Before Philip Baker Hall became one of the most sought-after and busy actors on stage and screen, he suffered a brief career as a high school teacher. Baker Hall will be the first to tell you he hated the job. "You have to be a policeman," he said. "I didn't want to be a cop."
Ironic, considering that in his 40-plus years as a performer, Baker Hall has played more than his share of detectives, policemen, and investigators. Perhaps his most famous flatfoot was the aptly named Lt. Bookman, the library cop who dresses down a befuddled Jerry in a classic episode of the series Seinfeld. Bookman personified what was soon to become a Baker Hall specialty: the tough-talking, patrician figure who seems to bear the burdens of the world on his sagging shoulders. It was a paradigm that would serve him well in films ranging from big-budget blockbusters (Air Force One, Rush Hour) to smaller, edgier fare (Boogie Nights, Hard Eight).
Baker Hall turned 72 last month but shows no signs of slowing down or playing it safe, as evidenced by two of his upcoming films. He will appear in Lars Von Trier's Dogville, which has already earned a love-it-or-hate-it response from its Cannes premiere. And this weekend he stars as movie producer Sol Sussman in Die Mommie Die!, the campy comedy that stars Charles Busch (who also wrote the script) in drag as his murderous wife. It's a departure even for a man with more than 100 film and television appearances to his credit, and Baker Hall brings his usual degree of class to the deliberately bizarre proceedings.
In person, Baker Hall is as direct and blunt, but far more gracious, than his on-screen personae. He recently sat down with Back Stage West to discuss his new films, the Seinfeld phenomenon, and the joy of not auditioning.
Back Stage West: How did you become the go-to guy for gruff authority figures?
Philip Baker Hall: It's interesting, I don't know how that happened. Even when I was in school, I was always cast as the father or the strong character part.
BSW: What are you most recognized for?
Baker Hall: I get a lot of character name recognition for Seinfeld. Any place in the world—even in Venice, Italy—I heard someone say, "Hey, it's Bookman! It's Bookman!" I was like, "What?" It's unbelievable. It's amazing how many people know Bookman. It's interesting, too, because that was episode 22, early in the run of Seinfeld, and they were ranked about 80 in the Nielsens, and they were awaiting the axe any day. In the beginning, people forget, they were under threat every single day. It was just on the cusp of catching on, and suddenly it was hot. It was such a great character, and I had a great five-page sitcom monologue, what are the odds of that? I read for that, I auditioned, and Jerry was still doing the auditions then with Larry David and Larry Charles. And I remember there were lots of well-known actors reading for that part. I can't remember who all of them were, but they were all people who had recently been stars on sitcoms and all recognizable. And I remember that Jerry could not stop laughing. He just completely cracked up.
BSW: You're in the upcoming Dogville, directed by Lars Von Trier, opposite Nicole Kidman. Von Trier hasn't always gotten along with his actors. How did you find working with him?
Baker Hall: Lars is a trip. He's kind of enigmatic. All these directors who write and direct, they all have these really private visions of things. And they either can't or won't express them very clearly to anyone else. It's like you see the film and that's what it is. What does it mean? I don't know, they're not saying. The critics will tell me what it means.
BSW: You frequently collaborate with another writer/director with his own vision, Paul Thomas Anderson. Is Paul like that?
Baker Hall: I don't know how Paul is with others. I'm a little different because he and I have a history that goes back to his very first film, which is really kind of a student film, called Coffee & Cigarettes. Ours is more of a father-son relationship, and he doesn't need to be enigmatic with me.
BSW: Can you tell me about how your relationship with Paul came about?
Baker Hall: Paul was a volunteer production assistant on a movie that I was doing for PBS, and we would share coffee and cigarettes during the breaks, and I could see that he was unusual. He was intelligent and he had an encyclopedic knowledge of film and he was also personable in some way that some young artists—and he was like 20 or 21—are not. Their ambition, their thirst to succeed, often eclipses anything else about them. Even at 20, his ability to articulate his own thoughts and his knowledge of film was so complete that he could have held a group of a thousand people at Carnegie Hall silent for three hours. His combination of humor and intelligence and knowledge is really compelling.
