"...I wanted to be in on all that goodness going on too."
~ Larry Hankin ~
I like character actors. I always have. The ones that make you point your finger at the screen like Spicoli, and say, "I know that dude!" They are the actors that make TV shows and movies better simply by being in them. The ones you might not necessarily know by name, but you never forget their face.
Larry Hankin is one of those actors who steal the screen. And when I see him in a show, I stick around awhile. Whether playing Old Joe, the junkyard magnet lender in "Breaking Bad" or Mr. Heckles, the downstairs neighbor in "Friends" or a host of other "there he is" appearances. Larry makes the most with the face time he gets.
And I'm aware he's not just a one-trick pony. He's also a comedian, a writer and a director with an Oscar nomination checked off his bucket-list. Larry Hankin is like one of those fine spices that chefs reach for to make their dishes extra-special. Go out and get you some.
Larry Hankin Interview -- DEC. 2017
Casey Chambers: Some might not realize that you wrote, directed, and starred in the film short..."Solly's Diner." (1980) And received an Academy Award Nomination for your effort. Could we talk a little bit about the film?
Larry Hankin: At that time I had just moved to L.A. and I was living in a seedy part of Hollywood near Western and Hollywood Blvd. It was a lot of hookers and stuff. And there was this diner and a guy named Solly ran it. Every time I went in the place, I was the only customer there. And because of the slow business, he wanted to keep me as one of his regular customers. (laughs) He would always give me more food than what I saw him give others. He would just pile it on. And I thought that was really cool because I was broke. I was starving. So obviously I kept going there.
The actual instigation of me doing this film...I got a call from an actress friend (Anna Mathias) who said her husband was wanting to move up to cinematographer. Harry Mathias was working big time movies as a camera operator and needed something on a reel with his name as cinematographer. And she asked me if I would write something for her husband. A movie. I could direct it. I could be in it. And Harry'd be the cinematographer. That was the start of it. I've always wanted to do movies. To make them. A film short. It was something I really wanted to do. So I took the money and thought about "Solly's Diner."
That wasn't actually the name of the place, but that's what I called it. And since there was hardly anybody in the place...ever...I was betting I could rent it real cheap to shoot a movie for a day or two. (laughs) So I approached him about it and I was right. He gave me the place for three days at, I think, $300 a day. Which is pretty cheap, if you're making a movie.
He tried to negotiate with me. He said, 'Well, ya know, they're shooting a movie on this block on the same week that you're gonna shoot and I've been approached by several movie companies for $1,000 a day to shoot in my place here.' (laughs) Now, I had never really negotiated any kind of deal on my own. But I was starving and I didn't have an agent then, so I told him, 'No. I only have this much.' And I got the place.
So I wrote about this little restaurant. It was 20 pages. A minute a page for filming. And 20 minutes...I didn't know how much that'd be. I had no idea about costs. I think I had about $10,000 leftover for this film, 'cause the rest of the money I used to pay off debts.
I shot the thing in three days. At night. It was always at night. So instead of losing the light, we were always gaining the light. The dawn would come up right through the front window of this restaurant. We couldn't afford any huge blankets to cover up the front window, so we were stuck. We started shooting late at night and had to finish by 4:30 or 5:00.
On the last day of the shoot, the sun was starting to come up and we had three shots to get. We were just totally rushed. When we saw the rushes of that final day, the camera was out of line. They had changed lenses and it was not screwed in properly. So it was all blurred. (laughs) It was the final shot...which is actually the opening pan shot around the counter. We had to go back for one more day of shooting. And now Solly knew he had us. 'Ahhh! Now it's going to cost you.' (laughs) So we had to just pay. And we did it. That was the big adventure of how the film "Solly's Diner" all came about.
"Solly's Diner" (1980)
Casey Chambers: When you finally finished the film, did you feel like you got it right? That it was going to garner attention?
Larry Hankin: Completely the opposite. I had never written or directed anything. And I was looking for a director, but Harry kept insisting, 'You direct. You direct.' He convinced me that it wasn't going to be that hard and that he had a lot of help, but I was scared. Me, being the director...that threw a wrench into the whole thing. I was already the lead and I wrote it. I figured a really good director could help me. And protect the writing.
