The Actor Spotlight: Philip Baker Hall
You know how, once someone you know buys a new car you start seeing that same make and model everywhere you go? It was like that with Philip Baker Hall. After I first took notice of the guy, it seemed like he was everywhere. There’s a good chance once you’ve read this piece, you’ll have a similar experience. Chances are, you haven’t a clue what his name is, but you’ve seen him in several of his 65 movies or the 85 television series to date in which he has appeared.
Hall is often cast in roles of authority. Just offhand, he’s played a detective in Three O’Clock High, Police Captain Diel in Rush Hour, the police commissioner in Ghostbusters II, “I.R.S. Boss” in Say Anything…, the Chief Justice in The Rock, a U.S. Attorney General in Air Force One and Defense Secretary Becker in The Sum of All Fears. In each of those and other films, his very presence adds to the credibility of the film. Hall has a way of delivering a line that makes it sound thought out and reasonable, as though it was the only sensible thing to be said at the time whether he’s talking about protocol for the hijacking of Air Force One or planning the invasion of Alcatraz. He did serve in the U.S. Army, but never ascended to the ranks of the characters he’s played. The longevity of his career is testament to his professionalism; superstars might get away with childish antics, but character actors are on a much shorter leash.
At least three times along the way, Hall has been a leading man. Paul Thomas Anderson specifically created the role of Sydney in Hard Eight for Hall, and recently Hall stared in Nicole Bettauer’s Duck as Arthur Pratt, a displaced widower wandering the streets of Los Angeles. Most impressively, Robert Altman cast him as former President Richard Nixon in 1984’s Secret Honor. What makes that performance so noteworthy is that it’s a one-man show; it’s wall-to-wall Hall, and no one else.
If you already knew who Philip Baker Hall was by name, kudos to you. If not, now you know. He won’t make it onto very many posters, and you’ll rarely see his name touted in trailers. Regardless, Hall has a way of elevating any scene in which he appears; he holds his own on screen no matter who else is in the frame. In case you’ve already seen all 65 movies in which he has appeared in the last 40 years, he currently has another five either ready to be released or in some stage of production. Retirement doesn’t seem to be on his mind, and as a movie-goer I couldn’t be happier.