Buffalo Stance: Philip Baker Hall Takes Care of Business In Mamet Revival

Buffalo Stance: Philip Baker Hall Takes Care of Business In Mamet Revival If a burlap bag could talk, it would probably sound like Philip Baker Hall. His rumpled features and shoe-leather voice may not suit him for romantic leads, but at age 68, the rough-hewn performer is one of Hollywood's hottest properties in the character actor division. If you go to the movies with any frequency, recently you may have seen him more than your closest relatives: this past Christmas, he turned up in no less than four films, "Cradle Will Rock," "The Insider," "Magnolia," and "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
Philip Baker Hall, Mark Webber and William H. Macy in American Buffalo.
Philip Baker Hall, Mark Webber and William H. Macy in American Buffalo. (Photo by Photo by Joan Marcus)

If a burlap bag could talk, it would probably sound like Philip Baker Hall. His rumpled features and shoe-leather voice may not suit him for romantic leads, but at age 68, the rough-hewn performer is one of Hollywood's hottest properties in the character actor division. If you go to the movies with any frequency, recently you may have seen him more than your closest relatives: this past Christmas, he turned up in no less than four films, "Cradle Will Rock," "The Insider," "Magnolia," and "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

Which is part of the reason why he opens tonight, at The Atlantic Theater Company, in its revival of David Mamet's American Buffalo. He's taking a breather in the playwright's junkshop, though performing this piece, with its rat-tat-tat dialogue and sudden bursts of physical violence, is hardly a working vacation. "For years I did only a few films, then came this boom; I have five more movies due out, and thought I should cool it for a while. Maybe, I thought, it would not be such a great move to shoot another 11 this year, as I did last year, and see my whole career end -- bang! -- due to overexposure," he says, with a gravelly laugh.

Though Hall seems entirely at home in the play's seedy setting as the lights come up, this is his first stab at Mamet, the main reason he accepted the part. "I've never done one before, and felt deprived," he muses. "Shortly after American Buffalo came out, in 1975, the group I belonged to in L.A. (the Los Angeles Actors Theatre, now the Los Angeles Theatre Center) tried to get the rights to it, but it was too hot and we couldn't. Otherwise, I might have done it a long time ago. But I'm happy to finally get the chance to keep this ball in the air -- David is just a master at mood and language, and the constant challenge for us is to find the people inside the cadences and rhythms and bring them out onstage."

Under the direction of Neil Pepe, Hall plays Donny, the smallest of small businessmen, in the play. His larcenous designs on a customer's coin collection run aground as his partners in would-be crime, addled young Bobby (Mark Webber) and combustibly cranky Teach (William H. Macy), continually lose focus on the matter at hand. The return of Hall and Macy to the New York stage, after several years of film work (often together; the two have shared the screen in five movies since 1996), has smashed attendance records at Atlantic, founded by Mamet and Macy, and in the midst of a 15th anniversary season dedicated to the playwright's work. This production, enjoying a run extended to May 20, was first mounted earlier this year at London's Donmar Warehouse.

"Audiences there were just swept away," Hall recalls. "Theatre insiders told us that the play had never really worked before in England, because the British actors cast couldn't quite grasp the Chicago rhythms -- the themes are universal, but the characters are extremely American. And Macy's just great to work with, always; he was the original Bobby in the first-ever Chicago production, and by coming full circle to Teach he brings to it a special perspective." Hall has been a professional actor since 1960. A native of Toledo, OH, he attended the university there, and performed in many shows. "When I was 10 years old, I realized I wanted to be an actor, and I had a feeling that I could be a pretty good one if I chose to be." After a stint in the Army in the mid-50s however, he switched gears, and decided on graduate-level study in linguistics, with an eye toward teaching. "I did teach for a while, while working on my masters, but I saw too much of the hypocrisy and bureaucracy of that profession and wanted out."

Out of the frying pan, into the fire, as Hall left for New York and a trade even more riven with hypocrisy, bureaucracy, and rejection. "I was so green; I didn't even know how to put together a picture and a resume," he relates of his early acting days. "And I was not a member of the coterie of acting groups in New York at the time -- the one from Northwestern University, the one from the University of Texas that Rip Torn and Geraldine Page were a part of, and some others. They were very powerful, and the University of Toledo had no profile on the national theatre scene," he jokes. "It was tough getting an agent, and if you didn't come from the right school, the doors were closed. Off-Broadway plays directed by Adrian Hall got me rolling. But then John F. Kennedy helped me out."

The president had instituted the American Repertory Company, a cultural exchange program between the U.S., Western and Eastern Europe, and South America that sent Helen Hayes, June Havoc, and lesser lights like Hall on the road to perform U.S. classics overseas. "Roy Scheider and I got our first really important breaks performing on the South America circuit, playing really tiny parts, but the experience opened doors."

Given that the detectives, judges, and generals he often plays are the strong, silent type, it comes as a surprise to learn that Hall was part of the Second City improv group. "The door that opened for me was by my becoming part of a Compass Second City company that formed in Boston. This was so important; anything goes at Second City, and with all that energy and enthusiasm that you must bring to it to make performing there enjoyable for yourself and the audience, I began to find myself as an actor."

Hall's recent parts, coupled with his look and voice, suggest a tough customer who boned up on Stanislavsky in a haze of cigarettes in corner gin mills. Not so. "I don't drink and I don't smoke anymore, and I've spent very little of my life in bars," he laughs. "Most of my life has been spent onstage -- several thousand nights, as a matter of fact."

