R.I.P. Philip Baker Hall, prolific character actor

Philip Baker Hall

Philip Baker Hall
Photo: Toby Canham (Getty Images)

Legendary character actor Philip Baker Hall, known for his regular appearances in the early work of director Paul Thomas Anderson and as the dogged library cop Lt. Joe Bookman on Seinfeld, has died. Hall’s wife, Holly Wolfle, confirmed the actor’s death early Monday, saying that he died on Sunday night surrounded by loved ones at his home in Glendale, California. He was 90.

Hall’s neighbor, Los Angeles Times reporter Sam Farmer, reported the death on Twitter. Farmer wrote, “My neighbor, friend, and one of the wisest, most talented and kindest people I’ve ever met, Philip Baker Hall, died peacefully last night. He was surrounded by loved ones. The world has an empty space in it.”

Born in Toledo, Ohio, on September 10, 1931, during the early years of the depression, Hall grew up “in the slums of the north end of Toledo.” The son of a factory worker with a fifth-grade education, Hall developed a love for acting at the University of Toledo before serving as an Army translator in Germany and later working as a teacher.

Hall’s first screen credit came in 1970, though the actor wasn’t so desirable to Hollywood agents. When he first arrived in Los Angeles, an agent told him, “I already have too many middle-aged actors. They’re all starving.” Thankfully, Hall stuck it out, landing roles on hit TV shows like M*A*S*H*, Good Times, and The Waltons. He’d also appear on stage in more than 100 roles—always off-Broadway. It was the Great White Way’s loss. Hall’s co-star William H. Macy said that “Philip owned the stage” when the two starred in a revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo.

The 80s would see a turn in Hall’s career, with him landing parts in hit comedies like Say Anything and Midnight Run. He’d also portray President Richard Nixon in director Robert Altman’s Secret Honor, a particularly tricky role considering Hall is the only actor in the film.

But it was Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld that gave Hall his big break. As infamous New York Public Library detective Lt. Bookman in a classic 1991 episode of Seinfeld, Hall schools the comedian on proper hosting etiquette, like keeping instant coffee in the cupboard (“You buy a jar of Folger’s crystals, you put it in the cupboard, you forget about it”), and U.S. history (“Hippies burning library cards; Abbie Hoffman telling everybody to steal books”).

Hall’s 1991 appearance is a sterling example of the comedic world Seinfeld and David created as inhabited by an actor so committed to the role that he creates an unflappable logic for something completely ludicrous. Of course, the library has detectives. How else would they hunt down stolen books? Bookman became one of the first canonized Seinfeld side characters, proven by his appearance in the show’s final episode, testifying against the main cast. He set the standard for future guest stars.

“Philip has made me laugh harder than any actor I’ve worked with,” David said.

Two years later, Hall’s career would take another fortuitous turn. Appearing in a short film by aspiring filmmaker named Paul Thomas Anderson, Hall played the character Sydney in Anderson’s 1993 project Cigarettes & Coffee. Anderson loved Hall in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor and met the actor on the set of a PBS movie. “He seemed about sixteen,” Hall told Esquire. Still, the young director and the seasoned performer struck up a friendship.

Coffee & Cigarettes would be the basis for Anderson’s first feature film, Sydney, later re-titled Hard Eight. While a trying experience for the director, who would essentially abandon the project after heavy edits from the studio, Hard Eight cemented a partnership between Anderson and Hall. Anderson would write Hall into the director’s breakout features Boogie Nights and Magnolia.

Roles in Anderson’s films turned Hall into a classic “that guy” celebrity, a distinguished character actor that audiences know, trust, and enjoy, but not one they can necessarily name. However, that reputation didn’t slow Hall’s career. Instead, it opened him up to roles on film and TV, appearing on Modern Family, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and BoJack Horseman, and in movies like Bruce Almighty, Rush Hour, The Insider, and Zodiac.

Hall’s stern voice and weathered appearance made him a welcome presence throughout his career as he imbued even the most ridiculous situation with a world-weary sincerity. On the topic of the “ostensibly humorless figures” that make up Hall’s resume, the actor told the A.V. Club:

I’ve done so many comic roles, too, over the years that I’ve balanced it out. So it’s okay. Also, those guys are often pretty interesting to play, because they often have their own odd little sides to them that can be explored and that are fun to work with. So, yeah, I’m cool with whatever comes my way. I’m just happy to still be working and to have been able to do it this long. It’s a privilege.

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