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Philip Baker Hall, character actor best known for “Hard Eight” and “Seinfeld,” dies at 90

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Philip Baker Hall, renowned film and stage actor who starred in the early Paul Thomas Anderson films and who memorably hunted a long overdue library books at “Seinfeld,” has died. He was 90 years old.

Holly Wolfle Hall, the actor’s wife of nearly 40 years, said Monday that Hall died Sunday surrounded by loved ones in Glendale, California. She said Hall was fine until a few weeks before, and spent his last days in a warm spirit, reflecting on his life.

Wolfle Hall said: “His voice was still very powerful in the end. Her husband, she added, has never retired from acting.

In a career spanning half a century, Hall was a stellar character actor, a popular hangman-like face with an elegant look that could mask an explosive intensity and a modest charm. His range was wide, but Hall often played men in suits, long coats, and lab coats.

Hall told the Washington Post in 2017. “Highly stressed men, older men, who are at the limit of their tolerance for suffering and stress and pain.”

Launching Focus Features'
Actor Philip Baker Hall attends the premiere of Focus Features ”Bad Words” at ArcLight Cinemas Cinerama Dome on March 5, 2014, in Hollywood, California.

Image of Imeh Akpanudosen / Getty

Born in Toledo, Ohio, Hall was initially more devoted to theater in Los Angeles, after moving in 1975, than to TV and movies. While filming small parts in Hollywood (an episode of “Good Times” was one of his first gigs), Hall worked with the LA Actors Theatre. In 1983, he played Richard Nixon in the play “Secret Hour”, a role he played in the Robert Altman film adaptation.

Hall has impressed with small roles in other films, such as 1988’s “Midnight Run.” But off stage, Hall has mainly played guest roles on television. That changed when he filmed a PBS show in 1992. Hall then met a production assistant in his early 20s named Paul Thomas Anderson. The two often hang out, smoke cigarettes and drink coffee between scenes. Anderson, believing Hall had not met his requirements in film, asked him to see a script he had written for a 20-minute short film titled “Cigarettes & Coffee.”

“I’m reading this script and I really can’t believe that kid wrote this script,” Hall told AV Club in 2012. “I mean, it’s so brilliant, resonates with nuance. everywhere, like a playwright. Sure, as a movie, I’ve never really seen anything like it. It’s incredible.”

After the $20,000 short made it to the Sundance Film Festival, Anderson expanded it to his feature film debut, 1997’s “Hard Eight,” which marked Hall’s career. In it, Hall plays a wise and polite gambler named Sydney, who teaches a young man (John C. Reilly) the craft. In an indelible scene, Philip Seymour Hoffman first meets Anderson, a hot gambler who calls Hall “the old man.”

Anderson will cast Hall again as adult cinema mogul Floyd Gondolli, who warned porn producer Burt Reynolds about the future of the industry in “Boogie Nights.” In Anderson’s “Magnolia,” Hall played the host of a children’s game show.

“I have a particular passion for character actors, with the desire to make them main actors,” Anderson told The Los Angeles Times in 1998. “I saw Philip Baker Hall, he was just a guy. My favorite actor. There’s no one else with a face like that, or a voice like that.”

To many, Hall is instantly recognizable for one of the funniest guest appearances on “Seinfeld.” In the 22nd episode of the 1991 sitcom, Hall played Lieutenant Joe Bookman, a library investigator who arrives after Seinfeld for a years-old copy of “Tropic of Cancer”. Hall played him as a tough noir detective, telling Seinfeld, “Well, I got a glimpse for you, Joy-boy: The party’s over.”

Hall was brought back for the “Seinfeld” finale and by Larry David in “Curb Your E infatuation”. David once said that no actor made him laugh more than Hall.

HBO Films' premiere
Actors Phillip Baker Hall and Larry David arrive for the premiere of HBO Films’ “Clear History” at ArcLight Cinemas Cinerama Dome on July 31, 2013 in Hollywood, California.

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty

Among Hall’s many other credits are “The Insider” by Michael Mann, “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt, and “Dogville” by Lars von Trier. Hall has appeared on “The Truman Show,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Zodiac,” “Argo,” and “Rush Hour.” Hall played neighbor Walt Kleezak in “Modern Family”. His last performance was in the “Messiah” series of 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 a brother.

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