So I became the director. I was skittish the whole time. I rehearsed my two actors and when we began shooting, everything was going fine. Harry would sometimes say, 'Well, why don't we put the camera here instead of there' and we would talk about it. And we were mostly on the same page until that last night when we were rushed to get three shots and then we had a huge shouting match in front of everybody. (laughs)
That argument was a very heated, awful argument. Finally, he told me...'Okay, look. This is my crew and we're both freaking them out. And we got to get this done. And we're gaining the light. So, you walk around the block. Cool out. When you come back, we'll get the shot we agreed on, set up and we'll just shoot it and get the hell out of here.' So I did.
And it was a big block, the one I walked around. (laughs) When I came back, Harry had set up the one shot we needed in the exact opposite way that we had talked about. He said, 'It looks better this way.' And I said, 'No, no.' And Harry said, 'Well, it's too late to change it now. Here comes the light. Are we gonna shoot it or not?' (laughs) I mean, it was a done deal. Fait accompli. But as it turned out, Harry was right. I just couldn't see it until the thing was edited. That shot was perfect. Looking at the finished product...yeah, thank God he told me to get out of there and walk around the block. (laughs) And we got an Academy Award nomination for "Best Short Film."
Casey Chambers: That's a nice feather. Congratulations again.
Larry Hankin: When I directed "Solly's Diner," I didn't have an agent or manager and I had no long term experience of being an actor in movies or in directing myself. So there were doubts. Am I doing this right? Can I do this again? Thankfully, I've directed a lot of films since then, and I think I'm finally getting a sense.
I was talking to this well-known director one time, asking him about being in charge of so many people. Making decisions. On your feet. And about problems that come up that you can't plan on. Stuff like that.
I told him about this one thing I did when I was directing "Solly's Diner." It was about another shot I wanted to get. A little experiment I had in my head about putting the camera in a certain place to capture a shot. Harry didn't think it would work and said I shouldn't waste time. It was always about the "losing the light" thing. I wanted it, so I lied about why it was necessary to do this particular shot. It was a blatant, artistic lie and he bought it. We did it. It always bothered me and I never told him.
So we're talking, and he says, 'Well what do you think? Have you gotten over it? What's your take on it now that you're a grown man and you've directed things?' And I said, 'Well, I've kind of come to the conclusion...Cool man.' (laughs) And he just slapped my hand and he said, 'Right on!' (laughs) The great thing is you're standing on the shoulders of giants going in.
With directing, it's "the kid stays in the picture" thing. Like that famous Jackie Coogan story. Some stories are just pop folk, but this one isn't. Jackie Coogan was a kid actor who'd worked with Chaplin and those guys. And one time, and I don't know who the famous director was, but he had a crying scene. And the kid wasn't crying right. He was fake crying. He was acting crying. And so the director called him aside and said, 'Kid, listen we gotta stop production here for a second. Some bad news has come down.' He took Jackie aside and said, 'Listen your pet dog, Spot...well, he just got hit by a car. He's dead.' (laughs) And Jackie Coogan started to cry. And the director rushed him in front of the camera and he said, 'Get this! Get this!' (laughs) And they got it. And then he told him the dog was fine. He's okay. And that's a famous story.
Casey Chambers: And if that didn't work, he'd tell him a nice plane crash story. (laughs)
Larry Hankin: It's a story director's tell. (laughs) You gotta get the shot, man. You gotta get it.
Casey Chambers: At all costs.
Larry Hankin: Yeah, at all costs. On the set. The sacred circle of the artists is there on the set. And that's what I did. I didn't realize that was what I'd done at the time. I was very naive. I still am. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: You have a body of work that stretches as far back as the 60's, so I'm just going to cherry-pick a few things. John Hughes liked your work. You appeared in a few of his movies. "Planes Trains And Automobiles" (1987) is certainly a classic.
Larry Hankin: Right! We also did "She's Having A Baby." (1988) And we did "Home Alone." (1990)
Casey Chambers: Let's talk a little bit about "Planes Trains And Automobiles." You were the cab driver named Dooby. What do you recall about shooting that particular scene?
