At Last, Character Counts for Something

Paul Brownfield is a Times staff writer

Is it possible, in youth-obsessed Hollywood, to become a star at 67?

Not quite. But consider the case of Philip Baker Hall. One minute, he’s occupying the relatively small universe of the stage actor/supporting player in TV and films; the next minute, he’s at the top of everybody’s character actor A-list, with roles in the remake of “Psycho,” which hits theaters Friday, and a host of upcoming heavy-hitters--including Anthony Minghella’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” and Tim Robbins’ “The Cradle Will Rock.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 13, 1998 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 13, 1998 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 14 words Type of Material: Correction
Photo credit--The Nov. 29 photograph of actor Philip Baker Hall was taken by The Times’ Genaro Molina.

They aren’t starring roles, but they’re substantial--for example, he plays a steel baron married to a countess (Vanessa Redgrave) in “Cradle,” about Orson Welles’ controversial production of the pro-Communist play “And the Cradle Will Rock” in the 1930s. In “Psycho” he plays a smaller role as the sheriff in the town where the Bates Motel is located.


All of this is a sea change for an actor who spent decades making ends meet as part of the Los Angeles theater scene.

“This is how hot you are,” Hall’s agent joked to him recently. “Producers and casting people who haven’t seen “Hard Eight” are pretending that they have.”

Those two words--”Hard Eight”--have worked wonders for Hall’s career. Never mind that his understated but affecting performance as an itinerate gambler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 1997 film gave him a rare chance to showcase his talents in a lead role on screen. More important is the aura surrounding the film and Hall’s performance in it.

The story of a gambler who befriends a young drifter and becomes his gambling mentor/surrogate father, “Hard Eight” was an arty film that appeared in limited release in 1997, only to get a retroactive boost when Anderson’s second film, “Boogie Nights,” was released the same year to much wider acclaim.

While “Hard Eight” has since become known as Anderson’s “other” film, Hall’s performance in it generated enough buzz to bring in a new wave of offers.

“There’s a certain kind of cool legitimacy he’s bringing now,” says Anderson, 28, who’d grown frustrated seeing Hall “relegated to walk-ons in sitcoms.”


Hall greets the notion that he’s a hot property with a well-seasoned actor’s dose of cynicism. He shakes his head describing how aspiring young filmmakers are sending him scripts asking him to do for them what he did for Anderson in “Hard Eight.”

And he’s just as circumspect about some of the parts Hollywood is sending his way.

“When you’re in demand, it doesn’t matter whether you’re right for the role,” he says. “It has nothing to do with it, once you’re given the keys to the kingdom.”


Over a burger and fries at the Astro Burger not far from his Mount Washington home, Hall recalls his former professional life: how he played juicy characters like Willie Loman, Adolph Hitler and Richard Nixon onstage while having to make a living in decidedly more one-dimensional fare on television and films.

It’s the classic trade-off of the theater actor--you’re Richard III one week, guesting on a sitcom the next. Hall had grown accustomed to the life since moving to Los Angeles in 1975, getting involved soon thereafter in the L.A. Actors Theatre. Later, when the company moved to Los Angeles Theatre Center, he earned kudos for roles as an escaped killer in “The Petrified Forest” and as a double-dealing mayor in “The Inspector General.” These roles were always interspersed by a part in a TV movie, a sitcom, a feature.

“Had I done less theater, some of this film and television stuff might’ve developed a little earlier,” he says. I was playing great (theater) roles, and the roles on film and TV were boring, even though I was making money.”

Hall points to two watershed moments in his acting career. The first came in 1983, when he portrayed Nixon in “Secret Honor” at L.A. Actors Theatre. followed by performances in New York and a film version for director Robert Altman.

The role opened doors and raised his yearly income “above the poverty level,” Hall says. But 10 years later, when his wife had a baby, the actor decided he would give up theater altogether.

“I thought, ‘I’m way behind on the college fund and all this stuff, I’ve gotta make some money.’ So I basically decided I wasn’t going to do any theater.”

Fortunately for Hall, the fledgling young filmmaker Anderson had been following his work for some time.

In 1993, Anderson was working as a production assistant on a PBS program called “Campus Culture Wars: Five Stories About PC” that featured Hall as a college professor.

During the shoot, Anderson sidled up to Hall with the script he’d written for a 20-minute short and asked the actor to star in it, telling Hall, “I’m the biggest fan of yours.”

Hall took the part, and that short, “Cigarettes and Coffee,” would later play the Sundance Film Festival and earn Anderson a chance to develop the script at the 1994 Sundance Filmmakers Workshop. Eventually, “Cigarettes and Coffee” became “Sydney,” and then “Hard Eight.”

Producers liked the script, Anderson says, but they all had the same response: “Get Gene Hackman and John Cusack and we’ll do it.”

But Anderson wanted Hall and another character actor, John C. Reilly, both of whom had worked on “Sydney” when it was at Sundance in 1994.

“I have a particular fascination with character actors,” Anderson says, “with wanting to turn them into lead actors. I see Philip Baker Hall, he’s just . . . an actor that I love. There’s no one else with a face like that, or a voice like that.”

For his part, Hall calls Anderson a unique talent, almost ridiculously loyal to his coterie of actors, most of whom, including Hall, will be seen in Anderson’s next film, “Magnolia.”

“I can honestly say I’m being offered more work than I can handle,” Hall says.

By way of example, Hall says he recently turned down an offer to play Scrooge in a production of “A Christmas Carol” at the San Diego Repertory. The two-month job would have paid him $500 a week.

In the old days, Scrooge would have seemed an enticing part--as meaty, arguably, as Nixon or Willy Loman--but these aren’t the old days anymore.

“By the standards of a struggling stage actor, I’ve been doing well,” Hall says.*