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Appreciation: Philip Baker Hall played gamblers, producers and presidents. His best role? Friend

A close-up of a man in a houndstooth suit
Philip Baker Hall at the premiere of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” Season 7 in 2009.
(Toby Canham / Getty Images)

Philip Baker Hall had dozens upon dozens of roles, from gamblers to game-show hosts, presidents to producers to — perhaps most famously — a library-book cop on “Seinfeld.”

My favorite role?

He was a friend and around-the-corner neighbor.

So I won’t forget getting that sad and fateful call Monday morning from his wife, Holly, telling me that Philip had died. He was at home and surrounded by his family, having returned a few days earlier from a stint in the hospital. He was 90.

I’m eternally grateful to Holly for letting me know when Philip was in decline, enabling me to tell him last week how much I respected him and cherished our friendship over the years. I even got to see him ever so briefly. He was lucid to the end, reading a lot of Shakespeare in his final days.

Such a warm and fascinating guy, a brilliant actor with bloodhound eyes and a voice like coarse-grit sandpaper. People would hear that voice in the supermarket from two aisles away and wander over to take a peek. It was that familiar.

I was proud to call him a friend — so many of us in the neighborhood were — even though people I would tell often didn’t recognize his name. I’d show them a picture and invariably they’d say, “Oh, that guy. He’s in everything.”

And he was. Check out his IMDb page. But what I loved about him was how normal he was. Thoroughly unimpressed with himself. We live in a regular neighborhood of small, tidy homes in Glendale where people walk their kids to the local elementary school. That’s where we met, as our kids were schoolmates and we got to know each other at drop-off.

Actor Philip Baker Hall, whose career ranged from a scene-stealing stint on ‘Seinfeld’ to collaborations with director Paul Thomas Anderson, has died

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We would often walk together back to our houses, an actor and a sports writer, two guys who didn’t have 9-to-5 office jobs so we were able to take our time. I was transfixed by his stories of stage and screen, and he was likewise interested in sports. We weren’t best friends — he gathered innumerable friends over the decades — but we had a connection that I believe we both appreciated.

He and Holly were huge fans of Larry Bird and the Dodgers and especially Rafael Nadal. Even in the fading sunset of his life, Philip got up early to cheer on Nadal in the French Open.

Those shared walks home will stick with me. The street was a gradual incline, and as the years passed, Philip would have to take a break at the midway point. His breathing became more labored over the years, and eventually he relied on supplemental oxygen, a network of tubes that tethered him to his home. Still, I loved sitting at his kitchen nook and hearing stories.

He played a curmudgeon on “Modern Family” and wore oxygen tubes in that role, even though he didn’t yet use them. Life imitates art.

During the pandemic, our sparse communications were via text message or maybe a wave through a window.

Philip’s superpower, and undoubtedly something that made him great as an actor, was his keen ability to listen. He didn’t just tell stories, he wanted to hear them. He loved music and knew speakers and other audio equipment down to the smallest of details. He was good with his hands too. He built bookshelves and tables and a bed. He even built a guitar and harpsichord.

I used to tell him, “I buy into every single one of your characters,” and I meant it. He was incredibly genuine. As some people have noted on Twitter, the guy stole every scene. I often wondered how this force of nature didn’t become a Hollywood superstar.

But he was more than enough, a lovely person and an incredible talent. So often famous people — people you think you know — can fall short of expectations in real life.

Philip was everything you’d hope he would be.


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