And I could see that this was someone special, and one day we were having coffee and cigarettes between takes, and I said, "What is your ambition?" And he said he wanted to write and direct. I was like, "Oh, that's a surprise. Isn't that what everyone wants to do on this set?" But I knew that he was different. And he said, "By the way, I have a short script, kind of a student project, and there's a great role for you in it." I said sure and he mailed it to me.
In some ways, I think the writing in it is better than any of the writing in his other films. It's a combination of poetry and hard street talk. It really is remarkable. I couldn't believe it while I was reading it. He won't allow it to be released. I was there when Paul and I did the DVD for Hard Eight, and the producer wanted to include [Coffee & Cigarettes] on the DVD, and Paul would not allow it. He says it's his first effort and kind of crude and childish. It may be some of those things, but it shows such absolute, outright genius that he should not be embarrassed about. Maybe when he gets older he'll be more comfortable showing it.
BSW: What would you say is your big break? I think what springs to mind is your work as Richard Nixon in Robert Altman's Secret Honor.
Baker Hall: I don't know, I've had so many big breaks. Secret Honor was my first major film statement. I came out here in 1975 and hadn't done a film until I was in my 40s; I was strictly a theatre actor. That got me on the map in one way, but in another way, since I had arrived so late with something like that and the role was so unusual, I think a lot of producers didn't know what to make of me. I was "hot" in the sense that everybody in the industry wanted to meet me, so I had a lot of meetings with producers and directors. But there was a funny attitude among them. It was like, Yes, he's very good, but if he's so good, why haven't we heard of him? Even Altman had that attitude a bit. When he saw the play, he said, "How long have you been acting?" I said, "All of my life." He said, "Well, then how come I've never heard of you?" There was a little arrogance there, like Robert Altman feels if he hasn't heard of you, you must not exist. He's very much an elitist in that respect. And I said, "You know, I was making a living before I met you, Bob." I raised kids and I had a full career as an actor even before Secret Honor—mainly in the theatre. But there was an odd attitude with people I met.
But I did get a TV series out of it. It was called Mariah, on ABC, about a prison. It focused on the lives of the people who work at the prison. I was the warden. It was a really interesting piece, but like a lot of television, it got screwed up. ABC spent $11 million building mock prison sets, and we shot only seven episodes. I knew it was going to be cancelled before we even shot the pilot, because I saw the caliber of the producers that were assigned to it. It was the people the network was paying off favors to, using up contracts that they owed to people. It was just terrible. But I got that as a result of Secret Honor, and I didn't have to audition for that.
Coen for Broke
BSW: Is that the best part of your level of celebrity, the fact that you don't have to audition for things?
Baker Hall: It's great. But you know, interesting things happen. I have not auditioned for over 10 years. But I was offered a small role in a Coen Brothers movie two or three movies back. It was really small and I turned it down. And I understand that Joel Coen was very upset; it got back to me that he was upset. But it wasn't a role, it was like a one-line appearance. I mean, I like their work, but they're not so good that I would give up my life to appear in one scene. It's not Shakespeare, it's not Elia Kazan at his peak, so I turned it down.
Then I met them at a party, and Frances McDormand and I spent a really wonderful evening together, and I met the two Coen guys, and Frances said, "We have to have Philip in a movie." And they agreed. I said, "I would love to be in a movie with you guys."
