A man in a suit enters a handsomely appointed but subliminally off-putting room. It’s an old man’s study; it couldn’t be anything else. The man changes into a smoking jacket, pours himself a drink, gets a gun out of an ornate box and places it on his desk, then he starts recording himself speaking. The man is Philip Baker Hall, and he’s portraying Richard Nixon in the film "Secret Honor" like no one else had played him before or has since. Nixon had been portrayed publicly for the first time by Rip Torn in an exhaustive TV movie called "Blind Ambition," but Hall put it succinctly when he was asked about the part for the occasion of the film's on the Criterion Collection: “No one wanted to talk about Nixon. No one wanted to think about Nixon.” Hall was given the script for a play called Secret Honor: The Last Testament of Richard M. Nixon by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone in the early '80s, a things so heavy you could have clubbed somebody with it. He didn’t see how anyone could do it and said no. Then he got to thinking. Maybe ... there was a way. He started rehearsing it in his living room. He called his friend the theatre director Robert Harders with a plan. His career started, for a second time, that day. A few months later he’d be in a dorm room surrounded by film students, introducing himself to American audiences by screaming, “I am the American Dream. Period.”
Hall was born in 1931 in Toledo to a family suffering through the worst of the depression. His father had only a few years back been a prosperous and enterprising mechanic, who’d gotten into vulcanizing tires. Then the stock market crashed and he lost the shop. Though the word hadn’t entered the American lexicon yet, the Halls survived for the next ten years on welfare. His father eventually got a job at the famous Willys Overland plant and, knowing too well what hardship feels like, thought young Philip would follow him into the factory. He did, for a few years, but Philip had other plans. Philip's voice changed when he was about 12, and suddenly he sounded like an adult. This made him the favorite of his high school teachers who moonlighted as drama teachers. He was in every play as the father, the judge, the man at the end of his life. Hall sounded authoritative while his peers sounded like teenagers. Anyone who’s heard Hall’s voice won’t ever forget it. A voice for movies and a face to match. If Hall’s film career had started in the same decade he was born, he’d have become a Bogart-style noir hero. Hall’s life went another direction.
Hall eventually moved to New York, away from factories and from the depression ravaged streets of Ohio. He started acting in theatre and then later in films, including the now forgotten “Cowards” (later re-edited into the sex film “Love-in-’72”), in which he plays a priest who’s been radicalized by the cause of the draft in Vietnam. He wasn’t exactly succeeding, even if he was working regularly. Around 1972 he started to hear from his peers that if you went to LA as a New York actor they’d roll out the red carpet for you, that they were looking for the next Brando. Hall would later bitterly recall that he got to LA and he had to start over. He had no proof he’d been much of an actor in New York, so he started doing theatre in the hopes of building up his resume enough to get noticed. He took over for Ralph Waite in a play called Museum when the “Waltons” star left to do his part on “Roots,” and Norman Lear’s casting director Jane Murray took notice of the good reviews he got. This secured him some TV work, both sitcoms and TV movies like “Kill Me If You Can” and “The Hostage Heart.” Happenstance helped a lot in those days because he didn’t have an agent. Alan Alda was the star of “Kill Me If You Can,” which lead to a guest spot on Alda’s hit show “M*A*S*H*.” Ralph Waite would return the favor of replacing him for a few weeks in Museum by giving him a bit part on “The Waltons” a few years later. Hall would later recall that he wasn’t a very confident actor in those days. He was missing something, something he could bring to his roles on the stage.
It probably didn’t help that he had the perfect face and rumpled appearance to blend in perfectly with every room and cast he was in. He looked like the perfect everyman. He plays a casket salesman in “Kill Me if You Can” and he already looks 60 in the part. It made sense to see him in bit parts on “Quincy” and “Cagney & Lacey” and “TJ Hooker” as cops, lawyers, and judges. He looked and sounded the part. But that wasn’t the whole story. Hall could command a crowded theatre, he just wasn’t being given the chance and paired with the director who’d let him do the same on film. Turns out he just hadn’t met the people who’d set him free.
Hall was booked but floundering in the early '80s when he got the call from Harders about “Secret Honor.” After they staged it for investors, a man named Bill Bushnell saw it and threw money at them to stage it. Bill was married to Robert Altman’s producer Scotty Bushnell for a few years, and soon working with Altman, who was teaching film at the University of Michigan after a series of flops had taken him off of Hollywood’s pedestal. Altman liked the play, but perhaps more importantly he loathed Richard Nixon, whose presidency was like the negative image of Altman’s work. Altman loved people, Nixon hated them. Altman loved the underdog, Nixon was killing thousands of underdogs in Vietnam. He hadn’t even finished congratulating Hall on his remarkable work backstage before he had pitched him the idea of making it as a movie.
Altman was known primarily for his sprawling ensemble pieces, from the movie “M*A*S*H*”, on which Alda’s show was based, to “Nashville,” which Nixon once asked him for a copy of in the early '80s because his daughter Julie was a fan. He would have liked nothing more than to be the one who cracked the code on the Nixon movie, which had eluded Hollywood in all but metaphor. Altman had never made a film so intimately. They shot it on the University of Michigan campus, in a disused girl’s dormitory, with a lot of Altman’s students filling up the crew. Altman, Harders, and Hall shot the film in seven days, improvising and choreographing it every day, editing the two-and-a-half-hour play down to a 90-minute movie. Altman and Hall worked for hours and hours, directing and performing with equal intensity. When they finished and the sets were being diffused at the end of the day, Altman and Hall laid down in a dorm room in twin beds, opposite each other, talking about the day’s work in the dark, preparing for the next. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Hall is memorable in it not because he does a great impression of Nixon, but because he captures the crooked flailing core of the man. A paranoid, vulgar animal who can’t get through a thought or a sentence before being derailed by some worse thought, some twisted, guilty non sequitur. It’s unforgettable.
