Philip Baker Hall, actor who made his mark in Paul Thomas Anderson films including Boogie Nights and Magnolia – obituary

Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight - TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy
Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight - TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Philip Baker Hall, who has died aged 90, could lay strong claim to being the supporting actor’s supporting actor. With his hangdog features and rasping voice, he was never conventional star material, and he was late to the screen, debuting at 39 after years of stage work. Yet over 185 credits, he became a talisman for major American directors, his presence on a cast list reassuring cinephiles and critics alike.

He enjoyed few out-and-out lead roles, but his breakthrough was a doozy: Richard Nixon in Secret Honor (1984), Robert Altman’s adaptation of Donald Freed and Arnold M Stone’s one-man show. A bold historical speculation, shot in a week with students from the University of Michigan (where Altman was teaching), the film hinged on Hall’s colossal central performance, the definition of a tour de force.

Ranting and raving but vaguely sympathetic in repose, Hall’s Nixon ranks among the screen’s great portraits of compromised political power, suggesting – in Time Out’s verdict – “a sometimes lucid, sometimes lunatic incarnation of mediocrity, irredeemably tainted by fame and failure”. The New York Times called Hall’s performance “as astonishing as it is risky – for the chances the actor takes and survives”.

As Altman understood, Hall’s gravity could also be wildly funny. Further evidence presented during his guest appearance on a 1991 episode of Seinfeld as Lt Joe Bookman, an officious detective tracking an overdue library book. Part of the episode’s joke is watching the show’s goofball star being confronted by a trained actor playing a blowhard who seems unaware he’s stepped on to a sitcom set and can’t understand why these darned youngsters are causing him such consternation.

Casting directors were set on renewed alert, and Hall’s career was extended further after a young production assistant (and Altman devotee) named Paul Thomas Anderson approached the actor on the set of a TV film with a script he had written.

In Rush Hour 2 (2001) - TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy
In Rush Hour 2 (2001) - TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy

Hall was impressed by the twentysomething’s preternatural confidence, and found the screenplay justified his first impression: “I was wondering, ‘Who was the first actor in the 17th century to see a Shakespeare script, and did he know what he was reading?’ ” The script became first a short, Cigarettes & Coffee (1993), then the basis for a feature, Hard Eight (1996), with Hall again playing the veteran gambler who takes a novice under his wing.

Showcasing stars-to-be Samuel L Jackson, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Gwyneth Paltrow, Hard Eight was well-reviewed but little seen. Yet it cemented a profitable relationship between Hall and the most gifted American filmmaker of the modern era. Hall would reappear as a moneyman in Anderson’s pornworld opus Boogie Nights (1997) and triumphed in Magnolia (1999) as Jimmy Gator, the gameshow host confronted with past abuses in a subplot anticipating countless 21st-century scandals.

Philip Baker Hall was born on September 30 1931 in Toledo, Ohio, to a factory worker, William Alexander Hall and Berdene (née McDonald). He studied at the University of Toledo before serving in Germany as an army translator. Upon his homecoming, he taught, and skirted the fringes of New York theatre, eventually appearing uncredited in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970).

He spent most of the following decade in TV, logging episodes of M*A*S*H, The Waltons, Quincy, MD and Cagney & Lacey. After Secret Honor he became more prominent, showing up as a straitlaced mafioso in Midnight Run (1988), the IRS chief in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything… and as Ghostbusters II’s police commissioner (both 1989). But his ethic was all-encompassing: that same year, he also completed 13 episodes of the soap Falcon Crest.

He worked tirelessly through the 1990s, on television – playing Woody Harrelson’s opponent for public office in a 1993 episode of Cheers – and film. In 1999 alone, Hall filmed Magnolia, Tim Robbins’s Cradle Will Rock, Michael Mann’s The Insider and Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr Ripley.

In 2000, Hall and his Magnolia co-star William H Macy brought the New York revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo to the Donmar Warehouse in London. Thereafter, he settled into positions of authority, playing Aristotle Onassis in the TV film Jackie Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (2000), a senator on The West Wing (2004) and the CIA director in the Oscar-winning Argo (2012).

In Amityville Horror (2005) - Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy
In Amityville Horror (2005) - Moviestore Collection Ltd/Alamy

His 2000s credits include Tim Allen’s remake of The Shaggy Dog (2006), a choice guest turn as Larry David’s physician on Curb Your Enthusiasm (2004-2009) and roles in both David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) and its direct-to-DVD spoiler The Zodiac (2005). His final credit was on the Netflix mystery-thriller Messiah (2020).

Revisiting Seinfeld during a 2012 interview, Hall remained sanguine about his longevity: “After Bookman, there was no door closed to me in the industry. My agent would say: ‘Everybody wants to see you. Everybody wants you to be in their movie, everybody wants you to be on their show.’ […] It was pretty amazing. So I’m not putting it down. It’s just that when people say: ‘I loved you as Bookman,’ I can’t help but think: ‘But what about the other 280 roles I’ve done?’”

Philip Baker Hall is survived by his third wife Holly Wolfle and four daughters, two with her and two with his first wife Mary Ella Holst; his second wife was Dianne Lewis.

Philip Baker Hall, born September 30 1931, died June 12 2022