Larry Hankin: Let me preface this story by saying I have ADHD. I've had it all my life. It's basically the way information is absorbed and how you process it. It shuns information that should go to the left brain, to the right and takes information from the right brain and shuns it to the left. So reading linear instructions like...how to set up your internet, how to set up your computer...is very difficult for me. And on that particular shoot, it came into play.
"Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (1987)
Sometimes I'm okay, but then ya give me just a little too much information and it gets scrambled. And then I just lose the thread. Anyway, he really liked me, yes...and liked me in that role. He was favoring me in that whole thing. I was the taxi driver and I drive Candy and Martin to their motel. I get out and help them with their luggage. And now, you don't see this next scene, but John (Hughes) says, 'Larry, why don't you carry the luggage inside with them?'
So, I'm inside now. The scene is at the desk. And I don't know what he said to me, but I didn't do it right, whatever it was. And John Hughes is very on or off. And I've heard this on all three of the sets I was doing when I worked with him. He's either very easygoing or he's cold as...I don't know.
Casey Chambers: That can put some edgy in the air.
Larry Hankin: Yeah, and he could get angry and...what he'd do is fire you. On the spot. I remember once, 'Where's so-and-so?' Oh, he got fired? Why? I don't know. John didn't like what he did and just got rid of him.' Just...boom. I remember he invited us, me and about four or five other actors, in his stretch limo to a big soiree the suburbs were throwing. And I saw that happen in front of me. Going there, he was great. Coming back he was...we didn't even know who he was.
So anyway, in the scene, we're inside this motel at the desk, and all of a sudden he goes, 'Larry, just get out of here. Just get out. No, out. Get Hankin out of there!' (laughs) And to this day, I don't know why.
Casey Chambers: Out of the blue.
Larry Hankin: Yeah, and it wasn't like, hey we don't need you. He was just angry. Up until that point, we were getting along fine. But here's an interesting part to that cab scene. I guess, now that I'm talking about it, I remember. That scene wasn't shot on the road at all. What happened was...we pulled into this snow covered driveway and there was a motel. I mean, that was a real thing. Driving up, letting them off, getting the suitcases out, and going inside. We shot at the motel first.
Casey Chambers: No city driving?
Larry Hankin: I thought the entire ride to the motel would be shot traveling in a car. But no. We went inside a Chicago soundstage. And there was a taxi with no wheels in the middle of this huge empty soundstage. All black. I mean, ya know, not lit. And in the middle was a taxi set up on four boxes. To the height of...ya know...as if it had wheels. There was just two or three lights around it. And a soda box. A wooden soda box sitting next to it. And John would sit on the soda box outside the cab's door. If a passenger was sitting in the front seat, he would be sitting right next to them on the outside of the door. And Candy and Steve were in the back and I was in the front.
John would say, 'Okay, do the lines.' And we would do the lines and yeah, there would be kind of lights flashing and a crew member would run a tree branch by...as if we were passing something. It was really dinky. I didn't think it looked real at all. He had us run through it once. And then he would disappear. He went upstairs and I guess that's where the TV city was. You know what a TV city is, right? It's where the camera is attached to a TV set so they can watch what the camera is doing.
So this was upstairs somewhere up in the heavens of this soundstage. He was gone. We didn't know where he was. But there was a microphone inside of the cab so he talked to us that way. And obviously he was watching us because he would go, 'Alright, now do it again. But this time, Steve...improvise. Everybody else do the lines. Steve, you improvise it.' And then we'd do that. And he'd say, 'John, improvise it. Steve improvise it. Larry, you just do your lines.' And then we'd go around again. 'Larry, you improvise it.' And we would just do this for the whole day. I mean...three hours in the morning and about three hours in the afternoon. Just that.
And sometimes he would come down and he would say, 'Improvise it.' And he would watch us. Now, here's the weird thing why he was who he was...John Hughes. We must have improvised it maybe 20 times. I'm not kidding. Even more, obviously. Sometimes you'd just do little sections. He would remember every goddamn thing we said. Like, he'd say, 'Okay do it again only Larry, remember in that improv where John asks which way you're going and you said...what did you say?' I'm like, 'I don't remember what I said.' He'd say, 'You said...' and he would quote it to me. And he would go up into the booth and he would say, 'No, John, you said blah blah blah in that scene. So, just keep that line.' So then we were finished. And that was the most amazing piece of directing in one day that I've ever witnessed in my life.
