Baker started his ‘Broadway’ career in 1963, with June Havoc’s ‘Marathon ‘33,’ based on the writer’s experiences during the Great Depression. The following year, he was cast in Burgess Meredith’s ‘Blues for Mr. Charlie’ and Henry Fonda’s production of ‘The Caine Mutiny Court Martial’ (which ran for 48 shows at the ‘Ahmanson Theatre’ in downtown Los Angeles).
Baker made his TV debut in 1965, as a truck driver, in an episode of ‘Honey West.’ Though it was a passable performance and lasted only a few minutes, it defined the type of work he would be offered in the future. In 1967, he made his film debut with ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ in an uncredited, small role.
His tall frame and roughneck look earned him several stereotypical roles in films and TV series. In 1969, he made a breakthrough with the character ‘Slater,’ a hired gun with a rough mouth, in the Western drama ‘Guns of the Magnificent Seven.’ The film could not replicate the success of the cult classics ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (1960) and ‘Return of the Magnificent Seven’ (1966).
In 1971, he played the supporting role of ‘Paul Buckman’ in yet another Western movie, ‘MGM’s ‘Wild Rovers.’ His movie ‘Mongo’s Back in Town’ was released the same year. Even though he was not among the billed actors, Baker managed to steal the show from stalwarts such as Telly Savalas, Martin Sheen, and Sally Field, who starred in the movie.
In 1972, he was featured as ‘Steve McQueen’s brother in Sam Peckinpah’s ‘Junior Bonner,’ a role that helped him pave his way to success.
Following his performance in ‘Junior Bonner,’ Baker earned the lead role of ‘Buford Pusser’ in Phil Karlson’s ‘Walking Tall’ (1973). It turned out to be a career-defining role for him. The film was an unexpected success, both critically and commercially, owing to Baker’s remarkable portrayal of the character. Made on a small budget of $500,000, the film ended up making $23 million.
Continuing his stint with hits, he delivered yet another memorable performance in ‘Charley Varrick’ (1973). The film failed at the box office even though it received positive reviews from critics. It was hailed as a film that was “ahead of its time.”
1973 became one of the best years of Baker’s professional life. His third successful movie of the year was a gripping action–drama named ‘The Outfit,’ in which he played the lead role, ‘Jack Cody,’ a felon seeking revenge for his brother’s murder.
Considering the record of his successful movies in the early 1970s, it was assumed that Baker was on his way to the top of his career. However, things went astray for him with a slew of unsuccessful films, such as ‘Golden Needles’ (1974), ‘Speedtrap’ (1977), ‘The Shadow of Chikara’ (1977), and ‘The Pack’ (1977).
Due to his remarkable performance in ‘Walking Tall,’ Baker was cast in ‘NBC’s ‘To Kill a Cop’ in 1978 and the crime-drama series ‘Eischied’ (1979–1980), regardless of his other failures.
During the early 1980s, he diversified his career by playing lead roles in the comedy movies ‘Wacko’ and ‘Joysticks’ and the sports drama ‘The Natural’ (1984).
In 1985, he appeared in one of British TV’s masterpieces, ‘BBC's ‘Edge of Darkness,’ which ushered Baker into the realm of European film and TV. He received a ‘BAFTA’ nomination for the ‘Best Actor’ for his performance in the series. Describing his experience in an interview, he said, “It was a great part, a great script, great actors and a great director, Martin Campbell.”
His performance in ‘Edge of Darkness’ drew a lot of offers from British movies and TV shows. Baker found his foothold in one of the most celebrated British movie series, the ‘James Bond’ franchise, with Timothy Dalton’s ‘The Living Daylights’ (1987). He appeared in two more ‘Bond’ movies: ‘Golden Eye’ (1995) and ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ (1997).
In the 1990s, Baker mostly appeared in supporting roles on the big screen, with movies such as ‘Cape Fear,’ ‘The Distinguished Gentleman,’ ‘Underneath,’ and ‘Congo.’ His more recent works include ‘The Cleaner’ (2009). He appeared as ‘Major Larry Duren’ in one of its episodes, ‘Last American Causality.’ He also appeared in ‘Strange Wilderness’ (2008) and ‘Mud’ (2012).
He served as a production manager for the 1980 TV movie ‘Power.’