The real Philip Baker Hall behind Bookman, ‘Boogie Nights’

Philip Baker Hall has had dozens of roles, from gamers 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 neighbor around the corner.

So I will not forget that sad and fateful phone call from his wife Holly on Monday morning to tell me that Philip had passed away. He was at home and surrounded by his family, having returned from a stay in hospital a few days earlier. He was 90.

I am eternally grateful to Holly for letting me know when Philip was going downhill and allowing me to tell him last week how much I respected him and appreciated our friendship over the years. I was even allowed to see him very briefly. He was sane to the end and read a great deal of Shakespeare in his last days.

Such a warm and fascinating guy, a brilliant actor with bloodhound eyes and a voice like gritty sandpaper. People would hear that voice in the supermarket two aisles down and walk over to take a look. It was so familiar.

I was proud to call him a friend—so many of us in the neighborhood were—even though the people I told didn’t often know his name. I showed them a picture and they couldn’t help but say, “Oh, the Guy. He is in everything.”

And he was. Check out his IMDb page. But what I loved about him was how normal he was. Completely unimpressed by himself. We live in a normal neighborhood of small, tidy houses in Glendale where people take their children to the local elementary school. We got to know each other there because our children were schoolmates and we met at the delivery.

We often walked back to our homes together, an actor and a sportswriter, two guys who didn’t have 9-to-5 office jobs so we could take our time. I was fascinated by his stage and film stories and he was also interested in sports. We weren’t best friends — he’s made countless friends over the decades — but we had a connection that I think we both cherished.

He and Holly were big 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 for Nadal at the French Open.

These walks home together will stay with me. The road was gradual uphill, and over the years Philip would have to stop halfway. His breathing became increasingly labored over the years, and he eventually relied on supplemental oxygen, a network of tubes that connected him to home. Still, I loved sitting in his kitchen corner and listening to stories.

He played a curmudgeon in Modern Family and wore oxygen tubes in that role, although he hasn’t used them yet. Life imitates art.

During the pandemic, our scant communication has been via texting, or perhaps a wave through a window.

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

I used to tell him, “I’ll buy every single one of your characters,” and I meant it. He was incredibly real. As some people noted on Twitter, the guy stole every scene. I’ve 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 underperform in real life.

Philip was everything you hoped he would be. The real Philip Baker Hall behind Bookman, ‘Boogie Nights’

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