The film was a moderate success, though Hall felt a little defeated afterwards. Pauline Kael perhaps summed up the mistrust with which Hall was greeted in the wake of the film: "An acting feat by a man who probably isn't a great actor." No one knew who he was, why would they trust that he was as good as this performance without proof? Hall had given the equivalent of a two-minute mile and he was still getting shrugs from casting directors. He got a prime spot on the show "Mariah" about the staff and inmates at a prison, but it only lasted a season. He was in the film “Midnight Run” briefly, had a memorable guest spot on “Seinfeld,” and made many more TV movies. He was making one of them when one of the production assistants caught him off guard one day while delivering his coffee. The PA was barely 21 and looked younger. He said with much enthusiasm that "Secret Honor" was his favorite movie. Could they talk about it? How do you say no to that. The kid’s name was Paul Thomas Anderson and he had a script and a little money cobbled together from the usual collections of rich relatives and acquaintances. The kid had dropped out of film school to work for TV stations and on film sets. He shot his first real short “Cigarettes and Coffee” starring Hall in 1993. He parlayed that into money to make a feature. One that would star Hall, naturally.
“Hard Eight” was a stunning showcase for everyone in the cast, from co-leads Hall and John C. Reilly who was about to hit the big times like Hall after a few years in the trenches playing sidekicks and silent texture, to supporting players Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Hall, Hoffman, and Reilly would appear in Anderson’s next two films “Boogie Nights” and “Magnolia” as their stars rose alongside Anderson’s quirky Altman-inspired character studies. Hall, Reilly, and Hoffman were like anchors that kept the sprawling narratives routed to the spot, to humanity. In “Hard Eight,” Hall’s intention remains a mystery until the final act, and his harsh professionalism masks his angelic nature. A scene where Paltrow imagines he’s about to coerce her for sex is genuinely suspenseful, because we don’t know if his character Sidney is who he tries to make himself out to be. His soulful interiority and avuncular care (his near undoing) for Reilly’s big dumb hustler is like the low bass notes that allow the more flamboyant performances to take solos. Hall didn’t solo like some actors. He was the whole song.
In “Boogie Nights” Hall has precious little screen time, but he’s spectacular as porn producer Floyd Gondolli. He’s even more heartbreaking in “Magnolia” as a crooked game show host who’s losing his mind, suffering from an onset of an Alzheimer’s like disorder from years of hard living. His daughter says he molested her, but he can’t remember doing it. Anderson specialized in broken characters and in Hall he had a guy who could project brokenness with the stuttering he perfected playing his apoplectic drunken Nixon, or with the simplicity of a syllable, his voice like the scotch he pounds in “Secret Honor,” old and grim and middle shelf, a man who should have become more, a man who projects the air of a king, but has no kingdom to call home.
As his work with Anderson got him in front of audiences, the calls started and never stopped. He played frequently uncredited functionaries beautifully, whether as the Chief Justice in “The Rock,” the Attorney General in “Air Force One,” a police captain in “Rush Hour,” a fixer in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” a handwriting expert in “Zodiac,” the CIA director in “Argo,” or a sheriff in Gus van Sant’s “Psycho.” Occasionally he’d get to really steal the show, as when he plays craven Don Hewitt, who sells out Al Pacino’s Lowell Bergman to CBS’ higher-ups and Big Tobacco in Michael Mann’s stunning “The Insider,” or as Paul Bettany’s mute father in “Dogville.” He would appear in the odd comedy, too, doing fantastically deranged work in an episode of “Children’s Hospital,” doing a voice on “Bojack Horseman” and taking a small but beloved role on “Modern Family.” He was upset that they killed his character on the latter just as he was finding his groove as the character Walt Kleezak. He was 80 when he got the role. He was finally starting to show signs of his age. In small parts in Jason Bateman’s “Bad Words” and Mark Pellington’s “The Last Word,” his voice was slower and harder to understand. His old ferocity had quieted, though he was still ingratiating, his hanged expression still one of the most welcome sights in the American cinema, his deep sonorous voice still projecting the authroity that had started his acting career back in Toledo.
The movies will be depressing without the threat of running into a suit played by Philip Baker Hall. Some of my earliest and warmest memories at the movies are of Hall sparring with the likes of John Spencer, Christopher Plummer, Burt Reynolds, Ed Harris, and more. He was the ultimate bureaucrat, but he never ever left his character without personality, without some spark. He never went overboard trying to humanize them, no, it was that his animation, his liveliness, his uncommon charisma, brought these people to richer life than anyone else could have. Under that thick head of grey hair, those deep set eyes, old before their time, that dignified posture, the considered way he held a glass of scotch, and that voice was a sense that you wanted to spend time with this man and his 10,000 disguises. To get to know someone who had so much character on his face, in his delivery, in his eyes. You don’t forget the way Hall says the absurd Nixonian tangents in “Secret Honor” (“My wife does not wear a mink coat, my wife wears a good Republican cloth coat”) nor the moments where he seems like he could be summing up the body of work he made flesh. Whether as the gentleman gambler or the rabid, dying monarch, Philip Baker Hall was American movies. Period.
Scout Tafoya is a critic and filmmaker who writes for and edits the arts blog Apocalypse Now and directs both feature length and short films.