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Perspective | Philip Baker Hall’s ‘Seinfeld’ library cop was a performance for the ages

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Few actors, if any, have marched onto a sitcom juggernaut and in a few minutes of sublime, dyspeptic, no-nonsense nonsense made such an enduring impression as Philip Baker Hall did. As “Seinfeld’s” library cop, Hall verbally pummels Jerry with his rat-a-tat delivery while brandishing his index finger like a loaded Glock, the Inspector Javert of the stacks.

That’s Lt. Joe Bookman to you, joy boy.

Hall, who died Sunday at age 90, racked up nearly 200 credits in movies and on television. With his basset-hound face and miles-of-hard-road voice, Hall’s work ranges from blistering roles with director Paul Thomas Anderson to almost any television show you care to mention.

But it was his brief turn on “Seinfeld” delivered with gravel-voiced gravitas more than 30 years ago that embedded Hall in our collective comic memory. Every line is a body blow. It’s Hall’s tour de farce.

As the hard-nosed, Folgers Crystals-imbibing, New York Public Library cop, Hall out-Fridays “Dragnet’s” Sgt. Joe Friday. He’s an alien from another era. It’s as though he was hired to helm a Warner Bros. B gangster flick and mistakenly marched onto the set of a ’90s sitcom.

“This is, hands down, the greatest guest spot in a sitcom, ever,” comic Patton Oswalt tweeted Monday. Hall’s performance, the Jerry-mandered This Podcast Is Making Me Thirsty tweeted, is “regarded by many as the greatest one-episode Seinfeld guest star.”

Which is quite something. There are nearly 180 “Seinfeld” episodes and a constellation of guest stars over nine seasons. Hall appears in the 22nd episode, airing Oct. 16, 1991, early in the third season when Seinfeld and co-creator Larry David were still monkeying with the recipe.

Seinfeld, to put it kindly, was nobody’s idea of an actor. He’s serving a series of wet tennis balls that Hall effortlessly and consistently lobs into the far left corner.

In a 2017 Washington Post interview, David said, “Philip has made me laugh harder than any actor I’ve worked with.” He “was so committed to that character that he had us on the floor. Jerry had problems getting through the scene.”

Philip Baker Hall is your favorite actor whose name you can’t quite place

This is abundantly clear. Seinfeld, encased in ’90s mall-wear of mom jeans and a pumpkin-colored mock turtleneck, appears overwhelmed, as though this might be his 76th take trying to suppress laughter, while playing the straight man to a man so straight that he gives a comic turn for the ages.

Jerry’s unforgivable library crime? Failing to return Henry Miller’s licentious “Tropic of Cancer,” borrowed two decades earlier. The script, penned by Larry Charles, is studded with chef’s-kiss rebukes. He tells Jerry: “Yeah, ’71. That was my first year on the job. Bad year for libraries. Bad year for America. Hippies burning library cards, Abbie Hoffman telling everybody to steal books.”

He advises: “Let me tell you something, funny boy.” And admonishes: “Well, I got a flash for ya, joy boy: Party time is over.”

And furthermore: “What’s my problem? Punks like you, that’s my problem. And you better not screw up again Seinfeld, because if you do, I’ll be all over you like a pit bull on a poodle.”

Hall returned as Bookman for “Seinfeld’s” much-debated 1998 finale. David continued to book Hall to play other intransigent man tangling with noncompliant characters, casting him as the tetchy Doctor Morrison on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and as the equally tetchy contractor in “Clear History.”

In 2017, David recalled that Seinfeld’s challenge to get through his scene “was minor compared to what I went through with ‘Curb.’ ” Hall “makes no effort whatsoever to try to be funny. He just acts like he’s not in a comedy.”

Bookman became an institution. When the New York Public Library eliminated all late fines in 2021, it did so with Hall’s image, announcing on its website the retirement of Lt. Joe Bookman, whom Jerry had declared to be “one tough monkey.”

When Hall arrived in California in the early ’70s, he recalled, an agent offered little hope: “what I see is a middle-aged guy, not especially good looking, short, over 40.”

Good luck landing roles. “I already have too many middle-aged actors,” the agent told him. “They’re all starving.” And, furthermore, “you’re a theater actor. There’s a lot to learn about film and television. Big difference. It’s almost impossible to learn at your age.”

Yeah, sure. Hall kept getting cast. His sweet spot was “men who are highly stressed, older men, who are at the limit of their tolerance for suffering and stress and pain,” Hall said. “I had an affinity for playing those roles.”

Like Bookman. He’s all over that “Seinfeld” episode like a pit bull on a poodle.





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