“I’m pretty bad,” said Philip Baker Hall of his latest character. “Totally corrupt, from top to bottom. I’m also a brutal sadist--insufferable, overbearing. . . . “
Is Hall reprising his role as Adolf Hitler from “The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.” (Odyssey, 1984)? Or perhaps it’s his no-nonsense general in “Nanawatai” (Los Angeles Theatre Center, 1985)? Or escaped killer Duke Mantee in “The Petrified Forest” (LATC, 1985)? Or the title role in “Secret Honor: The Last Tape (and Testament) of Richard M. Nixon” (Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre, 1983)?
Not at all. He’s playing a double-dealing mayor in Nikolai Gogol’s 19th-Century political satire, “The Inspector General,” which opened Friday at LATC.
“The thing about playing these characters is that they’re complex, rich,” said the actor, 56. “Some of the straight-out heroic parts have less depth, less things for an actor to explore. Hitler, this, the father in ‘Nuts,’ Joe Keller (in “All My Sons”)--they’re all very neurotic, complicated men who are fun to investigate.”
Fun, but hard. Especially the one-man “Secret Honor,” which Hall originated in the play’s premiere at LAAT, then reprised in stagings in New York, Boston and Washington--and on film for director Robert Altman in 1985.
For the movie version, at least, he believes the weariness factor worked for him. “Altman would do a take. Then he’d say, ‘That’s good. Want to do it again?’ I’d say, ‘I’m pretty tired.’ He’d say, ‘OK, let’s do another one.’ And we did long takes: 15, 18 minutes--which in movies are unbelievable. Then he’d say, ‘You want to do another? Let’s do another.’ I normally weigh about 160 pounds; during the Nixon thing I went down to 127.”
When he was first offered the script, Hall said no: The monologue text was so dense and unwieldy, he thought, that no actor could do the role--or would want to. “Then one night I got a vision of how to do it and called Bob (Harders, the director). The thing is, the character’s got like six ideas going on all the time, and he can’t sort them out. He’s trying to say a number of things at the same time--many, if not all, that are contradictory. That was the hook.”
Although he was supplied with newsreel footage and tapes for research, Hall limited his study to reading Nixon’s memoirs. “I didn’t want to look at anything after that. I didn’t want to do an imitation, I didn’t want to do Nixon mannerisms; that would intrude on what I was trying to do. I was dealing with the character Donald Freed wrote, who was not the real Nixon.”
The residual effect of the role?
“A lot of people in the business know about it,” he said. “Anytime I go to an audition, chances are there’s someone in the room who’s seen it. So it’s given me a (leg) up. Producers who wouldn’t talk to me before are now happy to at least consider me for things. That part’s great. But then there was this role I read for--I was really right for it--so when I didn’t get it, my agent called them. “They said, ‘He was great, but just a little too classy for us.’ The Nixon thing had intimidated them. The weight of that--and this was a light comedy. . . .”
For the record, Hall’s done more than 150 plays, and the roles have been diverse. But then, he says, a character’s unattractiveness has never been a turn-off. “I don’t look for a lovability quotient in a role,” the actor said firmly. “In the Hitler thing (“Portage to San Cristobal”), no lovability index would be applied. But the way the character was written, it was a very complicated character--and I enjoyed playing it.”
He admits he probably didn’t win a lot of hearts in the audience.
“Sure, they want to identify with the character, root for him. But I don’t worry about that. I remember a New York Times interview with George C. Scott years ago; he’d just finished ‘Richard III’ and had done a psychotic monster in ‘Children of Darkness’ and a totally unregenerate character in ‘The Hustler'--and he said, ‘Actors are too concerned with being liked by their audience.’
“I’m not a Robert Redford type, never will be. I don’t know if I’m deluding myself when I say that (adulation) doesn’t matter to me. If you do something funny in a comedy and people laugh, or if at your curtain calls there’s a lot of applause, of course that’s gratifying--I’m not denying that. But it’s really not on my mind.”
Even as a kid? “I’m trying to remember back to when I was a kid,” he joked.
Born and reared in Toledo, Ohio, Hall was performing in his own magic show at an early age: “Lodge shows, banquets--I did pretty well.” Then in the late ‘40s he saw “The Al Jolson Story,” and promptly developed a Jolson act. (His voice had changed--to its current gravelly pitch--at age 12.) “I did that all over Ohio and Michigan; it was a hot act. But I stopped doing it at 18, because I didn’t want to be a stand-up comic or an imitator. I wanted to be an actor.”
He took a circuitous route. After college he was drafted, and while stationed in Germany, married and had two daughters. Returning to Ohio in 1957, he worked as a radio announcer and high school teacher, until his wife encouraged him to chuck their stable life and move the family to New York. He worked there for 15 years (even doing musicals, although “my voice is nothing to be admired”), before settling in Los Angeles in 1975.
“And now I’m in a hit movie,” he said of “Midnight Run,” in which he plays a mob lawyer. Perhaps villains are his destiny after all.