GLENDALE, Calif. — When Philip Baker Hall was young, he looked old. He sounded ancient, Methuselah with a swell thatch of hair. He appears to have been born with bags under his doleful eyes. The bags have since sublet bags. The voice, scuffed with age, has been compared to sandpaper, a burlap bag, miles of hard road, shoe leather and never to a summer’s eve. “He has a basset-hound look, a gravitas and weight,” says actor John C. Reilly, who starred with Hall in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Hard Eight” in 1996. “He has this freshness and enthusiasm that most people don’t have at that age. That’s the kind of thing you’re looking for in an older actor, an old-world knowledge, a wiseness.”
Hall has 175 film and television credits listed on Internet Movie Database, including Anderson’s “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights,” and a memorable turn as “Seinfeld’s” hard-boiled library cop, Lieutenant Bookman, a few minutes of no-nonsense nonsense that launched him into the character actor firmament.
“Philip has made me laugh harder than any actor I’ve worked with,” says “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David, who has hired Hall repeatedly.
“When I first came out here, I was totally naive. I didn’t know where to start,” says Hall, 85, sitting in his handsome 1929 Spanish-style home. “Television really had no meaning for me. We never had a television. I didn’t see myself doing a movie. Ever. It didn’t seem possible or likely.”
Instead, he became the “Where’s Waldo” of acting. Audiences know the face, certainly the voice, but many people have trouble conjuring his name. Think of a show, Hall’s been on it.
“Good Times” (1976)? Twice. “Family Ties” (1988)? Three times. “Modern Family” (2011-2012)? Three times, too. “BoJack Horseman?” Yes, as the voice of talk-show host Hank Hippopopalous. Possibly, he’s the only actor to have appeared in “The Zodiac” and “Zodiac,” two movies made two years apart about the same serial killer.
His first love is theater, more than 100 roles, juicy parts, terrific plays, often the lead, including a 2000 revival of David Mamet’s “American Buffalo” with William H. Macy. “Fearlessness,” Macy observes of the performance. “Philip owned the stage.” Hall’s played off-Broadway, London, top Southern California venues and never Broadway.
His fat stack of television and movie credits is remarkable given that Hall did not begin acting until he turned 30 or settle in Los Angeles until he was over 40, the industry equivalent of, well, Forest Lawn.
“The older he got, he got more work,” says his friend and fellow octogenarian actor Mitchell Ryan. “I retired. He won’t.”
Hall’s reviews got better, “great” permanently hitched to his name. “It’s because of my age,” Hall shrugs.
“Throughout his long career, you see spectacular moments of sadness or rage or revenge or menace or loneliness, but you always see a man working,” Macy notes. “He works quietly, methodically and steadily. And that magical moment when Philip Baker Hall, learning the play and plying his trade, suddenly becomes a character in full in imaginary circumstances is a glorious mystery.”
Hall has been directed by Robert Altman (as Richard Nixon in the one-man picture “Secret Honor”), Michael Mann (playing “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt in “The Insider”) and, most famously, Anderson.
They met on a forgettable PBS movie, where Anderson worked as a production assistant.
“He was a fan of my work, so how could I not like him?” Hall says. “We would talk, and have cigarettes and coffee.”
Anderson later sent him a script for a short demo film he wanted to shoot for the festival circuit, the part expressly written for Hall. It was called “Cigarettes & Coffee.”
That movie begot “Hard Eight,” Anderson’s first full-length feature. It’s one of the rare times Hall claims the lead — he portrays Sydney, the film’s original title — in a cast that includes Reilly, Samuel L. Jackson and Gwyneth Paltrow, who was not yet a star, let alone a Goop.
Hall’s lungs are now shot, emphysema, the toll from pneumonia as a child and decades of prodigious smoking. Until he quit two decades ago, the actor smoked as though it was performance art.
Still, despite his complete dependence on an oxygen tank and being limited to filming only a few minutes at a time without it, Hall had two movies at this year’s Sundance (“The Last Word,” “Person to Person”).
He shares his house with Holly, his outgoing, athletic wife of almost three decades, who is three decades his junior, as well as the youngest of his four daughters from two marriages.
“They range in age from 16 to 61. This may not be a record, but it’s in the running,” Hall says.
“When most people are becoming grandparents, he was becoming a parent again,” says Reilly, calling from location in London. “He was riding a motorcycle, going camping every weekend, super-handy around the house making things, just very youthful. I literally have no idea how he did all this at his age.”
Hall has played more judges than he cares to count, including Judge Julius Hoffman, who presided over — or tried to — the trial of “The Chicago 8.”
“The judges were driving me crazy. I didn’t want to do any more of them,” Hall says. “You never get to walk around. You’re sitting up there behind the desk, like you’re a god.”
A god is not what a character actor is.
But Hall also played senators, lawyers, doctors and detectives, a white lab coat or dark trench coat wardrobe staples.
His most indelible detective is Bookman, the “Dragnet”-inspired detective who comes after Jerry for a copy of Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” that’s two decades overdue.
“You better not screw up again, Seinfeld,” he castigates Jerry, “because if you do, I’ll be all over you like a pit bull on a poodle.”
Over nine seasons and 180 episodes, hundreds of actors appeared on “Seinfeld.” Jerry’s failed dates alone could stock a stadium. Consider what it takes to make such an impression that Hall’s recognized everywhere from that brief sitcom role in 1991.
Of Bookman, David recalls, “he was so committed to that character that he had us on the floor. Jerry had problems getting through the scene.” David notes this “was minor compared to what I went through with ‘Curb,’ ” adding that Hall “makes no effort whatsoever to try to be funny. He just acts like he’s not in a comedy,” which makes the performance even funnier.
Hall was raised “in the slums of the north end of Toledo” during the Depression. His father, with a fifth-grade education, didn’t work for 10 years. Hall fell in love with acting at the University of Toledo. He received encouragement from an acting professor and later a theater troupe director when he served as an Army translator in Germany. The fallback was teaching.
“If I had known who I was as an actor back then, my career probably would have been more successful,” Hall says. “You keep getting cast in a certain kind of role. It’s hard to break out of that.”
He discovered what worked. “Men who are highly stressed, older men, who are at the limit of their tolerance for suffering and stress and pain,” he says. “I had an affinity for playing those roles.”
Yet Ryan, Hall’s friend of 40 years, says, “I have never seen Philip dispirited.” Referring to Hall’s emphysema, Ryan says, “with his incredible disability, I’ve never heard him complain. He’s some kind of marvelous stoic.”
When Hall first arrived in California in the early ’70s, an agent told him, “what I see is a middle-aged guy, not especially good looking, short, over 40.”
There was more.
“You know how many guys like that out there who want to be actors? I already have too many middle-aged actors,” Hall recalls him saying. “They’re all starving.”
The agent told Hall, “you’re a theater actor. There’s a lot to learn about film and television. Big difference. It’s almost impossible to learn at your age.”
But, then again, that was 170 roles ago.