So we did it. It comes out. I see the movie. And there we are. It's great. I'm fine. But about two years later, I'm working for Christopher Columbus in the movie, "Home Alone." He says, 'Oh, by the way, I saw that film that you did with John Candy and Steve Martin. Ya know, that cab thing you did. I saw that movie. Really funny.' I go, 'Oh you mean "Planes Trains And Automobiles?" He goes, 'No, no, the short.' And I asked him, 'What short?' He said, 'You know, where you were Doobie in the cab.' I go, 'Yeah, yeah that was "Planes Trains And Automobiles."' He says, 'No, no. It was a film short.' And I go, 'What film short?' Chris said, 'I went to John Hughes house. It was at a party. Some birthday or something. And he showed everybody a 20 minute...a 10 minute film short of you and John and Steve in a cab. It was a short. Just the three of you in a cab.' And I go, 'Holy...that's what that soundstage stuff was all about.' (laughs)
Casey Chambers: A-ha! (laughs)
Larry Hankin: He took all the footage that wasn't used in the movie...and there was quite a bunch of footage.
Casey Chambers: He saved all that!
Larry Hankin: He saved all that and made a film short. I would love to see it.
Casey Chambers: Oh yeah, I would too!
Larry Hankin: (laughs) It must be incredible.
Casey Chambers: It would make for some great footage to add to the bonus features on Blu-ray.
Larry Hankin: Oh, yeah! He was taking all of that improv...writing and cutting it together...and using us as the typewriter, I guess. So it just occurs to me...that's how Shakespeare wrote. You know he had the actors improvise, too. He didn't just sit at home and write out those plays in longhand. He had a company of actors that were incredible improvisers. I mean he would come in with written pieces exactly like John Hughes did.
Casey Chambers: That actually makes a lot of sense. You could have Shakespeare outtakes like, "Hamlet, drop the skull on the floor next time." (laughs)
Larry Hankin: And he would say, "Come on, play with this. Let's go. Try it with Thee instead of Thou.' (laughs) Something like that. So I can see how John could have constructed a really cool film short. I mean...Steve Martin and John Candy... those two guys are pretty freaking funny, man. I mean, I was a witness. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: No doubt. I loved your Mr. Heckles character in "Friends." Could we talk about that?
Larry Hankin: Oh, okay! Yeah!
Casey Chambers: Every time your Mr. Heckles made an appearance, it was gold. Was Mr. Heckles written to be a recurring character?
Larry Hankin: No. And again, my ADHD was in full blown mood on that shoot. I didn't get along with...anybody. I was Mr. "you're not really here, but you'll do this part guy." It was my fault. I mean, I just didn't get along with them. I just didn't understand, socially, how to...Okay, what happened was, I got the job as Mr. Heckles before "Friends" went on the air.
Mr. Heckles on "Friends"
So, there was no clue to me or to anybody else what this was really about. I just showed up with a script. But I didn't know these people. Nobody was famous yet. And when I got to the soundstage where they were shooting, they were already in the middle of a scene. And it wasn't even in the (apartment) set, it was a bank set. I had no clue as to what the overlying idea of the show was. I just sat there and watched and when it was my turn to do my piece, everybody else had left. The rehearsal was just me and the two girls, (Jennifer Aniston and Lisa Kudrow) and a cat. And the director.
Casey Chambers: That would have been kind of weird.
Larry Hankin: Well, on the day of the actual shoot, we couldn't do it in front of an audience because there was no room for that part of the set. The girls were in the hall with a cat and I was just opening the door and looking out. They had to build a little hallway off to the side where nobody could see us. But there was no camaraderie in that first scene. I didn't get along, because there was nobody to get along with. The girls didn't know me. They said, 'Hello. Goodbye.' Boom. Then I went home. And that was my thing.
