NEW YORK — Philip Baker Hall, the prolific film and stage actor who starred in early Paul Thomas Anderson films and who memorably tracked down a long-awaited library book in Seinfeld, is dead. He was 90 years old.
Holly Wolfle Hall, the actor’s wife of nearly 40 years, said Monday that Hall died Sunday surrounded by loved ones in Glendale, Calif. She said Hall was fine until a few weeks earlier and spent his last days in a warm spirit, reflecting on his life.
“His voice at the end was still going strong,” Wolfle Hall said. Her husband, she added, never stopped acting.
In a career spanning half a century, Hall was an ubiquitous puppy face whose gloomy, weary appearance could envelope a soaring intensity and humble sensibility. His range was wide, but Hall, who had a natural gravity, often played men in suits, trench coats and lab coats.
“Highly stressed men, older men, who are at the limit of their tolerance for suffering, stress and pain,” Hall said. The Washington Post in 2017. “I had an affinity for playing those roles.”
Born in Toledo, Ohio, Hall initially devoted himself more to theater in Los Angeles, after moving in 1975, than to television and film. While filming small roles in Hollywood (an episode of Good time was one of his first gigs), Hall worked with the LA Actor Theater. There he played Richard Nixon in the one-act play secret honora role he reprized in Robert Altman’s 1984 film adaptation. Critic Pauline Kael wrote that Hall “relies on his lack of star presence and an actor’s fears of his own mediocrity in a way that seems to parallel Nixon’s sentiments”.
Hall often worked with Paul Thomas Anderson
Hall has made an impression in the tiniest of roles in other movies, like the 1988 one midnight race. But outside of acting, Hall mostly did guest roles on television. That changed when he was filming a PBS program in 1992. Hall then met a production assistant in his early twenties named Paul Thomas Anderson. The two hung out, smoked cigarettes and drank coffee between scenes. Anderson, believing Hall hadn’t gotten his due in the film, asked him to watch a script he had written for a 20-minute short titled Cigarettes and coffee.
“I’m reading this script, and I really had a hard time believing this kid wrote this script,” Hall told the AV Club in 2012. “I mean, it was so brilliant, resonating with undertones all over , like a playwright. Admittedly, as a film, I had never really seen anything like it. It was amazing.
After the $20,000 short premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Anderson extended it to his feature debut, 1997 hard eight, which catapulted Hall’s career. In it, Hall played a wise and courteous traveling gambler named Sydney who educates a young drifter (John C. Reilly) on the contraption. In one indelible scene from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s premiere with Anderson, a star player berates Hall as a “veteran.”
Anderson would cast Hall again as adult film mogul Floyd Gondolli who warns porn producer Burt Reynolds about the future of the industry in boogie nights. At Anderson’s MagnoliaHall played Jimmy Gator, the host of a children’s game show.
“I have a particular fascination with character actors, with a desire to make them lead actors,” Anderson told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “I see Philip Baker Hall, he’s just…an actor I love. There’s no one else with a face like that, or a voice like that.”
To many, Hall was instantly recognizable for one of the funniest guest appearances on Seinfeld. In the 22nd episode of the sitcom in 1991, Hall played Lt. Joe Bookman, the library investigator who comes after Seinfeld for a years-overdue copy of Tropic of Cancer. Hall played it like a tough noir sleuth, telling Seinfeld, “Well, I’ve got a flash for you, Joy-boy: the party’s over.”
Hall was brought back for the Seinfeld final and by Larry David on Calm your enthusiasm. David once said that no other actor ever made him laugh more than Hall.
Among Hall’s many other credits was Michael Mann The insideras 60 minutes producer Don Hewitt and Lars von Trier Dogville. Hall appeared in say anything, The Truman Show, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Zodiac, Argo and Peak hour. Hall played neighbor Walt Kleezak on modern family. His last performance was in the 2020 series Messiah.
Hall, who was married to Dianne Lewis for three years in the early 1970s, is survived by his wife, four daughters, four grandchildren and brother.
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