NEW YORK (AP) — Philip Baker Hall, the prolific film and theater actor who starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s early films and memorably hunted for a highly anticipated library book in Seinfeld, has died. He was 90.
Holly Wolfle Hall, the actor’s nearly 40-year-old wife, said Monday that Hall died on Sunday, surrounded by loved ones in Glendale, California. She said that until a few weeks earlier, Hall was healthy and spent his last days in a warm spirit, reflecting on his life.
“His voice at the end was still just as powerful,” said Wolfle Hall. Her husband, she added, has never stopped acting.
In a career spanning half a century, Hall was an ubiquitous hangdog face whose sad, tired appearance could disguise a blossoming intensity and modest sensibility. His range was wide, but Hall, who had a natural gravitas, often played men in suits, trench coats and lab coats.
“Men who are very stressed, older men, who are at the limit of their tolerance for suffering, stress and pain,” Hall told 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 TV and movies. While shooting supporting roles in Hollywood (an episode of “Good Times” was one of his first appearances), Hall worked with the LA Actor Theater. There he played Richard Nixon in the one-act play “Secret Honor,” a role he played in Robert Altman’s 1984 film adaptation. Critic Pauline Kael wrote that Hall “draws on his lack of a star presence and an actor’s fear of his own mediocrity.” in a way that seems to parallel Nixon’s feelings.”
Hall impressed in minor roles in other films, such as 1988’s “Midnight Run.” But outside of the theater, Hall mostly guest-starred on television. That changed when he was shooting a PBS show in 1992. Then Hall met a production assistant in his early twenties, Paul Thomas Anderson. The two would hang out, smoke cigarettes and drink coffee between scenes. Anderson, believing that Hall did not get what he deserved in the film, asked him to watch a script he had written for a 20-minute short film titled “Cigarettes and Coffee”.
“I’m reading this script and I really struggled to believe that kid wrote this script,” Hall told the AV Club in 2012. “I mean, it was just so brilliant, it resonated with nuance everywhere, like a playwright. Sure, as a movie I’d never seen anything like it. It was staggering.”
After the $20,000 short film made it to the Sundance Film Festival, Anderson expanded it into his feature film debut, 1997’s “Hard Eight,” which catapulted Hall’s career. In it, Hall played a wise and courteous itinerant gambler named Sydney, who teaches a young drifter (John C. Reilly) on the craft. In an indelible scene, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s first with Anderson, a hot-shot gambler chides Hall as “old-timer”.
Anderson would re-cast Hall as Floyd Gondolli, adult movie theater mogul, who warns the porn producer Burt Reynolds about the industry’s future in Boogie Nights. In Anderson’s “Magnolia,” Hall played Jimmy Gator, the host of a children’s game show.
“I have a particular fascination with character actors because I want to turn them into protagonists,” Anderson told The Los Angeles Times in 1998.† “I see Philip Baker Hall, he’s just… . † an actor I love. There is no one else with a face like that or a voice like that.”
To many, Hall was instantly recognizable for one of the most powerful funny guest appearances on “Seinfeld.” In the sitcom’s 22nd episode in 1991, Hall played Lt. Joe Bookman, the librarian who comes after Seinfeld for an overdue copy of “Tropic of Cancer.” Hall played him as a hard-boiled noir detective, telling Seinfeld, “Well, I’ve got a flash for you, Joy-boy: The party’s over.”
Hall was brought back for the finale of “Seinfeld” and by Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. David once said that no other actor ever made him laugh more than Hall.
Among Hall’s many other credits were Michael Mann’s “The Insider,” as “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt, and Lars von Trier’s “Dogville.” Hall appeared in “Say Anything”, “The Truman Show”, “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, “Zodiac”, “Argo” and “Rush Hour”. Hall played neighbor Walt Kleezak on “Modern Family.” His last appearance was in the 2020 series ‘Messiah’.
Hall, who was married to Dianne Lewis for three years in the early 1970s, leaves behind his wife, four daughters, four grandchildren and his brother.