“Did I ever want to become an actor? I wanted to be a clown, a painter, a standup comic. What keeps me going is that I believe somewhere in my head I have something that I have to get out of there." Larry Hankin
reaking Bad has had its countless supporting actors fill the ranks of drug enforcement agents, Mexican cartel psychopaths, and tweakers in its five seasons of crank-laden high opera. But only Larry Hankin, the veteran actor who played Old Joe, will forever be etched into modern memory as the junkyard proprietor whose chutzpah bested Hank Schrader and saved Walt and Jesse’s asses — not once but twice.
And, he did it in five minutes of collective screen time, in two episodes during seasons 3 and 5.
Of course, Hankin has made a career out of leaving a lasting impression on audiences, and anyone else lucky enough to have crossed his path.
Tall, lanky, hip, delightfully buffoonish at times, yet serious, Hankin’s perfect comic timing has made him a go-to guy for casting directors for decades. His IMDB page reads like a dense index of TV’s greatest hits — including Laverne& Shirley, Eight Is Enough, and Family Ties and he’s appeared in films like Escape from Alcatraz, Billy Madison, Armed and Dangerous, Amazon Women on the Moon, and Home Alone, to name a few.
Hankin is the quintessential “that guy,” instantly recognizable as Mr. Heckles on Friends or ‘the Other Kramer,’ who stole the raisins, on the pilot episode of Seinfeld. But Hankin’s off-screen history is arguably more interesting than any filmography and his pedigree alone should place him on a registry of national treasures (if one exists).
An early member of famed improvisational company The Second City, he headed to San Francisco to help form The Committee, the politically driven satirical theatre that flourished from 1963-1973 and spawned successful careers for many of its members.
“I’ve been part of a lot of amazing things,” said Hankin, whose showbiz career began at ground zero of the ‘60s counter culture, as one of its principal players.
“[Larry] was absolutely brilliant and was one of the most gifted improvisers I’ve ever known, said The Committee’s founder and veteran Hollywood film and television director Alan Myerson. “Hilariously funny, idiosyncratic, and unlike anybody else, he was and is Larry Hankin.”
Larry Hankin, the nice Jewish boy and occasional summer life-guard from Far Rockaway, New York entered Syracuse University in the hunky-dory somnambulance of 1950s America when Eisenhower was in the White House and students were less inclined to occupy administration buildings than they were to please their parents
“At school, he was just a tall, funny guy,” said screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, who first met Hankin as a student at Syracuse University in the fall of 1957.
“He was an industrial arts major and I was in the theater arts department and dual major in journalism. We found ourselves on the creative side of college in the drama department doing plays. When some of our fellow students opened a summer stock theater in Plattsburgh, New York, Larry and I went up there as actors
After graduation, Hankin and Gottlieb gravitated to Greenwich Village just in time for the big folk music scare and found an apartment at 70 Carmine Street for 50 bucks a month. By day, Hankin washed dishes, but he honed his performance chops nightly in coffee houses, reciting off-beat monologues for would-be hipsters and folksingers that included Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, and Noel Stookey.
“Larry and I started out together in the Village,” said actor and comedian Fred Willard. “We’d sit back in the dressing room for hours waiting for a spot to go on, while one folk singer after the other would sing. Larry’s a very bright guy, a very unique, off-beat character.”
The Second City
Hankin’s fledgling stage act caught the attention of agents Charles Joffe and Jack Rollins, who added Hankin to their client roster (which included Woody Allen), and soon he graduated to club dates opening for Allen, Richard Pryor, and Miles Davis.
“I was labeled as a Lenny Bruce type,” Hankin told us recently
“But I was too raw to be on TV because I cursed on stage and talked about God. Some thought it was funny, but when I started opening up for the Kingston Trio one guy came at me with an upside down bottle. He wasn’t offering me a drink.”
Rollins and Joffe thought of their wonderfully eccentric client as less a cash cow and better suited to audition for the nascent improvisation troupe The Second City. After a brief stint in St. Louis with its antecedent, The Compass Players, Hankin was sent to join the company in Chicago and train with theater pioneers Viola Spolin and her son, Paul Sills.
“She was like the Stanislavsky of improvisation, and Paul was the Lee Strasberg,” said Hankin.
