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Remembering character actor Philip Baker Hall


This is FRESH AIR. Philip Baker Hall, the character actor known for his gruff voice and doleful demeanor, died Sunday at the age of 90. After decades of acting on stage, TV and film, his career took off in the 1990s, playing the hard-boiled library cop tracking down overdue books in a now-classic episode of "Seinfeld."


PHILIP BAKER HALL: (As Lt. Joe Bookman) You took this book out in 1971.

JERRY SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Yes, and I returned it in 1971.

HALL: (As Lt. Joe Bookman) Yeah, '71, that was my first year on the job. Bad year for libraries.


HALL: (As Lt. Joe Bookman) Bad year for America. Hippies burning library cards. Abbie Hoffman telling everybody to steal books. I don't judge a man by the length of his hair or the kind of music he listens to. Rock was never my bag. But you put on a pair of shoes when you walk into the New York Public Library, fellow.

SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Look; Mr. Bookman.


SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) I returned that book. I remember it very specifically.

HALL: (As Lt. Joe Bookman) You're a comedian. You make people laugh.

SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) I try.

HALL: (As Lt. Joe Bookman) You think this is all a big joke, don't you?


SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) No, I don't.

HALL: (As Lt. Joe Bookman) I saw you on TV once. I remembered your name from my list. I looked it up. Sure enough, it checked out. You think because you're a celebrity that somehow the law doesn't apply to you, that you're above the law?

SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Certainly not.

HALL: (As Lt. Joe Bookman) Well, let me tell you something, funny boy.


HALL: (As Lt. Joe Bookman) You know that little stamp, the one that says New York Public Library? Well, that may not mean anything to you, but that means a lot to me, one whole hell of a lot. Sure, go ahead. Laugh if you want to. I've seen your type before - flashy, making a scene, flaunting convention.


DAVIES: Philip Baker Hall developed a friendship with Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of a public TV show, which led to Hall's performances in Anderson's early films. Hall portrayed a gambler in "Hard Eight," a porn mogul in "Boogie Nights" and a whiz-kids game show host in "Magnolia." His other films include "Bruce Almighty," "The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Air Force One," "60 Minutes" (ph), "The Insider," "Argo," "Zodiac," and "Rush Hour." On TV, he appeared in "Cheers," "Falcon Crest," "L.A. Law," "M*A*S*H," "Miami Vice," "The West Wing," "Modern Family" and "Curb Your Enthusiasm" - in all, more than 80 films and 200 television appearances.

When Terry spoke with Philip Baker Hall in 2003, he was co-starring in "Die, Mommie, Die!", a satire of melodramas from the 1950s and '60s. Charles Busch, who wrote the screenplay, stars in drag as an over-the-hill pop star once known as America's nightingale. She lives in a mansion with her husband, a producer played by Philip Baker Hall, and their two children. He suspects she's been cheating on him, so he hires a private detective. In this scene, he shows his wife photos taken by the private eye, explicit evidence of adultery. Here's Hall and Busch.


CHARLES BUSCH: (As Angela Arden) I'd say these are certainly grounds for divorce.

HALL: (As Sol Sussman) Never. I am sentencing you to life imprisonment, baby. And I am going to be the warden.

BUSCH: (As Angela Arden) You're mad.

HALL: (As Sol Sussman) We are a famous couple, Angela, and we're going to stay that way in public, if not in private.

BUSCH: (As Angela Arden) And this will bring you happiness.

HALL: (As Sol Sussman) Nobody makes a dirty joke out of Sol P. Sussman. You are my possession. I own you just like I own every toilet in this house. Oh, oh, oh.

BUSCH: (As Angela Arden) Sol, are you all right?

HALL: (As Sol Sussman) Don't get your hopes up. It's not a heart attack. It's this damn constipation.


TERRY GROSS: Philip Baker Hall, welcome to FRESH AIR. Is this the first time your leading lady has been a man in drag?

HALL: (Laughter) Well, as far as I know.


HALL: We don't know everything, you know, in some of these movies.

GROSS: Did that affect your performance at all?

HALL: No, it didn't, not in the least. CHARLES, of course, I mean, as he's been doing for years in his various female personae, Charles does it with such amazing skill and such charm that, you know, for all practical purposes, he might as well have been a beautiful young woman. I mean, he's - you know, Charles is pretty amazing.

GROSS: Now, the first time I really noticed you - and I think I'm speaking for a lot of people here - was in the movie "Hard Eight," which was written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. And you were also in his films "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia." In "Hard Eight," you play a gambler who knows all the angles at the casinos, and you become a father figure to a real loser, someone who's a loser in life and at the casinos, played by John C. Reilly.


HALL: (As Sydney) How much money do you have left?

JOHN C REILLY: (As John) Nothing.

HALL: (As Sydney) If I were to give you $50, what would you do with it?

REILLY: (As John) I'd eat.

HALL: (As Sydney) How long can you eat? How long can you live on $50?

REILLY: (As John) I don't know.

HALL: (As Sydney) I would bet not very long.

REILLY: (As John) You would bet.

HALL: (As Sydney) I tell you what. You come with me back to Vegas. I'll loan you $50. I'll show you what you did wrong.

