A Legendary Character Actor Brought Gravitas to Comedy and Drama
Philip Baker Hall didn’t make his first film appearance until he was 40, which seems fitting somehow: the rumbling gravitas he brought to dramas and comedies speaks volumes. of a full life and cultivated experiences, even before stepping on a set.
In Hall’s case, that life involved being born in Ohio, spending time in Germany as a translator for the U.S. military, then pursuing acting on stage in New York and later in Los Angeles. By the time he made the leap to film and TV, he had the kind of gruff demeanor that made him play cops and old soldiers. (In one season of “Quincy,” he appeared as a police captain in one episode and then a district attorney in another.)
The role that put him on the map was a literal showcase: Robert Altman’s 1984 “Secret Honor” cast Hall as a disgraced post-Watergate Richard Nixon, drinking and ranting about his life , his career and his downfall. It’s an adaptation of a one-man play, and Hall is never less than captivating in his monologue, capturing the former president’s bitterness and paranoia while building empathy for such a notorious villain.
“Secret Honor” lives or dies entirely on Hall’s shoulders, and viewers who knew nothing about the actor stood up and took notice. Roger Ebert placed the film in his top 10 of the year, applauding Hall for capturing Nixon “with such savage intensity, such passion, such venom, such outrage, that we cannot turn away”. Other reviewers agreed; Pauline Kael mistakenly assumed it was “an acting feat by a man who probably isn’t a great actor”, but she also conceded, “Hall relies on his lack of presence of stardom and an actor’s fears of his own mediocrity in a way that seems to parallel Nixon’s sentiments.
Not for the last time in his career, Paul Thomas Anderson took inspiration from Altman; Anderson cast Hall in his first short “Cigarettes & Coffee” and then his first feature “Hard Eight” (originally titled “Sydney”, after the character Hall played in both films). Hall and Anderson also memorably collaborated on “Boogie Night” and “Magnolia.”
As a dramatic actor, Hall brought authenticity to every line, no matter the size of the role, as the kind of performer who is lucky enough to engender trust and respect every time he speak. But he also knew how to apply that same energy to comedy, which made him the perfect bossy foil for a number of clumsy protagonists.
His library sleuth in a 1991 episode of “Seinfeld” made enough of an impression that he was called upon to reprise the character in the hit 1998 sitcom’s finale, and he was generally open to bringing his unique presence to the game. screen to a range of films, from straight-up action (“Rush Hour,” “The Sum of All Fears”) to outrageous farce (“Fired Up!”, “Die, Mommie, Die!”).
Hall had the kind of busy and eclectic career that included the big, acclaimed performances that everyone is familiar with as well as B-sides that fans might or might not have caught; of these, my favorite is his turn as a Southern California family man with a closet full of skeletons in Mike White’s too-soon-cancelled nighttime soap opera “Pasadena.”
It is said that when someone dies it is like a burning library, and the older and wiser the person, the bigger the library. When we lose an artist with the life experience and seasoned presence of Hall – who died Sunday of emphysema at the age of 90 – it seems increasingly difficult to imagine how his cultural imprint might one day be. replaced.