Philip Baker Hall is one of those names that will not mean anything to most people, but you would almost certainly recognise those hangdog features, the fleshy nose and the heavy bags under the eyes from a string of character parts and supporting and guest roles in movies and television, including turns on Seinfeld, Modern Family, The West Wing and if you go back far enough The Waltons.
On the big screen, he worked repeatedly with Paul Thomas Anderson, appearing in the movies Boogie Nights and Magnolia, after impressing the critics when Altman cast him as Richard Nixon in the 1984 film Secret Honor.
Hall bore only a passing resemblance to the disgraced politician, who was also in possession of a face that looked a little like a melting candle, but he inhabited the role with a compelling performance that beguiled reviewers.
Secret Honor was very much an arthouse movie – Hall was the only person in it, playing the ex-president as he considers his disgrace and suicide. It was never going to be a blockbuster, but Hall’s performance even generated talk of an Oscar.
In the end too few people saw it to make that a likely possibility, but it did raise Hall’s profile in the industry sufficiently to generate a string of offers. And of course these things can have a habit of snowballing.
Hall was in his thirties before he took up professional acting and in his forties before he moved to Los Angeles.
Yet between 1970 and 2020 he managed to amass 185 credits on the Internet Movie Database, hoovering up roles that demanded an older actor, one who looked like he had been there, who had lived and come out of those life experiences just a little the worse for wear.
That aura of antiquity was often leant to the role of generals and judges. He played the latter in the film The Chicago 8, the TV series Miami Vice and on many other occasions. “The judges were driving me crazy,” he said. “You never get to walk around.”
Hall came from humble beginnings. He was born in what he described as the “slums” in the city of Toledo, Ohio in 1931.
His father’s tyres business did not survive the Depression and he was unemployed for a decade. Hall was always an entertainer and appeared in student productions while at Toledo University.
He served as a translator in Germany with the US Army and trained as a teacher, rather than a professional actor.
He began appearing in off-Broadway plays in the 1960s and would go on to appear in dozens of productions in New York. He starred in American Buffalo at the Donmar in London in 2000. Curiously he never appeared in an actual Broadway production.
He made his film debut in a small uncredited role in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 hippy movie Zabriskie Point, but his screen work in the 1970s was largely in television, including the role of a sergeant in M*A*S*H.
He had appeared in only a handful of films before playing Nixon in Secret Honor, a decade and a half after Zabriskie Point. He had previously played the role in a stage version.
Over the next few years Hall went on to appear with Robert De Niro in Midnight Run and play a police commissioner in Ghostbusters II. And Larry David cast him in an episode of Seinfeld in 1991 in the role of a detective who tracks Seinfeld down because he has held on to a library book for years after it should have been returned.
“You better not screw up again,” he tells Seinfeld, “because if you do, I’ll be all over you like a pitbull on a poodle.” It was only a few minutes of screen time, but it reached a much wider audience than Secret Honor did. And it is debatable which did more for his career.
Larry David reckoned that the secret of Hall’s success in comic roles was that he played them like drama.
The library detective character made such an impact that David brought him back for the finale in 1998.
Hall first met Paul Thomas Anderson at PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, when Anderson was just starting out in the business. Anderson wrote one of the main roles in his 1993 short film Cigarettes and Coffee specifically for Hall, that of an aging gambler who befriends a younger man in a diner.
Cigarettes and Coffee was shown at the Sundance film festival and became the basis of Anderson’s 1996 debut feature film Hard Eight, with Hall reprising the role of the gambler.
It was the first of three films that Hall and Anderson made together in quick succession. It was followed by Boogie Nights and Magnolia.
Hall seemed to be everywhere in the second half of the 1990s, turning up in such blockbusters as Air Force One, The Truman Show, Rush Hour, the Psycho remake and The Talented Mr Ripley.
He was married three times, the first two marriages ending in divorce. His third wife Holly was three decades younger than him. It was noted in an article in the Washington Post in 2017 that his children ranged in age at the time from 16 to 61.
Hall had pneumonia as a child and was a heavy smoker for many years, contributing to his distinctive husky voice, but not to his general health.
He did eventually give up, but he suffered from emphysema and latterly was largely dependent on an oxygen tank, being able to film only for a few minutes without it.
He is survived by Holly and by four daughters.
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