Philip Baker Hall died today at the age of 90, and he inspired this Question of the Week (the one I was going to do can wait!). He inspired it, of course, because he’s the answer. Hall made his film debut in 1970 in Zabriskie Point, and he kicked around for 20 years guest-starring on shows and getting small roles in movies. He was a very funny politician on Cheers late in its run, and he broke through in movies with Hard Eight in 1996, which was Paul Thomas Anderson’s first feature. Hall took advantage of his late-career Renaissance, putting together an impressive run that included roles in Boogie Nights, The Insider, the Rush Hour movies, The Rock, Air Force One, and his absolutely stunning work in Magnolia. But would he have gotten any of those roles if not for the single greatest guest-starring role in television history? Of course, I’m talking of his role as Mr. Bookman in “The Library,” the Seinfeld episode that aired on 16 October 1991, when Hall was already 60. You know the role! Jerry didn’t return Tropic of Cancer in 1971, and Bookman is on the trail! Hall delivers his lines, which are very, very funny lines, with a gravitas that should have turned him into the new Leslie Neilsen, if someone had been able to give him a comedic vehicle worth his talent:
“I’ve seen your type before: Flashy, making the scene, flaunting convention.” Hall is brilliant, and Jerry can just barely keep himself from cracking up. Hall got, what, four minutes of screen time (he talks to the librarian whom Kramer is dating briefly in addition to these scenes), and he’s the best guest star in television history. Of course, that’s just my opinion.
So what’s your answer? Let’s keep to a one-time guest star – no recurring roles that are obviously guest stars for a few episodes. Those are worthy, but the actors have a bit more time to work, so they make a different impression. Who’s your best one-episode guest star in television history? And raise a glass to Philip Baker Hall. The dude seemed cool as fuck.