Philip Baker Hall, actor who made his mark in Paul Thomas Anderson films including Boogie Nights and Magnolia – obituary
Philip Baker Hall, who died at the age of 90, could claim to be the supporting actor for the supporting actor. With his dog-like features and raspy voice, he was never a conventional star, and he was late to the screen, making his debut at 39 after years of working on stage. However, over the 185 credits, he has become a talisman for the great American directors, his presence in the casting reassuring moviegoers and critics alike.
He enjoyed few lead roles, but his breakthrough was a doozy: Richard Nixon in Secret Honor (1984), Robert AltmanAdaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M Stone’s one man show. A daring historical speculation, shot in a week with students from the University of Michigan (where Altman taught), the film revolved around Hall’s colossal central performance, the definition of a tour de force.
Declaiming and delirious but vaguely sympathetic in repose, Hall’s Nixon ranks among the great screen portraits of compromised political power, suggesting – in the verdict of Time Out – “a sometimes lucid, sometimes whimsical embodiment of mediocrity , irreparably tainted by glory and failure”. The New York Times called Hall’s performance “as stunning as it is risky – for the odds the actor takes and survives.”
As Altman understood, Hall’s gravity could also be extremely amusing. Further evidence presented when he appeared on a 1991 episode of Seinfeld as Lt. Joe Bookman, an unofficial detective tracking down an overdue library book. Part of the episode’s joke is watching the awkward star of the show go up against a skilled actor playing a hard-on who seems unaware he’s been on a sitcom set and doesn’t understand why those damn youngsters are causing him such consternation.
Casting directors were put on alert and Hall’s career was extended after a young production assistant (and Altman enthusiast) named Paul Thomas Anderson approached the actor on the set of a TV movie with a screenplay he had written.
Hall was impressed by the supernatural confidence of his twenties and found the script justified his first impression: “I wondered, ‘Who was the first actor in the 17th century to see a Shakespeare script, and did he know what ‘he was reading ?’ The script first became a short film, Cigarettes & Coffee (1993), then the basis for a feature film, Hard Eight (1996), with Hall again playing the veteran gambler who takes a novice under his wing.
Featuring future stars Samuel L Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Gwyneth Paltrow, Hard Eight was well reviewed but little seen. Yet it cemented a fruitful relationship between Hall and the most gifted American filmmaker of the modern era. Hall would reappear as the money man in Anderson’s porn world opus Boogie Nights (1997) and triumph in Magnolia (1999) as Jimmy Gator, the game show host facing past abuse in a subplot anticipating countless scandals of the 21st century.
Philip Baker Hall was born on September 30, 1931, in Toledo, Ohio, to factory worker William Alexander Hall and Berdene (née McDonald). He studied at the University of Toledo before serving in Germany as a military translator. Upon his return, he taught and skirted the fringes of New York theater, eventually appearing uncredited in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970).
He spent most of the next decade on television, recording episodes of M*A*S*H, The Waltons, Quincy, MD and Cagney & Lacey. After Secret Honor he rose to prominence, appearing as a mafioso in Midnight Run (1988), the IRS chief in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… and as a police commissioner in Ghostbusters II (both 1989). But his ethics were global: that same year, he also directed 13 episodes of the soap opera Falcon Crest.
He worked tirelessly in the 1990s, in television – playing Woody Harrelson’s adversary for public office in a 1993 episode of Cheers – and in film. In 1999 alone, Hall shot Magnolia, Tim Robbins’ Cradle Will Rock, Michael Mann’s The Insider and Antoine Minghellais The Talented Mr. Ripley.
In 2000, Hall and her Magnolia co-star William H Macy brought the New York revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo to the Donmar Warehouse in London. Thereafter, he settled into positions of authority, playing Aristotle Onassis in the TV movie Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (2000), a senator in The West Wing (2004) and director of the CIA in the Oscar-winning film Argo (2012). ).
His 2000s credits include Tim Allen’s remake of The Shaggy Dog (2006), guest starring as Larry David’s Doctor on Curb Your Enthusiasm (2004-2009) and roles in David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and its direct-to-DVD spoiler. The Zodiac (2005). His last credit was on the Netflix mystery thriller Messiah (2020).
Revisiting Seinfeld during a 2012 interview, Hall remained optimistic about its longevity: “After Bookman, no doors were closed to me in the industry. My agent was like, ‘Everyone wants to see you. Everybody wants you on their movie, everybody wants you on their show. […] It was quite amazing. So I don’t ask it. 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?”
Philip Baker Hall is survived by his third wife Holly Wolfle and four daughters, two with her and two with his first wife Mary Ella Holst; his second wife was Dianne Lewis.
Philip Baker Hall, born September 30, 1931, died June 12, 2022