“But she was like a sergeant or improv Nazi with all of her side coaching while we’d be making up a story in a scene, interrupting with, ‘concentrate, pay attention, listen’ and it would drive me and [cast mate] Del Close up the fucking wall. And, we couldn’t curse on stage either, unless it really had something to do with the narrative of the scene we were improvising. If you cursed onstage during a show Paul Sills would tear you another asshole when you came off the stage.”
Hankin’s rendezvous with destiny happened on a cold winter night in 1963 when an old Chevy town car full of “malcontents,” double-parked at the corner of Wells Street and North Avenue in Chicago, outside The Second City, and waited for him to exit the theater.
“Someone came into the bar and told me, ‘Hey, there’s a car outside and this guy wants to talk to you,’” Hankin told us.
“The roof was strapped with luggage, piled high like a clown car, and inside was Gary Goodrow, his wife, their two kids, Dick and Katherine Stahl, and Alan Myerson who said, ‘We’re headed for San Francisco and we’re starting a new company. Jump in.’ But I looked around and there was no room in the car. Eventually they sent me a plane ticket in the mail and flew out me out there.
At first the company lived together communally in a railroad flat, pooling their money and sharing meals. They set up shop in the hub of San Francisco bohemia, North Beach — the stomping grounds of beat poets Allen Ginsberg, Neil Cassidy, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
“North Beach has always been a repository of outlaws, outcasts, and outside artists. From the Barbary Coast days, it had been a corral of misfits,” actor and former Committee member Howard Hesseman told us.
“Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books’ publication of Howl put Beat Literature on the map, and it was always known for being an iconoclastic community.”
From the moment The Committee opened its doors in April of 1963, its anarchic humor and treatment of difficult political subjects resonated deeply with the student movement, exploding across the bridge in Berkeley as well as the burgeoning Haight-Ashbury music community, which included future members of the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane.
“I remember when Russian ballet star Rudolf Nuryev was busted for smoking pot on a roof with some locals, the company improvised a ballet of the police chasing him and his friends across the rooftops of San Francisco,” said Hesseman.
“It was exciting to be dealing with headlines and issues of, not simply a community, but one of global nature in, increasingly, a politicized community in San Francisco. I think trying to read a broad spectrum of publications - newspapers, Time, Newsweek, Izzy Stone’s I.F.Stone's Weekly - to get a sense of what was going on in the world was highly valuable because we were soliciting subjects for improvisational scenes from the audience every night.”
Even among his contemporaries in The Committee, Hankin was legendary for his ballsy, risk-taking theatrics. Carl Gottlieb, who eventually joined the company after a two year stint in the US Army, remembers his friend's fearlessness, even in the face of controversy
"He would make choices that were really daring,most notably right after the assasination of President Kennedy, ” Gottlieb explained.
“We used to do a piece, ’Man on the street,’” which began with an actor who was fluent and knowledgeable about all kinds of news named Scott Beach. Someone would come out asking suggestions from the audience for a news headline, and the rest of the company would then take turns improvising man-on-the-street reactions to the news.”
“Like everywhere else, the theater went dark for the first two nights until the nation came to its senses,” Gottlieb remembered. “When we re-opened nobody wanted to touch a suggestion of something in the news.”
“Finally, after ten days or so, [director] Alan Myerson decided it’s time to put the ‘Man on the Street’ back on the show. With trepidation, the actors are hovering in the wings, waiting to hear what the audience suggests is the news topic of the day." Amidst that silence and tension Hankin came out and asked for a suggestion. Somebody in the audience said, ‘San Francisco coffee stinks.’ According to Gottlieb, "You could hear the packed audience (of 500 seats) breath a palpable sigh of relief. 'At least they’re not going to do anything on the assassination.'”
"Then Larry interrupts and says, ‘Don’t you read the papers? The fucking president was shot! And the guy who shot him was shot. I don’t understand you people."
"You could hear 500 sphincters snapping shut,'" recalls Hankin. "I immediately followed in a disappointed manner with: 'Okay. Okay. We'll take 'San Francisco has bad coffee,' and the 'Man on The Street' interviews began. Point made. Fine. We did it. No harm, no foul, I thought. But no way."
