Philip Baker Hall obituary
The sprawling ensemble dramas directed by Paul Thomas Anderson in the late 1990s were notable for the roles they offered veteran actors – most prominently Burt Reynolds in Boogie Nights (1997) and Jason Robards in Magnolia (1999). Philip Baker Hall, who has died aged 90, brought his characteristic blend of gravitas, daftness and darkness to both of those films playing, respectively, Floyd Gondolli, who predicts the pornography industry’s shift from celluloid to video, and Jimmy Gator, an avuncular yet haunted gameshow host.
Hall’s film career received a much-needed boost when Anderson cast him in a rare leading role in Hard Eight (1996) as Sydney, a hardened gambler navigating his luckless protege (Philip Seymour Hoffman) around craps tables and one-armed bandits. With his pale eyes, grey hair and cool demeanour, Hall matched the film’s wintry Reno location. Gwyneth Paltrow’s character, Clementine, calls him Captain because “you seem like the captain of a ship”.
Usually suited, often uniformed, the deep-voiced Hall typically played police captains, politicians and judges. He was around 40 when he made his film debut as a priest in Cowards (1970) and he looked wise and tired ever after, the bags under his eyes gradually claiming more space on his face.
The eldest of three sons of Berdene (nee McDonald) and William Hall, Philip, who retained his middle name, Baker, as an actor, was born in Toledo, Ohio. He grew up in poverty after his father’s tyre-vulcanising business was hit by the depression. The family relied on relatives and welfare for years until Hall’s father found a job at a car factory.
Philip worked there for a period but always had a passion for acting; when he was young, he staged a magic show and an Al Jolson routine locally. After attending Toledo University and doing a stint in the army in Germany, he wrangled high-school students as a teacher, but not for long. (“You have to be a policeman,” he said of the teaching profession. “I didn’t want to be a cop.”)
Relocating to New York, he trod the boards for years after a shaky start. “I was completely naive,” he recalled. “I wasn’t from Carnegie or University of Texas or from Yale or some of these schools that have big theatre departments and therefore a lot of power in New York.” After appearing in countless plays – including Martin Duberman’s In White America and Steve Tesich’s Gorky – he moved to California in the mid-70s, but again found himself a fish out of water. When he met agents, they “would study the résumé, and they would agree that it was a real résumé … But movies are a different world … until I had film, I was kind of a non-person in Los Angeles.”
His break came when Robert Altman saw his performance as Richard Nixon in Secret Honor at the Los Angeles theatre in 1983. Altman retained Hall in the main (and only) role in his film version, which announced itself as a “fictional meditation concerning the character of and events in the history of Richard M Nixon … in an attempt to understand”.
Hall delivered perhaps cinema’s most beguiling presidential portrait. At a desk flanked by CCTV screens, with a pistol, tape recorder and whisky before him, he is reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp. Bumbling, muttering, shifting from personal to political matters, he puffs up his chest one minute and deflates the next.
It was a one-man tour-de-force, but Secret Honor earned Hall little more than TV stints – on the short-lived prison drama Mariah, as well as Miami Vice, Family Ties and Falcon Crest – and bits in movies. On stage, in contrast, he performed in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons and The Crucible. Winning a small role in the sitcom Seinfeld in 1991, Hall seized his opportunity and gave a knockout performance as Mr Bookman, the library cop who confronts Jerry about an overdue book. The part was blessed with quotable dialogue, delivered in a rapid-fire manner (“I’ll be all over you like a pitbull on a poodle”) and remained the role that got Hall recognised on the street.
He subsequently found himself in the unlikely position of being “discovered” by Anderson, who was working as a volunteer on a TV drama in which Hall was appearing. Anderson, then in his early 20s, had admired Hall for years and asked him to appear in his short Cigarettes & Coffee (1993). This led to Hard Eight, which the pair developed at a directors’ lab run by the Sundance Institute. Next, Anderson gave Hall his single most memorable line of dialogue, as Gondolli in Boogie Nights: “I like simple pleasures, like butter in my ass and lollipops in my mouth.”
Hall, in his mid-60s, was busier than ever. There were blockbusters (Air Force One, Rush Hour); a distinguished turn as the journalist Don Hewitt in The Insider (1999); classy ensemble pieces (The Contender, Cradle Will Rock); and recurring roles on TV in The Practice and The West Wing. He also appeared in David Mamet’s American Buffalo at the Donmar Warehouse in London in 2000, alongside William H Macy, another Anderson regular.
In his 70s Hall mostly excelled in comedy including, on TV, Curb Your Enthusiasm, as a doctor aggravated by Larry David (who said Hall made him “laugh harder than any actor I’ve worked with”) and Modern Family, in which he played the cranky neighbour of the Dunphy family.
In the schlocky melodrama Die, Mommie, Die! (2003), he played the husband of a murderous diva (Charles Busch in drag) and got his laughs by playing the part without so much as a knowing wink to the audience. Similarly he was the straight man to a wildly over-playing Pierce Brosnan in The Matador (2005) and to Jim Carrey in both Bruce Almighty (2003) and Mr Popper’s Penguins (2011), in which Carrey’s home is overrun by gentoos.
Hall himself had a bird in hand in Duck (2005), savouring his leading role as a widower who travels everywhere with his feathered friend. While the film was uneven, the part captured the quirky humour and desperate poignancy beneath the businesslike veneer of many of his characters.
He went on to star in the films The Chicago 8 (2011), in a key part as Judge Julius Hoffman, and The Last Word (2017), as the estranged husband of Shirley MacLaine. He also had recurring roles on television in the sci-fi drama Second Chance (2016), as a disgraced sheriff who is shot and reborn as a younger man, and the political thriller Messiah (2020), as a former CIA asset.
Divorced twice, Hall is survived by his third wife, Holly (nee Wolfle), whom he married in 1981, and their two daughters, Anna and Adella; two daughters, Trisha and Darcy, from his first marriage, to Mary-Ella Holst; four grandchildren; and a brother, Lee.