NEW YORK—Philip Baker Hall, the character actor of film and theater who starred in Paul Thomas Anderson’s first movies and who memorably hunted down a long-overdue library book in “Seinfeld,” has died. He was 90.
Holly Wolfle Hall, the actor’s wife of nearly 40 years, on Monday said Hall died Sunday surrounded by loved ones in Glendale, California. She said Hall had been well until a few weeks earlier, and spent his final days in warm spirits, reflecting on his life.
“His voice at the end was still just as powerful,” said Wolfle Hall. Her husband, she added, never retired from acting.
Born in Toledo, Ohio, Hall initially devoted himself more to theater in Los Angeles, after moving out in 1975, than TV and movies. While shooting bit parts in Hollywood (an episode of “Good Times” was one of his first gigs), Hall worked with the L.A. Actor Theatre. There he played Richard Nixon in the one-act play “Secret Honor,” a role he reprised in Robert Altman’s 1984 film adaptation. Critic Pauline Kael wrote that Hall “draws on his lack of a star presence and on an actor’s fears of his own mediocrity in a way that seems to parallel Nixon’s feelings.”
Outside of theater, Hall was mostly doing guest roles in television. That changed when he was shooting a PBS program in 1992. Hall then encountered a production assistant in his early 20s named Paul Thomas Anderson. Anderson, believing Hall hadn’t gotten his due in film, asked him to look at a script he had written for a 20-minute short film titled “Cigarettes & Coffee.”
After the $20,000 short made it into the Sundance Film Festival, Anderson expanded it into his feature debut, 1997’s “Hard Eight,” which catapulted Hall’s career. In it, Hall played a wise and courteous itinerate gambler named Sydney who schools a young drifter (John C. Reilly) on the craft. In one indelible scene, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s first with Anderson, a hot-shot gambler chides Hall as “old-timer.”
Anderson would cast Hall again in movies “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia.”
To many, Hall was instantly recognizable for one of the most powerfully funny guest appearances on “Seinfeld.” In the 22nd episode of the sitcom in 1991, Hall played Lt. Joe Bookman, the library investigator who comes after Seinfeld for a years-overdue copy of “Tropic of Cancer.” Hall played him like a hardboiled noir detective, telling Seinfeld: “Well, I got a flash for ya, Joy-boy: Party time is over.”
Hall was brought back for the “Seinfeld” finale and by Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” David once said no other actor ever made him laugh more than Hall.
Among Hall’s many other credits were Michael Mann’s “The Insider,” as “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt, and Lars von Trier’s “Dogville.” Hall appeared in “Say Anything,” “The Truman Show,” “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “Zodiac,” “Argo,” and “Rush Hour.”
Hall, who was married to Dianne Lewis for three years in the early 1970s, is survived by his wife, four daughters, four grandchildren and his brother.