So they wanted to meet me for the role that Edward Herrmann is playing in Intolerable Cruelty. We couldn't be more different, right? He's 6-foot-10 and huge. So they wanted to meet me and a date was set up, and on the very morning that I'm getting ready I get a call from my agent saying, "They want you to read." I talked with my agent and asked what she thought. She said, "Well, it's up to you because we basically have a 'no audition' policy for you now." And it's good. Because if they're interested, they make an offer or not. I'll meet with someone, but I'm not going to read. So I decided not to but I said I would go to the meeting. So they called back and said they didn't want to meet. So I never even met with them, and I asked whether I was still being considered for that role. I liked the role and I thought the [script] was good. And they said, "Well, probably not." Now, my question is, and I'll probably never know the answer, but did Edward Herrmann audition for it? I'd like to know. I wonder if there were, like, five well-known character actors auditioning for that role.
See, this is what happens. You go in and you audition for these things and they get ideas. They'll say, "Well, he's not really right but he did do one thing that I really liked. And you know who does that really well? Edward Herrmann! Let's get him!" And they do that. I don't know how many times in the past when I used to audition, my agent would get the feedback and say, "No, they loved you and you gave them some ideas. Things they haven't thought of before." It's wonderful that I'm providing work for Edward Herrmann or whoever.
BSW: Your current film, Die Mommie Die!, is unlike anything you've done before. What drew you to the project?
Baker Hall: The agent called me about a year ago and said, "I have a very interesting script. They've offered you a role in it, but I'm not going to tell you anything about it because if I do, you're probably going to turn it down without reading it." So she sent it and I liked it and I saw Charles Busch's name on it. I didn't know Charles but I knew who he was and I knew he was a great writer and a wonderful performer, and I like all the stuff he's done in the past. So I said I'd like to do it; it looked like fun. It's so different from the stuff I normally do, the secretary of state, secretary of defense, doctors, lawyers, police chief roles. So the chance to do a role where the sky's the limit, where we're not held to such a rigid format, and I'm not the guy who's carrying the world on his shoulders and have to make a terrible decision, appealed to me. It's really fun to do a movie where the director says, "You know, that's great, but can you do a little more?" I don't get to do movies like this very often. I did Bruce Almighty with Jim Carrey, and watching Jim Carrey work is really interesting. He'll do one take and then another and another, a little bit more each time, and finally he'll do a take where he doesn't make any sense at all, it's so absurd that you can't believe it. In the end, he's got nine different takes, they're all good, and he and the director can sit in the editing room and decide how insane they want a given sequence to be. So it was kind of fun to work that way. I started out crazy and went insane.
BSW: When you're doing a movie like this, do you approach it differently from a heavy drama like Magnolia?
Baker Hall: Well, I got the offer on this role after someone turned it down. As an actor, you're rarely the first choice; it doesn't bother me at all. Anyway, they were in a bind, everything was set up and ready to go, and they didn't have anybody for this role. I don't even know how my name got into the mix. It was Adam Arkin who dropped out, which is a little hard to figure out because he's, like, 33 years old. I didn't have any time to prepare. I got the call on, like, a Monday and had to make a decision by Wednesday, and I was shooting by Saturday. So there was no real preparation, and I think it's a good thing. The characters and the situations created by Charles are so explicitly over-the-top to begin with that I think the actor's job in a script like that is to hold it as close as you can to something really basic and truthful and let all the insanity take care of itself. And not try to embroider it—other than the glasses I wear.
BSW: You've worked with just about everyone. Is there anyone left you're eager to work with?
Baker Hall: Well, the Coen Brothers, I would like to do a movie with them. But I want a real role, especially since Frances said it was OK. Frances is my hero.
You know, it's funny, Spielberg's casting people would bring me in for things and I was never cast. And I remember at the first screening of Hard Eight at Sundance, he was there. And I did a movie called Three O'Clock High that he produced. So I've had these brushes with Spielberg, but he's never offered me a thing. He's done all these movies, and I see all of these great character supporting roles, and I think, Well, I must not be his cup of tea. He's had chances now for almost 20 years to offer me something, and he hasn't. I think he must not like my work or something.
