Philip Baker Hall, Beloved Character Actor, Dies at 90
You may not know his name, but you definitely know his face and his work.
Philip Baker Hall was a prolific actor in the twin worlds of film and television for decades. Amongst his many credits, he made numerous appearances in Paul Thomas Anderson movies and had one of the all-time great guest appearances on Seinfeld. Sadly, Hall died on Sunday. He was 90 years old.
According to his daughter (via the New York Times) the cause of death was complications of emphysema.
Hall appeared in more than 80 movies and 200 television shows through the years, but he didn’t make his first film until he was almost 40. Born in Ohio in 1931, he served in the Army as a translator and dreamed of becoming an actor. Initially, though, he pursued a career in teaching. Eventually, he switched back to his first love.
In his early years, he mostly worked on the stage. One of his best-known theatrical roles also became one of his signature performances onscreen: Secret Honor, a one-man show and later film directed by Robert Altman about the final night in the life of disgraced former President Richard Nixon. Hall’s performance as the manic, delusional Nixon is sensational.
By the late 1970s, Hall was a fixture on television, working on series ranging from M*A*S*H, to Quincy, to T.J. Hooker to Family Ties. His most famous TV appearance is probably his guest spot on Seinfeld where he played the appropriately named Bookman, a library cop on the trail of a missing book that Jerry swears he returned years earlier. In an incredible scene, Hall delivers a rapid-fire monologue about why he’s so passionate about missing library books.
Following Secret Honor, Hall also began working regularly in movies, often in supporting roles that cast him as the rumpled yet ruthless cop or crook. In his later years, he became a fixture in the repertory company of director Paul Thomas Anderson. Hall starred in the lead role in Anderson’s first feature, a sad character study called Hard Eight, where he played an old professional gambler named Sydney who takes a young drifter (played by John C. Reilly) under his wing.
In the ’90s and ’2000s, Hall appeared in films like The Talented Mr. Ripley, Magnolia, Dogville, Bruce Almighty, and Zodiac, and shows like The West Wing, Everwood, Monk, Big Love, and Curb Your Enthusiasm. He worked steadily right up until his final few years.
Hall is survived by his wife four daughters, four grandchildren, and an extensive and impressive body of work. If you’ve never seen Secret Honor or Hard Eight, go watch them and see a master of his craft.