Remembering Philip Baker Hall: his most memorable roles from Seinfeld to Boogie Nights

Philip Baker Hall
Philip Baker Hall (Image credit: Michael Tran/FilmMagic)

Philip Baker Hall has died at the age of 90. Hall may not be a name some Hollywood fans can instantly recall on its own, but the long-time actor’s face is one that has populated dozens of your favorite movies and TV shows. Whether or not you subscribe to the term "character actor," Hall was one of the best at what it’s generally come to be accepted as — an always reliable supporting player.

Hall died Sunday, June 12, at his home surrounded by family, according to reports. He was 90. 

As per IMDb, Hall had 185 credits throughout his career, dating all the way back to 1970. Some notable early work included appearing in the TV series M*A*S*H and The Waltons, but Hall would become most recognizable in the 1990s and later thanks to his weary, seen-it-all-look that stood out in a number of great appearances. We'll highlight some of our favorite roles from Hall’s career, but there are so many that we must mention, including Midnight Run, Air Force One, The Insider, Bruce Almighty, The West Wing, Zodiac, Modern Family, Argo and Room 104. Hall’s final role was in 2020, in the TV series Messiah.

Here are some reactions from Hall’s peers and media:

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RIP Philip Baker Hall. What a career you had. We've curated some of our favorite performances from his decades-spanning career:


Philip Baker Hall in Seinfeld

(Image credit: Netflix)

Seinfeld had a multitude of incredible guest stars, from big names at the time to future stars, but Philip Baker Hall was one of the first and most memorable guest stars on the long-running sitcom. Appearing in the very first season, Hall played Lt. Joe Bookman, a library cop. That job title sounds silly (because it is), but Hall gave it a hilarious gravitas as he intimidated Jerry for a long over-due book. Hall's performance was such a standout that he was brought back as one of the guest stars in the series finale seven years later.

Where to watch: Netflix (US/UK)

Hard Eight (1996)

John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight

John C. Reilly and Philip Baker Hall (Image credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

You never know how little meetings can change the course of your life. In a Washington Post interview in 2017, Hall recalled how working on a PBS film he met an aspiring filmmaker who was a fan of Hall's work — a young Paul Thomas Anderson. The two formed a connection and Anderson turned to Hall when he was ready to make his first feature film, giving Hall a raw leading man role.

Hard Eight sees Hall play a professional gambler, Sydney, who takes on a protege (John C. Reilly) and teaches him the tricks of the trade. When his pupil gets involved with a cocktail waitress, things spin out of control and it falls on Sydney to fix things. It's a near-perfect role for Hall and would be the first of a very fruitful partnership with Anderson.

Where to watch: Showtime (US)/rent on Prime Video (UK)

Boogie Nights (1997)

Hall's late 90s were defined by his collaborations with Paul Thomas Anderson, with Boogie Nights being the second of their three movies together. While Mark Wahlberg, Burt Reynolds, Julianne Moore, John C. Reilly and others have bigger roles, Hall stands out in a great scene opposite Reynolds. As a film distributor, Hall's character details where he believes the film industry (including the porn industry at the center of the movie) is going, which runs counter to Reynolds' character's long-held beliefs. It's a great back and forth and a standout in a beloved movie.

Where to watch: HBO Max (US)/Virgin Go (UK)

The Truman Show (1998)

Ed Harris and Philip Baker Hall in The Truman Show

Ed Harris and Philip Baker Hall (Image credit: Paramount / TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo)

The Truman Show may not be a performance where we get to see a lot of Philip Baker Hall, but there's a good chance it's one of the movies that most people have seen him in. The Jim Carrey-led movie focuses on the titular Truman's discovery that he is the unknowing star of a TV show and everything around him is built for that show. Hall plays an unnamed TV executive, but he makes the most of his short scenes about how the business brains behind TV shows could eventually come up with such a scheme.

Where to watch: HBO Max (US)/Sky Go (UK)

Rush Hour (1998)

The late 90s were a fruitful time for Hall. In addition to his work with Anderson and the cultural hit The Truman Show, Hall had roles in The Rock, Air Force One, The Practice, Enemy of the State, Gus Van Sant's Psycho remake, The Insider and The Talented Mr. Ripley

One of our favorites was his supporting turn in the action-comedy Rush Hour. Hall plays Chris Tucker's police captain, who helps trick Tucker's character into taking the job to "baby-sit" Jackie Chan's character, for the FBI. Clearly, without him, there is no movie. In all seriousness, Hall gets a fun scene with Tucker and would later reprise his role in Rush Hour 3.

Where to watch: HBO Max (US)/Netflix (UK)

Magnolia (1999)

Philip Baker Hall in Magnolia

(Image credit: New Line Cinema / United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo)

The Hall/Anderson collaboration closed out with Magnolia, where Hall played a famous game show host who is dying of cancer. The scale of Magnolia — focusing on these highly emotional journeys the characters are going through — is immense. Everyone in the cast, from Tom Cruise to Julianne Moore to Philip Seymour Hoffman to William H. Macy  — are all at the top of their game, including and especially Hall. Hall received a SAG nomination for Best Ensemble as part of the cast of Magnolia (he would also receive one for Boogie Nights).

Where to watch: Paramount Plus (US)/Virgin Go (UK)

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Larry David clearly never forgot how good Philip Baker Hall was. The Seinfeld creator had him guest star in a couple episodes of his HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Hall recurred as Doctor Morrison on Curbs in multiple episodes. While Greg Mottola did not work with Hall or David on Curbs, he did direct the pair in the 2013 HBO movie Clear History. Mottola shared this tweet after Hall's passing that praises the actor's work:

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Where to watch: HBO Max (US)/Sky Go (UK)

50/50 (2011)

Philip Baker Hall in 50/50

(Image credit: Collection Christophel / Alamy Stock Photo)

This may not be one of the movies that people think of first for Philip Baker Hall, but we personally love his supporting turn in 50/50. Hall plays Alan, who is going through chemotherapy treatments at the same time as Joseph Gordon-Levitt's lead character. They struck up a friendship as they go through their treatment, but in a simple but powerful scene Hall helps remind the audience of the realities of the disease that they are all suffering from. An underrated movie and performance in Hall's career.

Where to watch: Peacock (US)/digital on-demand (UK)

Michael Balderston

Michael Balderston is a DC-based entertainment and assistant managing editor for What to Watch, who has previously written about the TV and movies with TV Technology, Awards Circuit and regional publications. Spending most of his time watching new movies at the theater or classics on TCM, some of Michael's favorite movies include Casablanca, Moulin Rouge!, Silence of the Lambs, Children of Men, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest and Star Wars. On the TV side he enjoys Only Murders in the Building, Yellowstone, The Boys, Game of Thrones and is always up for a Seinfeld rerun. Follow on Letterboxd.