Philip Baker Hall, master of gruff and gruff character roles, dies at 90

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Philip Baker Hall, a jowly actor whose air of sadness and sullen impatience elevated even the briefest of appearances into masterful portrayals of gravity and silliness, best captured in an unforgettable role on “Seinfeld” as that hardcore library cop, died June 12 at his home in Glendale, Calif. He was 90 years old.

His daughter Anna Ruth Hall said the cause was complications from emphysema. In some of his later screen work he used a portable oxygen tank.

With his raspy delivery, graying hair and grim face, Mr. Hall excelled as government and military officials with pressing agendas as well as Hollywood and corporate executives with ulterior motives. He played enough judges to form a bar, but the hint of menace in his voice also made him effective as old-school hoodlums and others on the fringes of society.

When choosing roles, he once told the AV Club, he was drawn to “really off-center parts that are so ridiculous you almost can’t believe it. It’s always fun to take those kind of roles and play them with as much passion as possible. »

One of his most indelible characters was the aptly named library investigations officer, Lt. Bookman, on the sitcom “Seinfeld.”

Larry David, who created the show with comedian Jerry Seinfeld, once told the Washington Post that Mr Hall never performed his scenes for laughs, which only intensified the crazy absurdity of the punchlines. such as “I’ve got a flash for you, joy boy!”

David recalled that Mr Hall was so effective playing the “Dragnet”-inspired library cop, a stacks detective Joe Friday, that “Jerry struggled to cross the stage”.

Philip Baker Hall could probably be one of your favorite actors

Although his television and film appearances were often too fleeting to warrant mention in reviews, Mr. Hall became one of the most trusted and beloved character actors of his day. Film scholar David Thomson described it as having a “wonderfully sour presence”. Thomson added: “He looks like a guy on the subway, at the end of the restaurant counter, a face that knows his place is in the crowd and several rows back.” Yet that veneer of anonymity propelled one of the busiest late-blooming careers in show business.

Mr Hall, from a blue-collar family in Ohio, didn’t start acting professionally until he was 30, but made up for lost time with hundreds of roles, works by Shakespeare to those of Arthur Miller and Philip Barry, with regional successes. theaters across the country.

He rose to prominence in 1983 as the star of the off-Broadway drama “Secret Honor,” a one-man show centered on the brooding post-presidential life of Richard M. Nixon. It was mostly a Faustian story with a political twist, Mr Hall told the Boston Globe, ‘really about anyone going through a crisis, anyone whose ambitions were high and who had to compromise to achieve those ambitions “.

Mr. Hall did not copy Nixon’s voice or mannerisms, but by all accounts he succeeded in portraying a wounded soul. New York Times cultural critic Mel Gussow wrote that Mr Hall “seems to capture the full measure of the man – his nervousness, his suspicion, his resentment and his subconscious humor – as he heads into the failure”.

Robert Altman directed a film version of the play in 1984, and film critic Roger Ebert praised Mr. Hall for giving “one of the greatest performances in American cinema”. But that failed commercially, relegating Mr. Hall to another decade of minor roles on both sides of the law, including a mob boss fixer in ‘Midnight Run’ (1988) and an IRS agent in ‘Say Anything’. ” (1989).

In the early 1990s, he was working on a television production when Paul Thomas Anderson, then a gofer on the set, offered Mr Hall the lead role of a player in a short film he was preparing. The project, “Cigarettes & Coffee” (1993), featuring a series of interconnected stories set in a restaurant, became a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and launched Anderson’s feature film career.

For years, Mr. Hall remained a member of Anderson’s unofficial acting stock company, and the writer-director gave him some of his most memorable dramatic opportunities: a rare starring role as a mystery player professional with a guilty past and a deep sense of honor. in “Hard Eight” (1996), a business-minded theater mogul who predicts the future of videotape in the pornographic film industry in “Boogie Nights” (1997), and a quiz show host who makes facing his mortality in “Magnolia” (1999).

Mr. Hall’s trio of leading roles for Anderson, as well as his appearance on “Seinfeld,” were his manna. He started appearing in so many movies and TV shows in any given year, with a dozen credits in 1998 alone, that he sometimes forgot in interviews which characters he was playing and how projects were called.

He was the harassed police captain in “Rush Hour” (1998) and its action-comedy sequels and embattled “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt in the tobacco whistleblower drama “The Insider” (1999). He was equally at home in Lars von Trier’s scathing minimalist avant-garde drama “Dogville” (2003) as he was in his prolific supporting roles in major studio releases of the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, including “The Rock”, “Air Force One”, “The Contender”, “The Truman Show”, “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, “The Sum of All Fears”, and “Argo”.

A testament to his ubiquity, Mr. Hall appeared as a handwriting expert in director David Fincher’s acclaimed ‘Zodiac’ (2007) and as the chief of the police department in the more low-key film ‘The Zodiac’ (2005 ), both on the hunt for a San Francisco serial killer.

Philip Baker Hall was born in Toledo on September 10, 1931. His father, a factory worker, struggled to find work during the Great Depression, and the family ended up in what Mr Hall later called “the slums of the north”. from the city.

At a young age, Mr Hall developed an interest in entertainment and began performing magic shows at lodge meetings and banquets, aided by a resonant baritone which came into full pitch at the age of 12. year.

He was active in his high school drama club and majored in speech and theater at the University of Toledo, where he worked as a gravedigger to pay for his studies. After graduating in 1953 and completing his military service, he supported himself and a growing family as a high school teacher in Ohio before growing tired of “hypocrisy and bureaucracy. of university life.

He uprooted his wife and children to New York and was soon exposed to the vagaries of professional show business. He toured South America with a cultural exchange program sponsored by the Kennedy administration, performing small pieces opposite Helen Hayes. He also made a stint in Boston with an offshoot of improv group Second City, amid a busy schedule of touring productions and off-Broadway work.

His marriages to Maryella Holst and Dianne Lewis ended in divorce. In 1987, he married Holly Wolfle. In addition to his wife, survivors include two daughters from his first marriage, Trisha Infante and Darcy Hall, two daughters from his third marriage, Anna Ruth Hall and Adella Violet Hall, a brother and four grandchildren.

Mr. Hall periodically returned to the stage, most notably in a 2000 London, off-Broadway revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” opposite William Macy. But he mostly stayed close to Hollywood, staying in seemingly constant demand for guest appearances on shows like “3rd Rock From the Sun,” “Boston Legal,” “Modern Family,” “The Loop,” “Messiah.” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm”, reuniting in the latter with Larry David as the grumpy doctor.

From Mr Hall’s account, he was puzzled to find that his years of compelling dramatic stage work as Prospero or Willy Loman had been almost entirely eclipsed by a few minutes as a flint library detective. .

“Before Bookman, my agent was like, ‘Well, they really liked your job, they really like you, but they don’t think you’re cut out for this,'” he told the AV Club. “After Bookman, no doors were closed to me in the industry. My agent was like, ‘Everybody wants to see you. Everybody wants you on their movie, everybody wants you on their show.

“It was kind of unbelievable,” he added. “I’m not letting go. It’s just that when people say, “I loved you as Bookman,” I can’t help but think, “But what about the other 280 roles I’ve played? I’m not saying it, though. Because with Bookman, I kind of hit the jackpot.

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