When Los Angeles Times sports reporter Sam Farmer broke the news on Monday that his neighbor and friend Philip Baker Hall had passed away peacefully at the age of ninety, the images and clips that flooded social media could for the most part be grouped into three clusters. In the first, Hall rants alone in a wood-paneled study, downing Chivas Regal and breaking into tears as a post-Watergate, post-resignation Richard Nixon in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor (1984), a film that Michael Wilmington calls “a sardonic and terrifying portrait of the American political process gone amuck.” The second cluster is drawn from the first three features by Altman’s acolyte, Paul Thomas Anderson: Hard Eight (1996), Boogie Nights (1997), and Magnolia (1999).
In the third, Hall hammers away at Jerry Seinfeld in a 1991 episode of the comedian’s die-hard sitcom as Lt. Joe Bookman, a detective for the New York Public Library chasing down overdue fines. “Bookman is the one that everyone remembers,” Hall told Will Harris at the A.V. Club in 2012. “People will say forever, at the supermarket or wherever, it doesn’t matter where, ‘Oh, you’re Bookman, right? I really loved that Bookman. Now, I know you’ve done a lot of other things, but I loved that Bookman character.’ When they say, ‘I know you’ve done a lot of other things,’ it’s like, ‘You don’t know the half of it!’ [Laughs.] But Bookman? Bookman hits a response button. And I’m not ungrateful for that.”
Born into a struggling working-class family in Ohio, Hall was often cast as fatherly figures in school plays, but he didn’t begin acting in earnest—on tiny stages in New York and in regional theaters across the country—until he was around thirty. He was nearly forty when he landed his first onscreen role—uncredited—as a diner owner in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point (1970), which happens to be screening tonight and once again on Friday at New York’s Metrograph. A few months later, he appeared as Father Reis, an antiwar activist in Simon Nuchtern’s Cowards, and more than eighty films and two hundred television appearances followed.
Secret Honor is a ninety-minute adaptation of a play by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone that ran well over two hours when Robert Harders directed the first production at the Los Angeles Theatre Center. Altman, whose career had skyrocketed in the 1970s, propelled by such hits as M*A*S*H (1970) and Nashville (1975), was going through a rough patch following his 1980 box office flops Popeye and Health. He was teaching at the University of Michigan, and with a crew of students, he converted a women’s dorm into Nixon’s study and shot his one-man show.
“There were many Richard Nixons,” writes Nick Pinkerton, “and Hall’s manic interpretation shows at least a few dozen wrestling for control: the braggart, the underdog, the scrapper, the supplicant, the statesman, the momma’s boy.” Dictating memos to himself and an unseen character named Roberto, Hall’s Nixon “careens on an emotional bumper-car ride that snaps between self-pity, angry defiance, and grim hilarity.”
Paul Thomas Anderson, a great admirer of both the film and the performance, was a production assistant when he approached Hall with a screenplay for a short film, Cigarettes & Coffee. “There was something of the golden child about Paul, even when I had not seen one line of his writing,” Hall told Will Harris. The short played well on the festival circuit, and Anderson and Hall teamed up with Sundance to workshop it into a feature. The original title was Sydney, the name of the professional gambler Hall plays, but the studio went with Hard Eight. “It should not be forgotten that one of the greatest directors of his generation launched his career with a monument to a character actor,” writes Scott Tobias at the Reveal.
Hall’s Sydney is “impossibly wise,” writes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, but he’s also “self-contained and discreet in the way of veteran gambling survivors. He takes pity on the pathetic and penniless figure of John C. Reilly, who has lost all his money at the tables, and Hall schools him in the way of betting, beating the odds, getting comped at the big casino hotels. But his interest in this young man—his poignant need to pass on wisdom to someone—is to end in calamity. The movie wouldn’t work without the raw roughage of Hall in its dramatic diet: he makes it a classic.”
In Boogie Nights, Hall is Floyd Gondolli, a cost-cutting porn-theater magnate, and Anderson gives him a brief but unforgettable monologue: “I’m not a complicated man. I like cinema. In particular, I like to see people fucking on film. But I don’t want to win an Oscar and I don’t want to reinvent the wheel. I like simple pleasures, like butter in my ass and lollipops in my mouth.” In Magnolia, the mind of Hall’s Jimmy Gator, a game show host, is so far gone he can’t remember whether or not he molested his daughter, as she claims.
Anderson “specialized in broken characters,” writes Scout Tafoya at RogerEbert.com, “and in Hall he had a guy who could project brokenness with the stuttering he perfected playing his apoplectic drunken Nixon, or with the simplicity of a syllable, his voice like the scotch he pounds in Secret Honor, old and grim and middle shelf, a man who should have become more, a man who projects the air of a king, but has no kingdom to call home.”
Among the memorable roles that followed are 60 Minutes producer Don Hewitt in Michael Mann’s The Insider (1999) and CIA director Stansfield Turner in Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012). “The raspy voice, the resigned posture, the world-weary eyes with heavy bags, and the thatch of hair that gradually turned white magnified a gravitas that made Mr. Hall’s characters believable, even when audiences knew better,” writes Anita Gates in the New York Times. “In The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), playing the detective hired by a wealthy man to investigate his son’s murder, he seems sure of his conclusion that the younger man had committed suicide, unaware that he’s sharing that finding with the real killer.” Hall himself was “lucid to the end,” Sam Farmer tells us, “reading a lot of Shakespeare in his final days.”
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