Philip Baker Hall, one of Hollywood’s mightiest character actors with roles in films like Magnolia, Hard Eight, and Secret Honor, died Sunday night. He was 90.
Hall’s death was first announced on Twitter by his neighbor, Sam Farmer, a sportswriter for the Los Angeles 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. “He was surrounded by loved ones. The world has an empty space in it.” Hall’s daughter, Anna, confirmed the death to the New York Times, adding that the cause was complications of emphysema.
Hall spent nearly six decades as a working actor, racking up 185 acting credits across film and TV (per IMDB), on top of over 100 theater roles, per a 2017 Washington Post profile. With his gruff voice and a face that John C. Reilly once described as “a basset-hound look, a gravitas and weight,” Hall was a consummate character actor, capable of both comedy and drama, leading a film or dropping in for a memorable TV guest spot.
Born and raised in Toledo, Ohio, Hall set his sights on acting when he was 10 years old, telling Playbill, “I had a feeling that I could be a pretty good one if I chose to be.” But his first professional endeavor — after a stint in the Army — was in linguistics, and he taught a bit while getting his master’s degree. Ultimately, though, he left academia for New York to pursue acting. He cut his teeth during the Sixties in various off-Broadway productions and as a member of the American Repertory Company and the famed Second City improv troupe.
Hall began scoring screen roles in the Seventies, picking up guest spots on shows like Good Times, M*A*S*H*, and Emergency, and roles in movies like Coma and Cowards. The closest thing Hall had to a major breakthrough came in the early Eighties when he was cast as Richard Nixon in Secret Honor, a one-man show about the disgraced president; the original stage play received rave reviews, and Robert Altman adapted it into a film in 1984. Though not a massive commercial success, Hall’s performance was widely praised and helped cement his place as a reliable character actor.
Speaking with The Washington Post in 2017, Hall offered a succinct description of the kind of roles he excelled in: “Men who are highly stressed, older men, who are at the limit of their tolerance for suffering and stress and pain. I had an affinity for playing those roles.”
In the Nineties, Hall became a fixture in Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies after meeting the young filmmaker when he was working as a production assistant on a PBS special. Hall starred in Anderson’s breakthrough short, Cigarettes and Coffee, and its subsequent feature-length adaptation, Hard Eight, as well as classics like Magnolia and Boogie Nights. During this time, Hall also had a memorable guest role on a Season Three episode of Seinfeld, and a decade or so later, the show’s co-creator, Larry David, cast him on Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Hall also put in memorable turns in films like Michael Mann’s The Insider, Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, and David Fincher’s Zodiac. And on top of his recurring role on Curb, he popped up in shows like Modern Family, The West Wing, and Bojack Horseman.
Later in his life, Hall battled emphysema, the result of decades of smoking, as well as long-lasting effects from a childhood bout with pneumonia. Despite being forced to use an oxygen tank, he continued to work regularly, appearing in movies like The Last Word and shows like Corporate and Messiah.