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  • Aidan Pittman

President, Gambler, Bookman: Remembering Philip Baker Hall

Any cinephile is probably accustomed to digging into their favorite director’s filmography and frequently encountering the same faces in several of their films. There’s Martin Scorsese who often works with Robert De Niro, Akira Kurosawa who was constantly getting Toshirô Mifune, and so on and so forth. A frequent choice for one’s favorite filmmaker, Paul Thomas Anderson, has been no stranger to casting actors more than once, most notably in how he helped showcase the hard-to-match talents of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Daniel Day-Lewis. Though in Anderson’s beginnings as a director, there was one name he kept close to him that never reached the heights of fame as the two previously mentioned. That would be none other than the deep-voiced and baggy-faced Philip Baker Hall.

Philip Baker Hall in Paul Thomas Anderson's directorial debut Hard Eight
Philip Baker Hall as Sydney in Hard Eight (1996, dir. Paul Thomas Anderson). Image from FilmGrab.

Many people likely discovered Hall when watching Hard Eight, Anderson’s debut feature film. Watching the movie, it would be near impossible for someone to not become encaptivated by Hall’s presence right from the start. That old stranger he plays, Sydney, offering a penniless John C. Reilly some coffee and a cigarette was able to swiftly grab the audience’s attention in the opening scene. It’s how effortlessly he presents this mentor figure’s very generous yet asserting attitude and apparent wisdom that makes the character so easy to feel intrigued by.

It’s this demeanor that Sydney carries as he gambles and helps others that defines the experience of watching the film, which simply can’t be replicated by another actor. It’s the mark of a great actor like Philip Baker Hall when such an inseparable distinction is done as seen in Hard Eight. This, among his many other performances, is what made it all the more saddening when he passed in June 2022.

Hall was 90 years old when he died. Those who knew of the late actor were likely aware that his time wasn’t far off. Even so, that didn’t keep it from hurting any more when he finally left. Most people probably first heard the news with some mention of Seinfeld, which is perhaps his best-known role. His 1991 guest appearance as the stern Lieutenant Bookman pressing Jerry for the indefensible act of failing to return the novel Tropic of Cancer is considered one of the show’s most unforgettable. After all, it is what got him the opportunities that helped him get higher demand after decades of acting.

Philip Baker Hall in Seinfeld
Philip Baker Hall as Lieutenant Bookman lecturing Jerry Seinfeld in the Season 3, Episode 5 of Seinfeld, "The Library."

Although plenty would argue that his time in the limelight should have come sooner, particularly in 1984 with his leading appearance in the Robert Altman film Secret Honor. This is an uncommon case as Hall is the sole actor in a 90-minute, one-man show in character as former President Richard Nixon, who is ranting away about his life and political career years after his resignation.

Performing alone for an entire movie undoubtedly is a challenge, but Hall went above and beyond in accomplishing it. He brought an incredible power to the image of Nixon that realizes the infamous president’s real-life struggles and controversies while also bringing a necessary bit of exaggeration to it all. It all creates an astounding performance that may be unknown to most. It is a tremendous shame because of how impactful Hall’s work is in this film, arguably being the finest showcase of his abilities.

Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honor
Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in Secret Honor (1984, dir. Robert Altman)

The last major performance of Hall’s filmography is in Magnolia, Paul Thomas Anderson’s third film and acclaimed ensemble piece. Hall played Jimmy Gator, a sick famed game show host with a dysfunctional relationship with his troubled daughter. It’s an incredibly complicated role for reasons that won’t be spoiled here. But Hall was able to nail it again in his realization of Gator’s tumultuous nature without ever being in the viewer’s face about how they should feel about his character.

That is about it for Hall’s most notable performances. He unfortunately never got picked up for very many big roles throughout his career. However, that doesn’t change how memorable the impact he left was whenever he made an appearance.

Even in his much smaller parts, Hall was able to shine. Take Paul Thomas Anderson’s second film, Boogie Nights, where Hall plays Floyd Gondolli. With only a few minutes of screen time, Hall leaves a lasting impression with his comments on enjoying an activity of a particular nature being shown in films. And in Curb Your Enthusiasm, his limited work as Larry David’s doctor made for a hilarious time. It’s little parts of Hall’s career such as these that helped prove himself as the kind of actor who never phoned it in.

From leading characters to smaller supporting ones, Philip Baker Hall always made an effort to ensure that he made the most out of what he was offered. Even in cases where the films were terrible, one could be assured that Hall would not be a part of its issues.

Hall represented the very best of what an actor can do on screen. The elderly talent always managed to stand out regardless of who was cast alongside him. He never became a household name, but his long career represents one of the very best to get in front of the camera. His passing leaves behind a vacancy that few other actors working today would be able to fill, as his legacy of political ramblings, gambling, and book protecting simply can’t be matched.

Secret Honor is streaming on The Criterion Channel

Boogie Nights and Seinfeld are streaming on Netflix

Magnolia is streaming on Paramount+ and Kanopy

Curb Your Enthusiasm is streaming on HBO Max

Image from Hard Eight taken from FilmGrab.


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