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Philip Baker Hall: a character actor of strength, gravitas and lugubrious good humour

The death of the actor, 90, leaves behind a career filled with indelible moments, from Seinfeld to Magnolia to Boogie Nights “Maybe we can live without libraries, people like you and me. Maybe. Sure. We’re too old to change the world. But what about that kid sitting down, opening a book right now in a branch of the local library, and finding drawings of pee-pees and wee-wees in The Cat in the Hat and The Five Chinese Brothers? Doesn’t he deserve better? Look, if you think this is about overdue fines and missing books, you’d better think again. This is about that kid’s right to read a book without getting his mind warped. Or maybe that turns you on, Seinfeld. Maybe that’s how you get your kicks, you and your good-time buddies. Well, I’ve got a flash for you, joy boy – party time is over!” The tough, gravelly voice, the bags under his eyes, the air of hard-won authority, the battle-hardened wisdom, under which is a crucified fatherly disdain for lax youth, a passionate resentment at those who have not submitted to discipline as he has done … but also a sense that he might yet help a younger person who was properly deserving. This was a character actor whose natural power and gravitas gave weight and sinew to hundreds of movies, and he performed big, even starring roles for heavy-hitter directors. But it was Philip Baker Hall’s destiny to come suddenly into focus in 1991, and even achieve a kind of pop-culture stardom – a meme before there were memes – with one brilliantly funny cameo on Seinfeld as the terrifying Mr Bookman, who comes around to Jerry’s apartment to investigate a library book missing since 1971. It’s a brilliant speech because it is entirely serious – like something by Aaron Sorkin – and Baker delivers it with absolute conviction. Suddenly, the movie world realised how brilliant Hall was: a low-key American classic.

He had actually given one of the best – or the best – screen portrayal of President Richard Nixon, starring in Robert Altman’s Secret Honor in 1984, based on the Donald Freed stage-play, delivering a bravura Nixonian aria of resentment, paranoia, shrill self-congratulation and martyred triumphalism. Of all the movie Nixons there have been, Hall’s face came closest to the legendary jowly glower. Continue reading...

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