"When I got backstage the entire cast were waiting for me, getting on my case about bringing down the audience and ruining the show — real nasty, angry crap that blew me away. I was completely confused, until Alan Myerson came backstage, witnessed this, and defended me, telling the rest of the cast that I 'did the right thing, we are a contemporary political and a social theater,' and etc. etc. He saved my ass many times during those years."
From 1963 onward The Committee was on a collision course with history. The theater at 622 Broadway became the destination of a veritable who’s who of counter culture types.
“Monday were when we were closed, and Alan thought we could monetize things by renting out the space. So, friends would use it to perform,” remembers Hankin.
“Timothy Leary, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, [guitarist] Sandy Bull, and the Grateful Dead played there. Lenny Bruce would drop by; beat poet Michael McClure did his famous play The Beard, which at the time had curse words in it and sex on stage. By today’s standards, it would be considered very mild, but in those days, say ‘fuck’ on stage and you were going to be sent away for three years. It was fucking ridiculous. But, you never knew what was going to be on, and what well known people would come and use the stage.”
Any expose on San Francisco in the 1960s would be revisionist were it to gloss over the drug culture or, in Hankin’s case, the drug culture’s impact on his development as an artist.
Hankin’s foray into writing during this period, admittedly under the influence, resulted in A Fool’s Play, an absurdist take on authority set in King Arthur’s court and performed by the company at The Committee’s second San Francisco location on Montgomery Street.
“I think I may have taken Hankin on his first acid trip,” remembers Hesseman. “I do remember one time doing acid together out at Stinson Beach and thinking as he waded into the ocean to re-kindle his relationship with ‘mother earth’ that I was going to be in trouble getting back through town to the house we were staying at 4 in the afternoon with this cat, dripping wet in January in Northern California.”
With the twilight of the ‘60s came lucrative job opportunities in Hollywood, and Committee members, some more than others, gravitated to Los Angeles. Hankin, who along with Chris Ross booked a role on the movie Viva Max, with Peter Ustinov. Roger Bowen played Colonel Blake in Robert Altman’s MASH. Carl Gottlieb, who also appeared in MASH and went on to write Jaws and many other films was snatched up by The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour to work on its writing staff. Peter Bonerz was cast on The Bob Newhart Show, Howard Hesseman (WKRP In Cincinnati/Head of The Class) became a TV star in his own right, and Alan Myerson began a long, successful TV and film directing career.
Hankin appeared in The Committee’s final performance in 1973, just as he had in its first show ten years earlier. Although he was offered the occasional TV and film role , some bad times, including a period of homelessness lay ahead.
“Shakespeare said, ‘the worst turns to laughter,’” Hankin told us.
"I lived in my car for a year. And it’s not romantic at all, because I wanted money and comfort, but I am so happy I lived in my car. It makes for good stories to tell.”
That itinerant period gave birth to Hankin’s two seminal characters Emmett and Sometimes Jones (the lead character in Hankin’s Academy-Award-nominated short film, Solly’s Diner), based on the street people he encountered. Both have been recurring characters in the many video and film shorts he directs, produces, and edits himself.
"Even though I knew I would never make a penny working with Hankin, whenever he asks me to be in a project of his--to this day--I say, 'How high?'" said actor Paul Willson who has acted in several of Hankin's films.
"I also have way too many magazine subscriptions."
Like many of his friends Hankin broke down and returned to Los Angeles, where he’s blossomed as an actor and works at a breathtaking pace more suited for someone half his age. But it’s not certain whether Hankin, often seen riding his mountain bike around his neighborhood in Venice, is even aware of his age.
"When he stepped off the plane in San Francisco 50 years ago, he looked like a Jewish dental student or a Yeshiva scholar, with an overcoat, horned rimmed glasses, and a short haircut,” said Myerson.
“He’s a guy who’s transformed himself based on his perception of his life experiences several times, and that kind of flexibility I find magical.”
That doesn't mean Hankin won't marvel at the trajectory of his life's amazing journey.
"Did I ever want to become an actor?" reflects Hankin. “I wanted to be a clown, a painter, a standup comic … It just happened. I can’t memorize lines. When I did that long speech at the Winnebego on Breaking Bad it nearly killed me. What keeps me going is that I believe somewhere in my head I have something that I have to get out of there. It’s like the thorn in the paw of the lion and it bugs the shit out of me. I’m leading up to it.”
For more information on Larry Hankin click here.