On June 12, the film and TV world said goodbye to one of its all-time dependable actors, Philip Baker Hall, who passed away at the age of 90. His career spanned half a century, but Hall is most celebrated for his collaborations with director Paul Thomas Anderson in films like Boogie Nights and Magnolia. His most memorable role, however, may be one of his smallest, when in the third season of Seinfeld, he appeared as a guest star in a single episode.
Seinfeld is known, among other things, for its long list of guest stars. Each episode introduced and dismissed another girlfriend or boyfriend of the Seinfeld Four, or gave us an irate soul that had the misfortune of interacting with the quartet. Philip Baker Hall’s appearance was one of the best in the series’ history. In an episode titled “The Library,” Jerry finds out that he’s racked up late fees on an overdue library book, Tropic of Cancer, that’s been missing for twenty years from the New York Public Library. It so happens that the library has a book detective who is out to crack down on overdue books, and his name is Joe Bookman.
Enter Hall as Detective Bookman. The idea of the character itself is good for laughs, with the absurdity of there being a detective whose job it is to investigate missing bookcases. Throw in the added punch of naming him Bookman, and you have the potential for comedy gold. With Hall, that gold became one of the ultimate highlights in what is regarded as the best comedy series ever.
We first meet Bookman when he shows up at Jerry’s apartment. Dressed in a suit and trench coat like a 1960s TV detective, Bookman is a serious man who doesn’t take crap from anybody. Hall’s worn, gravely voice and quick delivery only adds to the performance. Bookman is on Jerry quick, giving him guff in a ping ponging exchange, for not having instant coffee. “Buy a jar of Folgers’ crystals, you put it in the cupboard, you forget about it. Then later on when you need it, it’s there, lasts forever. It’s freeze-dried. Freeze-dried crystals.”
The rapid pace and stern demeanor was the perfect contrast for such an outrageous premise, and it immediately had the audience cackling. Bookman continues on a long-winded tirade in perfect TV detective cadence, railing about the 1970s and hippies burning library cards. “I don’t judge a man by the length of his hair or the kind of music he listens to. Rock was never my bag. But you put on a pair of shoes when you walk into the New York Public Library, fella.” He points at Jerry for emphasis, who grins from ear to ear, the actor on the verge of breaking. Bookman gets more animated, questioning Jerry’s career as a comedian. “You think this is all a big joke, don’t you,” he says, quickly turning on Jerry. The audience sure did, as they howled with delight. Jerry smiles again, barely keeping it together. With that, Bookman storms out. The audience whoops and claps in approval. All Jerry could do through the whole zany monologue was smile, as he desperately tries not to laugh.
In a Netflix Is A Joke Q&A in 2021, Jerry Seinfeld was asked what the hardest scene to film without laughing was. He named this scene. “It was just so ridiculous that he was interrogating me in my own apartment about a book. I just kept cracking up… So that scene that you see is made up of about eight different times we shot it. We took the pieces that worked and put it together because I messed that one up a ton.”
We later meet Bookman at the library, where he runs into Kramer, who is with a librarian that he’s now dating. It’s a very short scene, but effective, as Bookman lectures the librarian for being away from work. “I remember when the librarian was a much older woman. Kindly. Discreet. Unattractive. You didn’t know anything about her private life, and you didn’t wanna know anything about her private life.” He storms out again, whipping his jacket behind him as he goes. Bookman’s initial encounter with Jerry is bookended (pun intended) at the end of the episode when Seinfeld shows up at the library to pay his fine. He hands Bookman a check and says he hopes there’s no hard feelings. “What do you know about hard feelings?” Bookman asks. “Ever have a man die in your arms? Ever kill somebody?” Lt. Joe Bookman has a dark, yet hilarious past. He turns fast yet again, once more pointing his finger at Jerry. “Punks like you, that’s my problem. You better not screw up again Seinfeld, because if you do, I’ll be all over you like a pitbull on a poodle.”
And that’s it, three brief but wild scenes. They would have a lasting impact, however, due to Hall’s performance. Where some characters on Seinfeld are not just over-the-top but act over-the-top as well, Hall does not. He plays his part seriously, as if he walked onto the wrong set, and isn’t in a comedy at all, but an episode of Dragnet. That doesn’t mean that he’s not trying to be funny. There’s just more humor to be found in subtlety, such as his machine gun cadence, and the way he spins around and points his finger at Jerry. He doesn’t try to match absurdity with more absurdity. Hall takes it in a different route, giving us the unexpected, and a way of looking at a Seinfeld character in a light we’d never seen before. Bookman would return briefly years later in the series finale, reminding audiences once again that in a long line of Seinfeld guest stars, Philip Baker Hall will always be the best. Now that he’s gone, party time is over.