Hard Eight’s Philip Baker Hall, Seinfeld, Dies at 90

NEW YORK — Philip Baker Hall, the prolific character actor of screen and theater who starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s first films and who memorably sought a long-overdue library book in Seinfeld, has died. He was 90.

Holly Wolfle Hall, the actor’s wife of almost 40 years, said Monday Hall died Sunday surrounded by loved ones in Glendale, California. She said Hall had been healthy until a few weeks ago and had spent his last few days in warm spirits, reflecting on his life.

“His voice was still just as powerful at the end,” said Wolfle Hall. Her husband, she added, never retired from acting.

In a career spanning half a century, Hall has been a ubiquitous slouch face whose sad, weary looks managed to hide a booming intensity and humbled 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 and 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 to theater rather than television and cinema after moving to Los Angeles in 1975. While filming bit parts in Hollywood (an episode of Good Times was one of his first gigs), Hall worked with the LA Actor Theater. There he played Richard Nixon in the one-act play Secret Honor, a role he reprized in Robert Altman’s 1984 film adaptation. Critic Pauline Kael wrote that Hall “draws on his lack of stardom and on an actor’s fears of his own mediocrity in a way that seems to match Nixon’s feelings.”

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In other films, like 1988’s “Midnight Run,” Hall made an impression in small roles. But outside of the theater, Hall mostly guest-starred on television. That all changed when he started filming a PBS show in 1992. A production assistant in his early 20s named Paul Thomas Anderson. The two hung out, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee between scenes. Anderson, believing that Hall had not been paid his wages on the film, asked him to look at a script he had written for a 20-minute short titled “Cigarettes.” & Coffee.”

“I’m reading this script and I really had trouble believing that this kid wrote this script,” Hall told the AV Club Playwrights in 2012. Sure, as a movie, I’d never really seen anything like it. It was amazing.”

After the $20,000 short 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 suave itinerant gambler named Sydney who tutors a young drifter (John C. Reilly) in the craft. In an indelible scene, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s first with Anderson, a hot gambler chides Hall as an “oldtimer.”

Anderson recast Hall as adult movie magnate Floyd Gondolli, who warns Burt Reynolds’ porn producer about the future of the industry 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 make them the leads,” 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.”

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For many, Hall was instantly recognizable for one of the funniest cameos on “Seinfeld.” In the 22nd episode of the sitcom in 1991, Hall Lt. Joe Bookman, the library investigator who is pursuing Seinfeld for a years overdue edition of Tropic of Cancer. Playing him like a hard-noir noir detective, Hall told Seinfeld, “Well, I’ve got a blitz for you, joy-boy: party time is over.”

Hall was brought back for the Seinfeld finale and by Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. David once said no actor ever made him laugh more than Hall.

Hall’s many other credits include Michael Mann’s The Insider as 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt and Lars von Trier’s Dogville. Hall has appeared on “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 series “Messiah” in 2020.

Hall, who was married to Dianne Lewis for three years in the early 1970s, is survived by his wife, four daughters, four grandchildren and brother.

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