But the hookup was that the show wasn't on the air yet and I didn't know if it was ever going to go on. When it did come out, it wasn't until the next year. The second time I was on the show, they were already stars. They were pretty famous and they had their own little group. And they had been working together for a year now, so I was a total interloper. And I rankled at the fact that after each shot, they would huddle up and I was left out. (laughs)
And by the way, when I did "Seinfeld," the same thing happened with them. We'd do the scene and Michael and Jerry and the cast...they would all go off in the corner and just giggle together. (laughs) The same thing with "Friends." Hey, I guess if I was them, I'd do the same thing, but I took umbrage. 'Cause, hey man, I wanted to be in on all that goodness going on too. The producers would talk with them. The director would talk with them. But nobody was talking to me. So I was just...'Fuck you, guys.' (laughs) And that's how it kind of went.
Before doing my fourth episode, my agent called me and said, 'Hey, I got some good news and some bad news.' Now here's the rule. The rule is, you do five, you get an incredible bump up. Where you can buy a house if you do five. Not that on the fifth one you get that amount of money. But if you do five, you become a recurring. It's called a recurring. And if you are a recurring, you're going to do at least six, seven, or eight. They don't hire anyone for five because when you're recurring, they have to pay you for several. So, if you're hired for a fifth, you are going to get a lot of money down the line.
And so my agent says, 'I've got good news and I've got bad news.' I said, 'Well, what's the good news?' He said, '"Friends" just called. You got a fourth show.' And that was like...'Cool man.' I'm going towards the fifth. I can see a driveway and a house. I can see it. What's the bad news?' He says, 'You have a heart attack and die.' (laughs) And that really pissed me off. Between the time I got a call from my agent telling me about a fourth show and then telling me I have a heart attack...there was like 15 seconds. And in-between, I had already bought a house. In those 15 seconds, I had bought a house and then they took it away from me. So going in on the first day of my fourth show, in my mindset, I was going in to people who had taken a house away from me. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: First off, I would have sworn you did a dozen shows. I loved Mr. Heckles. You must've been steamin'!
Larry Hankin: I was going in angry. That, I know. I remember I was just like...'goddamn it, man.' So I get there. And I didn't know it was the first day of the new season. I didn't know that there was going to be this celebration. They invited everybody that morning at eight o'clock for a big, huge brunch. The cast and the crew and the guest people who are gonna come for the rest of the year. The people from last year. All the suits. There was about 100 people in a special place where they have these breakfasts. Ya know, sausage and eggs and champagne.
And I just burst into this thing and I'm looking for the producers because I want to complain. 'Hey man, that was really underhanded.' was what I thought I was gonna say. 'Hey man, that's really a cheap shot.' That's what I was gonna say. And in this room... everybody...I mean...there's no chairs and tables. There's these little stand-up round tables that you just put your drink on and stand around it.
Casey Chambers: The smaller the tables, the bigger the billfolds, right?
Larry Hankin: Well, it was that kind of thing. So then here's the three producers huddled together. Just standing alone. Not around a table, just talking to each other in a little group. Like a cocktail group. And I rush over to them and they turn to me and they go, 'Oh Larry, hi, welcome to our next season.' And I go, 'What the fuck did you people do, man?' I just started shouting at them. 'What the fuck did you people do man?' I went nuts. I just fucking went nuts, man. Just lost it.
Casey Chambers: I totally get it.
Larry Hankin: Okay. All of a sudden, the place goes quiet. (laughs) And I heard it. And I just shut up, but it was too late. They just said, 'I think we should talk about this a little while later. Don't you think so, Larry?' And I just walked over to one of the food tables. And as I walked over, everybody walked away. This one actor comes over to me...(laughs)...I guess he was an extra. He said, 'Hey man, that was really cool.' (laughs)
But when I showed up later to do the show and to rehearse and do the work...nobody would come near me. And every time I went to the Kraft Services table to get a carrot stick or a cup of coffee, the people who were there would walk away and nobody would come over until I left. So that was my last show. That's how that went. So you might get the feeling that I've got an attitude problem. And I did. It took me a year or two to kind of calm down.
Larry Hankin on "Seinfeld"
Casey Chambers: But you did get a 5th episode at some point, didn't you?
Larry Hankin: No. No, no. Because that was the show my character had the heart attack on. I don't have it in the show. It was the show where I'm in my new apartment and there's a cutaway to me sitting in a chair reading a newspaper. It's kind of a medium close-up of me sitting in a Moorish chair reading a newspaper, and one of the girls was hanging upside down outside my window and was yelling, 'Help! Help! Mr. Heckles! Mr. Heckles!' 'Cause the setup was she fell while she was hanging Christmas lights. And she was hanging by her foot swinging past my window. A very funny shot!
