If you spotted a gruff captain, teacher, mentor or other leadership figure in a film or TV show, there’s a good chance that—if the acting was good—that person was played by Philip Baker Hall. The prolific character actor stole scenes with a gravitas that could be spun into sincere paternal compassion or worked overtime for cartoonish comedy. A late career resurgence courtesy of Paul Thomas Anderson reminded audiences of his skill, placing him in prominent positions throughout multiple movies. After a long career, Hall has died at age 90.
This news comes first from Hall’s friend and neighbor Sam Farmer, sportswriter at the L.A. Times. “My neighbor, friend, and one of the wisest, most talented and kindest people I’ve ever met, Philip Baker Hall, died peacefully last night,” Farmer wrote on Twitter. “He was surrounded by loved ones. The world has an empty space in it.”
With 185 acting credits to his name, it’s easy to pick memorable performances from Hall. Perhaps you knew him from one of the best TV guest spots in comedy, where he played a library detective in Seinfeld.
Perhaps you knew him as an impassioned Nixon in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor. Maybe the IRS guy in Say Anything or the cops in Rush Hour, Ghostbusters II, Psycho and Three O’Clock High. You probably also knew him, however, from one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies.
Anderson wrote his short film Cigarettes & Coffee for Hall, which led to a starring role in that short’s adaptation, Hard Eight. The ensuing success for both PTA and Hall led to further collaborations in Boogie Nights and a spectacular section of Magnolia. It’s fitting that these films began a renaissance for the actor, and more fitting that the awards the constant supporter earned over the years were almost entirely as part of an ensemble.
Hall was an actor’s actor, a giving performer whose commitment was so thrilling that his lines barely mattered. Pluck him from one film or episode and drop him in another, and his intensity would be the same—the only difference is what that meant for those around him.
Hall’s final performance can be seen in the Netflix series Messiah.