New York credits included The Skin of Our Teeth with Hayes and the title role in Gorky; in the mid-Seventies, he relocated to Los Angeles, and parts followed in All My Sons, Death of a Salesman, The Crucible, and Short Eyes.

Kennedy was not the only president to indirectly assist Hall. The actor's two biggest breaks in the last two decades have come from unproduced scripts that came his way. The first, in theatre, was Donald Freed's Secret Honor. "I met the director, Robert Harters, at a workshop for another piece two years prior to that play. I liked him, and asked him to send me other interesting scripts. A couple of years passed, and he called to say, 'I have this play, but I don't want to tell you what it's about, because you might say no,'" Hall laughs. "Well, the thing he dropped off at my apartment was a doorstop; it hurt your wrists to pick it up. I figured it to be three hours long, and it was just me, playing...Richard Nixon. Richard Nixon! At that time, in 1982, the only people who gave a damn about Richard Nixon were impressionists who did standup routines about him. And I'm no imitator."

While he feared that playing the disgraced ex-president would end his career, he was sufficiently intrigued by the piece to commit to a workshop, so long as Harters and Freed committed to him. "I wasn't going to memorize the whole thing and help get it into shape so they could take it to Jason Robards or somebody else who would get all the cream off it," he recalls with a slight growl. "Bob agreed -- and then I had to find an approach for the script, which lay beside my bed. Late one night, I got up, set up a desk in my house, and behind it ran through the first 30 pages, with some props that aided my start-and-stop delivery. It worked, and Donald refashioned the script to suit that method of performance."

Secret Honor is a snapshot of the tormented leader, who paces his study while boozily lashing out against his enemies. One person who did give a damn about Richard Nixon, as the finished play premiered to acclaim at the Los Angeles Actors Theatre, was film director Robert Altman. At the phase in his career when he was turning plays like Streamers and Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean into movies, Altman offered to bankroll a national tour of the show, which deeply impressed him when he caught it on its second night, and direct a feature film version.

"And he meant it -- he gave a $150,000 check to the theatre to begin preparations to move it to New York, where we opened at the Provincetown Playhouse in 1983. We then went to Boston, and to Washington, D.C., where the press corps, like Dan Rather, flipped over it," Hall says. "They loved it so much, I could still be playing it there. And we could have gone more places, but I was just too strenuous; I lost 40 pounds doing it, 300 times in all from 1983 to 1986."

Also losing something for the cause was Altman, whose investment in the New York production, and the as-promised film version in 1984, yielded only critical, not commercial, dividends, Hall says. But it gave the actor a bit more cachet on the big and small screens, where he landed roles like Lt. Bookman, the officious library detective, in a classic episode of "Seinfeld." His biggest big screen break came from a 20-year-old production assistant, Paul Thomas Anderson, whom he met on the set of a PBS special in the early 1990s.

"He was just a walking encyclopedia of film; he knew it all," says Hall. "I asked him about his aspirations, and he said, 'I'd like to be a writer director, and by the way, I'm doing a short film, 'Cigarettes and Coffee,' which has a terrific role for you. I don't have any money or equipment, but if I can get a group of actors together, we can do it.' At this time, no one was submitting screenplays to me. So I brought the script home, and it staggered me, with its passion, fire, and imagination. I told him that I didn't care about the money, I was just amazed that no other actor had gotten to it first."

"Cigarettes and Coffee" features Hall's defining performance, as Sydney, a professional gambler who takes a hard-luck case under his wing and schools him in the ways of an unforgiving world. The 24 minutes that changed his career was the sensation of the 1993 Sundance Film Festival's shorts program, and he, Anderson, and John C. Reilly, cast as the luckless John, developed it as a feature-length film as part of a subsequent Sundance workshop. The film script, entitled "Sydney," was produced in 1996 and released, with some tinkering by the distributor, as "Hard Eight." Though not a success, it paved the way for Anderson to make his breakout hit, "Boogie Nights"; gave its two stars, and co-star Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a place in the wunderkind's repertory company, which now includes Macy and has blossomed further with "Magnolia"; and made an indelible impression on Hollywood casting directors. After "Hard Eight," Hall became a fresh face in film in his mid-Sixties, and anyone bored with the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" movie connection game can easily start up a new one with the veteran performer at its center.

Or, right now, extend the game to the New York theatre -- Reilly and Hoffman, with whom Hall is sometimes confused ("it's the three names, the two 'Phils,' and the 'H' last names," the older actor comments) are starring in another red-hot revival, of Sam Shepard's True West. "We did 'Hard Eight,' and away it went, and here we all are, still very much friends," marvels Hall.

Though Hall is "eager for audiences to share our enjoyment of American Buffalo," he is equally eager, once its run ends, to "just be home in L.A., sit on my deck, and build some furniture." Not that there will much time for hobbies -- after his self-imposed hiatus he's circling other film commitments (as his latest, "Rules of Engagement," hits theatres April 7), and has a three-year-old daughter to attend to. "I have two grown daughters, four grandchildren, and now this precious little gift," he says.

For Hall, a new life began at an age when most contemplate retirement, and he has a few parting words for striving artists, delivered in his distinctive rasp. "Keep working and keep doing what you want to do. Though the acknowledgment I struggled for as a professional did not come till much later in life, I loved what I was doing, and I never stopped. And then things just started exploding all over the place for me."

-- By Robert Cashill