination "is like a miracle," he says. "After 65 years or so [of acting], to be nominated for an Academy Award is a great gift." E-mail to a friend