REILLY: (As John) Why? What are you, man? You think you're Saint Francis or something?

HALL: (As Sydney) No, I don't think I'm St. Francis.

REILLY: (As John) All right, look; are you looking for a [expletive]? 'Cause I'm not some boy hooker if that's what you're after.

HALL: (As Sydney) I'm not looking for a hooker, John. I'm offering you a ride, offering to teach you something.

GROSS: Philip Baker Hall, what's the story behind how you met Paul Thomas Anderson and made this movie with him? It was his first film.

HALL: Yeah. I was doing a movie for public television in LA, and Paul was a volunteer production assistant. And he - you know, he was basically getting the coffee and helping out with the little chores on the set. And we would have coffee and cigarettes between takes, and we became friendly. And we - and what brought us together initially was the fact that Paul - course, I didn't know - you know, I didn't know where Paul Thomas Anderson was going at this point. He was just a very young man who had an almost encyclopedic film knowledge. And he was one of the few people I had met who had seen every movie that I had ever made. And he seemed to have a line on my whole film career. It was flattering, and it was unusual.

So at one point, I ask him what his ambition was, and he said it was to be a writer and maybe to be a director. And by the way, he said, I have a short script, and there's a great role for you in it, and I would love to give it to you and get your opinion of it, and if you like it, maybe we could do it. So he sent me this 28-minute script - short feature is what it was - called "Cigarettes & Coffee." And the writing was so extraordinary that I almost lost my balance and fell down. I'm serious. It was absolutely amazing. I could not believe the quality of the writing. And we did that short film. And it was - it got Paul on the map as a young director. It showed at a lot of festivals around the world. And then Sundance eventually screened it and asked him to come up one summer with a feature that he would like to put into their workshop. And that's when he wrote "Heart Eight," which was originally called "Sydney." So that's where we met.

GROSS: What was it like to kind of really break in to film when you were already probably in your 60s, right?

HALL: Late 50s and early 60s. It was - it meant a lot of things. First of all, I have two small children. I have a 7-year-old daughter and a 2 1/2-year-old daughter. And it helped me to be able to secure their future, which was something that had been concerning me before that - their. Only one had been born then. It also personally, of course, meant for me certain significant changes in my life. For example, I don't have to go in and audition anymore (laughter), which is great, OK? And then also, just at the ego level, it's very nice to get this - the recognition.

And the recognition - I mean, I'm not - I never yearned to be recognized at the supermarket or to have to wear dark glasses or to protect myself or anything. That was never part of what I was aiming for. But it - but I always did want peer recognition, no doubt about that. It is great to be recognized by other wonderful artists. That is gratifying.

GROSS: I want to ask you about your voice. Your voice is often - I mean, you're often in these kind of tough or authoritative type of roles whether it's somebody, you know, with a lot of power in a cabinet position or whether it's, you know, somebody who's connected to gangsters. I know your voice is capable of being really tough. I can't quite place it geographically. It always sounds very urban to me, but I can't really say I hear or I can locate a particular accent. Where are you from?

HALL: I'm from Ohio. I was born in Toledo, Ohio, and I grew up there. My father was from Montgomery, Ala. So I certainly don't speak - unless a character requires it - with a - any kind of a Southern dialect or - but there may be something - something may have been added or taken out of the Midwestern aspect of it by hearing my father, who did pretty much maintain his accent and dialect.

GROSS: What...

HALL: In fact, somebody asked me once - they wanted me to do something. I don't know if it was for a commercial or what. They wanted me to do a Midwestern accent. And I thought I was already doing it, so...


GROSS: Right.

HALL: There you go.

GROSS: What's another, like, defining moment of your early life?

HALL: Well, I think the defining - a defining moment of my early life would probably be in grade school when - and then also in high school, when I realized that there might be another life for me other than the life that was there. In other words, my father always expected me to follow him at the Willys Overland plant and to work at the plant also, which, in fact, when I went to college at one point, I did for a short time. But he was always expecting me to probably end up working in a factory like he did. This is what appeared to be the life that was available. But somewhere, I realized that I would be able to make something different with my life and that I could perhaps do it as an actor. And I knew this pretty early. Somewhere in grade school, I began to sense the possibility of this.

You know, my voice changed early. And I remember that the teachers, when they would do little class plays and programs and things, they would select me sometimes for key roles because it - probably between the ages of 12 and 14, I didn't sound like a child. I sounded basically like an adult because my voice became so deep and so husky so young. So - and I began to realize at that point, that I sort of intuitively possessed some skills in this area. And I determined pretty - at a pretty young age to try and make the most of them. So here we are (laughter).

GROSS: I've really enjoyed talking with you. Thank you so much for talking with us.

HALL: Terry, I've enjoyed this so much. I know I've rambled on here, but it's fun to be given an opportunity to ramble on.

DAVIES: Philip Baker Hall speaking with Terry Gross, recorded in 2003. He died Sunday at the age of 90.

Coming up, Justin Chang reviews two Sundance films that are now streaming, and each deal with a relationship between a younger man and an older woman. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD AND BILL EVANS' "PIXIES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Terry Gross
Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.