I worked with Robert De Niro in Midnight Run, [and] I was cast in his movie Guilty By Suspicion as the judge. I read with Bob for about two hours, and Bob approved, and I was cast. We will never know why I am not in that movie. It was a great scene, 19 pages with Robert De Niro. My agent blames my manager, my manager blames my agent, and they're all blaming the casting director for the film. I don't know who did what. But they made an offer, and it's appropriate in Hollywood to turn down the first offer. The first offer is usually baloney, anyway. It's usually appropriate in a big-budget feature to end up paying at least twice what the original offer was. I remember the original offer was $35,000, and my manager called me, and we were really excited. So he said, "I know we can probably get $100,000 for this." This was on a Friday, I didn't hear anything on Monday, so I called my manager and said, "What's going on?" He said, "Well, we lost it." I said, "How can you lose it? There was no counteroffer?" I mean, that's the way they play the game out here. They offer $35,000, we ask for 100, they come back and say 45, we say 85, they come back and say 50, and then it's up to me. And I would have taken the 50. Anyway, I never found out. I even called the casting woman; she wouldn't talk about it. She didn't want to get herself in the middle of whatever might have happened. That was heartbreaking at the time because I was on a real good roll. This was before Seinfeld, before things started breaking really big for me. It was a good role.
Getting the Grease
BSW : How did you go from teaching high school to becoming an actor?
Baker Hall: I was teaching because I came out of the Army and had two little children, and I wasn't from New York so I didn't know how to get to New York, basically. When I finally went, I was completely naïve. I was from the University of Toledo, I wasn't from Carnegie or University of Texas or from Yale or some of these schools that have big theatre departments and therefore a lot of power in New York. A lot of people in my generation who came into New York in the '60s came from some of these big schools, and I don't mean that their path was littered with gold and every door was open to them, but there were immediate connections based on the fact they had gone to these colleges. I didn't know exactly how to begin, I really didn't. I had a picture and a resumé, but I didn't really have a resumé. I had some high school, college stuff I had done, and this really amateurish picture, and no agent would talk to me. So I went around to theatres and looked for plays with large casts and would go back and ask the stage manager if anybody was leaving. I really didn't know where to go or what to do.
I got a break in a most unusual way. Helen Hayes, June Havoc, and Leif Erickson were making a tour of the world with three plays in repertory for the Theatre Guild Company, which was a historic company. I heard they had just come back and were getting ready to go on their South American tour and many actors would be leaving. So I went to the Theatre Guild office Downtown and presented myself to the casting director and she could not have cared less. She said there were no openings. So a week or so went by, and I ran into someone who said there were things there and I should go back. So I went back and she wouldn't speak to me. I went back a third time and said, "I know you don't think I'm right for these things and that's OK, but I want to leave my picture and resumé, and I have a wife and two children, and I'm trying to make a living, just like you're trying to make a living. You don't have to look at it, but I've got a right to leave it here, and I'm going to leave it on your desk." I got home, and there was a phone call from the casting director, and she said, "We are casting for some of the understudy roles and small stage roles if you want to come down." I don't know what made her change her mind. Maybe the fact I kept coming back; she said she was sort of impressed by the seriousness of that. Would I have come back a fourth time? I don't know.
I read for Miss Hayes, who was the star, and the director, who was one of the very first women to have directed plays on Broad-way. She and Miss Hayes were not friends, as I discovered later; there was a big war going on. So when I came out to read, I never actually got to read. I would come out on the stage, and they would keep having meetings. So I would start, and they would go meet. Finally, at a certain point, I was there for like an hour and a half, and there were all these guys waiting for their chance, too. It didn't look good. So I just stood up and in my loudest voice said, "I've been here an hour and a half, I'm just in from Ohio, I don't know anybody here or have any connections, it's my first audition in New York. And I'm very impressed by all these great actors I'm seeing here, but I have a family and I have to get home. Goodbye." Miss Hayes, bless her heart, said to me, "That was a very good audition." And then the director, who was in the back, came running down the aisle and said, "That was a wonderful audition. What is your name?" And I got home and there was a message, I got the job. BSW