Casey Chambers: (laughs) I remember that one! It was Jennifer Aniston swinging in the wind. Very funny!
Larry Hankin: We were talking about directing...let me tell you a quick story. I did a movie called, "Viva Max." (1969) It was directed by Jerry Paris. He also directed some "Laverne And Shirley" and "Happy Days." And we were doing a picture out in Italy. In Rome. At Cinecitta, which was where Fellini was shooting "Satyricon" at the time. And one of the things I did was sneak onto Fellini's set. Just to watch Fellini direct. It was amazing.
Casey Chambers: Now that would've been a cool memory to burn.
Larry Hankin: Oh yeah, because when he directed, he was the whole movie right there. In other words, he would act it out. I saw him directing a crowd of people in the stands watching a bullfight. This was Roman mythology. We were there watching the bullfighter fighting Minotaur which is a half man-half bull. And he was directing the crowd in the stands. He wanted them to cheer and then sigh and then boo and...he was doing it all. He was standing in the middle of the arena...nothing around...talking up to this stadium and he was acting...not like a single person...but like he was a crowd. (laughs) It was just amazing to watch him direct.
And there were these little old men all around his set. A big set, obviously. And these little old men were dressed in black suits and white shirts and black ties and none of them were younger than 80. White hair. Short guys. They looked like they were from Sicily. Like from some Mario Puzo script.
They were all around, but they didn't do anything. I would be there the whole day and I never saw them do anything but stand around and watch. Okay! So I had this fight with my director one day. Yelling match right in front of everyone. Well, he was yelling. My director was yelling and I would just whisper. He'd say, 'Look, ya gotta do it this way. I don't care what blah blah blah!' And I'd say, (in soft voice) 'Hey, please don't...c'mon man, I don't want to do this blah blah blah.' There was like hundreds of extras around watching. After the whole thing was over, I was so unnerved I went into the production office in Cinecitta. I just was standing there thinking...what am I gonna do? And there was a secretary sitting there and she asked...what's the matter? So I laid out the whole story about the argument and I turn around and there's one of these little old men from Fellini's set standing in the doorway just listening to me. I had my back to him talking to the secretary. He's standing in the doorway listening...and he says, (Larry using an Italian accent) 'You going to be someday...you going to be a director.' And I go, 'Really? Why do you say that?' And he goes, 'Because you can't take direction.' And then he walked away. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: Truer words, no? (laughs)
Larry Hankin: Yeah, that was kind of right. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: Well, I'd like to ask one last question. What kind of music have you been listening to?
"Bob Dylan 1966 Live"
Larry Hankin: Blues and Bob Dylan. That's about it. I'm from the '60s and I was just listening the other day to the soundtrack from the Scorsese documentary about Dylan, "No Direction Home" (2005) That album and that 1966 concert...I guess it's a bootleg...Bob Dylan and The Band in England where he says, 'You're a liar.' 'Judas!' Ya know, that concert is probably the livest, realest, musical concert I've ever heard. It's amazing. And I like some of the old Delta Blues. Stuff like that. I'm trying to learn the blues on guitar right now. But that's it. And after that, it's just sounds. (laughs)
Casey Chambers: Yeah, that's good stuff.
Larry Hankin: One other thing. Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live got his own TV pilot coming up called "Barry"...and I got a call out to do the show. Bill plays a hitman who turns detective. An ex-hitman becomes an outlaw for the police. But it's a comedy. It's an hour show on HBO. The guy who's producing it is the same guy who produces and writes and created..."Silicon Valley." Anyway, one of the first three shows in January I'm gonna be on.
Casey Chambers: That's some great news. You and Bill Hader both. That'll give fans something to look forward to. Mr. Hankin, thank you very much for speaking with me this morning. I hope your holidays are happy and thank you very much.
Larry Hankin: Okay, thanks a lot, Casey. This has been really cool. Talk to you soon.
"Did You Have A Nice Christmas?" - Larry Hankin / Emmett's Dysfunctional Greeting Cards
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