Philip Baker Hall, the journeyman character actor who was a favorite of director Paul Thomas Anderson but surely is best remembered for bringing library investigator Lt. Bookman to life on a 1991 episode of Seinfeld, has died. He was 90.
Hall died Sunday night, Los Angeles Times sportswriter Sam Farmer, his friend and neighbor, announced. No other details of his death were immediately available.
With his hangdog face and world-weary eyes, Hall looked as if he had seen it all and was using that knowledge to go forward. The everyman actor racked up more than 100 television appearances during his five-decade career, and one of his more endearing characters of late was Walt Kleezak, the cantankerous neighbor who befriends the young Luke Dunphy (Nolan Gould) on Modern Family.
Hall portrayed Richard Nixon in the acclaimed one-man play Secret Honor, then reprised the part of the disgraced president for director Robert Altman in a 1984 feature version. He also played 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt in Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999) and had the unique distinction of appearing in two films about a notorious 1960s serial killer — The Zodiac (2005) and Zodiac (2007).
In October 2017, Hall starred alongside Ellen Geer on an episode of HBO’s Room 104.
Hall and Anderson first met on a PBS film when the director was working as a production assistant. “He was a fan of my work, so how could I not like him?” Hall said with a laugh during an April 2017 interview with The Washington Post. “We would talk and have cigarettes and coffee.”
Those conversations made quite the impression on Anderson, who crafted a script for a film that became his 1993 short, aptly titled Cigarettes & Coffee, starring Hall.
For his debut feature, Hard Eight (1996), Anderson showcased Hall as Sydney, a veteran card hustler who teaches the tricks of his trade to a younger protege (John C. Reilly).
“Philip Baker Hall has been in the movies since 1975 and has been on a lot of TV shows, even Seinfeld. “He’s familiar, in a way: He looks middle-aged and a little sad. And grown up,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film. “Many Americans linger in adolescence, but Hall is the kind of man who puts on a tie before he leaves the house.
“He gave one of the great performances in American movies, in a one-man show, playing Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor. Here is another great performance. He is a man who has been around, who knows casinos and gambling, who finds himself attached to three people he could easily have avoided, who thinks before he acts.”
In Anderson’s Boogie Nights, the sweeping 1997 drama about the porn industry, Hall played adult film distributor Floyd Gondolli. And his poignant performance as Jimmy Gator, a children’s game show host dying of cancer, was one of the standouts of the director’s acclaimed Magnolia (1999).
Still, Hall’s most recognizable role came in the Seinfeld episode “The Library.” A dogged detective with a trench coat, his Joe Bookman relentlessly pursued Jerry in search of a library book — Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer— that was more than 20 years overdue. Hall’s take-no-prisoners delivery lent the perfect sense of absurdity to the situation.
“You’d better not screw up again, Seinfeld, because if you do, I’ll be all over you like a pit bull on a poodle,” Bookman warns Jerry.
The performance endeared the actor to the legion of Seinfeld fans.
As Hall told Rolling Stone in 2014, “It’s been over 20 years since we shot that episode, and I still can’t go out in public for very long before someone says, ‘My god, it’s Bookman!’ Or: ‘Are you Bookman? I returned that library book, I swear!’ It’s not just in New York or L.A.; it’s happened in a mall in the Midwest or even other countries where they air the show. The guy made an impression.”
The performance also made an impression on Hollywood. “It’s funny, Lt. Bookman was one of the last roles I ever auditioned for, simply because so many doors opened up after I did the show,” Hall said.
“I remember that Jerry had a hard time keeping a straight face during the reading. Usually, when you read for things, no one lets on too much, even if they like you. But people were fighting to control their laughter, so when I called my wife afterward, I told her, ‘There’s no such thing as a sure thing … but I’m pretty sure I got this part.”
Bookman made a return visit on the fabled sitcom’s finale that aired May 14, 1998.
Philip Baker Hall was born on Sept. 10, 1931, in Toledo, Ohio. He attended the University of Toledo and enlisted in the military, serving as an Army translator in Germany. Hall always had a penchant for performing but initially was hesitant to pursue such a risky career. Instead, after leaving the Army, he returned to Ohio and worked as a radio announcer and high school teacher.
Hall was 30 when his wife encouraged him to follow his dream. They moved to New York in 1961, and for the next decade, he built a career on the stage in such notable productions as The Skin of Our Teeth, featuring Helen Hayes, and J.B., starring John Cazale.
Hall’s film debut came in 1970 with an uncredited role in Michelangelo Antonioni’sZabriskie Point.
In 1975, Hall relocated to Los Angeles to build a television career, and he went on to do it all — comedy (Good Times, M*A*S*H, Cheers, Empty Nest), drama (The Waltons, L.A. Law, Chicago Hope, The West Wing, Madam Secretary), mystery (Quincy M.E., Matlock, Murder, She Wrote, Monk), action (Man From Atlantis, Emergency!, Miami Vice, T.J. Hooker, Cagney & Lacey, Dark Justice) and voiceover (Baby Blues, The Life and Times of Tim, BoJack Horseman).
The dependable Hall joined Falcon Crest for its ninth and final season in 1989 as Ed Meyers, the attorney for Michael Sharpe (Gregory Harrison), and had recurring roles as a doctor on Family Ties, Everwood and Curb Your Enthusiasm and as a judge on Civil Wars and The Practice.
Secret Honor bowed at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre in 1983 and went on to successful runs in Boston, Washington and off-Broadway, where it earned Hall a Drama Desk nomination.
In a 1988 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Hall said he originally thought the Nixon monologues were too lengthy and turned down the role. “Then one night I got a vision of how to do it and called Bob [Harders, the director],” he said. “The thing is, the character’s got like six ideas going on all the time, and he can’t sort them out. He’s trying to say a number of things at the same time — many, if not all, that are contradictory. That was the hook.”
Hall’s film résumé also included Midnight Run (1988), Say Anything (1989), Ghostbusters II (1989), Air Force One (1997), The Truman Show (1998), Rush Hour (1998), The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), Bruce Almighty (2003), Dogville (2003), In Good Company (2005), Duck (2005), 50/50 (2011), Argo (2012) and The Last Word (2017).
Hall was married twice and had four daughters — two from his first marriage to Dianne Lewis and two with his second wife, Holly Wolfle. He told the Washington Post in his 2017 interview that his kids ranged in age from 16 to 61. “This may not be a record, but it’s in the running,” he said.