Philip Baker Hall, prolific ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Hard Eight’ actor, dies at 90

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Philip Baker Hall, who starred in early Paul Thomas Anderson films and memorably tracked down a long-awaited library book in “Seinfeld,” died Sunday in Los Angeles, Calif. He was 90 years old.

Holly Wolfle Hall, the actor’s wife of nearly 40 years, said Monday that Hall was surrounded by loved ones when he died in the southern California suburb of Glendale. It is unclear how Hall died, but his wife suggested he was fine until a few weeks earlier and had spent his last days in a warm spirit, reflecting on his life.

“His voice at the end was still going strong,” Wolfle Hall said. Her husband, she added, never stopped acting.

Over the course of a half-century career, Hall was an ubiquitous puppy-dog face whose gloomy, weary appearance could mask a soaring intensity and humble sensibility. His range was wide, but Hall, who had a natural gravity, often played men in suits, trench coats and lab coats.

Philip Baker Hall died Sunday at the age of 90.  The actor attended the premiere of
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Philip Baker Hall died Sunday at the age of 90. The actor attended the premiere of Focus Features’ ‘Bad Words’ at ArcLight Cinemas Cinerama Dome on March 5, 2014 in Hollywood, California.
(Imeh Akpanudosen)

“Highly stressed men, older men, who are on the edge of their tolerance for suffering, stress, and pain,” Hall told The Washington Post in 2017. “I had an affinity for playing those roles. .”

Hall initially focused more on acting than film or television when he moved to Los Angeles in 1975 from his hometown of Toledo, Ohio.

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While doing small roles in Hollywood (an episode of “Good Times” was one of his first gigs), Hall worked with the LA Actor Theater. He portrayed Richard Nixon in the one-act play “Secret Honor”, a role he reprized in Robert Altman’s 1984 film adaptation.

His resume until then mainly included guest roles on television and a small part in 1988’s “Midnight Run”, which all changed when he was filming a PBS program in 1992, when he had an interaction with a production assistant in his early twenties named Paul Thomas Anderson. The couple hung out, smoked cigarettes and drank coffee between scenes. Anderson, believing Hall had not gotten his due in the film, asked him to watch a script he had written for a 20-minute short titled “Cigarettes & Coffee”.

“I’m reading this script, and I really had a hard time believing this kid wrote this script,” Hall told the AV Club in 2012. “I mean, it was so brilliant, resonating with undertones all over , like a playwright. Admittedly, as a film, I had never really seen anything like it. It was amazing.

April Grace, actor Tom Cruise, actress Julianne Moore and actor Philip Baker Hall.  The film is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and also stars Julianne Moore.

April Grace, actor Tom Cruise, actress Julianne Moore and actor Philip Baker Hall. The film is directed by Paul Thomas Anderson and also stars Julianne Moore.
(Lucy Nicholson)

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After the $20,000 short premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, Anderson expanded it into her feature debut, 1997’s “Hard Eight,” which catapulted Hall’s career. Hall played a wise and courteous traveling gambler named Sydney who educates a young drifter (John C. Reilly) on the craft. In one indelible scene from Philip Seymour Hoffman’s premiere with Anderson, a star player berates Hall as a “veteran.”

Anderson would reprise Hall as adult film mogul Floyd Gondolli who warns pornography producer Burt Reynolds about the future of the industry in “Boogie Nights”. In Anderson’s “Magnolia,” Hall played Jimmy Gator, the host of a children’s game show.

“I have a particular fascination with character actors, for wanting to turn them into lead actors,” Anderson told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. “I see Philip Baker Hall, he’s just…an actor I love . There’s no one else with a face like that, or a voice like that.”

To many, Hall was instantly recognizable for one of “Seinfeld’s” funniest appearances. In the sitcom’s 22nd episode 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 it like a tough noir detective, telling Seinfeld, “Well, I’ve got a flash for you, Joy-boy: the party’s over.”

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Philip Baker Hall played grumpy old neighbor Mr. Kleezak in the third season of

Philip Baker Hall played grumpy old neighbor Mr. Kleezak in the third season of “Modern Family.”
(Peter “Hopper” Stone)

Hall was brought back for the finale of “Seinfeld” and by Larry David on “Curb Your Enthusiasm”. David once said that 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 has appeared on “Say Anything”, “The Truman Show”, “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, “Zodiac”, “Argo”, and “Rush Hour”. Hall played neighbor Walt Kleezak on “Modern Family.” His last performance was in the 2020 series “Messiah”.

Hall, who was married to Dianne Lewis for three years in the early 1970s, is survived by his wife, four daughters, four grandchildren and brother.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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