Larry Hankin on Being ‘That Guy’ from ‘Seinfeld,’ ‘Friends’ and ‘Breaking Bad’
Larry Hankin is one of those classic cases where you probably don’t know his name, but as soon as you get a look at his face, you say, “Oh! That guy.”
On Friends, he was the surly, broom-wielding downstairs neighbor Mr. Heckles. On Seinfeld, he was the raisin-stealing actor Tom Pepper, who portrayed Kramer in Jerry and George’s pilot for NBC. On Breaking Bad, he was the constitutionally savvy junkyard owner Old Joe. And on the off-chance you’re unfamiliar with any of those roles, he has nearly 200 other credits to choose from.
These days, though, Hankin has taken a bit of a breather from acting to put together his autobiography, the aptly named That Guy: A Cautionary Memoir. Available in March, his book shares a variety of stories from his work in both television and movies, including some of those from the comedic side of things that he shares below — like why he lost his temper with a Friends producer when they killed off his character and the time Bryan Cranston rattled him on the set of Breaking Bad.
“I never wanted to be an actor,” Hankin tells me. “I still don’t. I can do it, and it pays a lot of money. But when I’d see other actors on a set, I wasn’t like them. I didn’t have a need to be an actor. If I auditioned and got the job, that would be a paycheck. I didn’t take it any further. I didn’t care about who I worked with or that I’d get to be on television — it was just the paycheck so that I could make my own film shorts and paint. Acting was a side job that I did for 50 years.”
Biff on ‘Laverne & Shirley’
Penny Marshall got me an agent. She came to a show at the improv group I was in, The Committee, and told somebody, “Audition the tall guy from The Committee. He’s a good physical comedian, and we’re doing a dance number. I want to dance with him.”
When we were rehearsing, she wanted me to do a dip with her and drop her, but I didn’t want to do it. I said, “You’re the star. If I drop you, you’ll hit your head and have to go to the infirmary and I’ll get fired.” So she said, “Come on man! I know how to fall!” She was a very funny physical comedian.
Eventually, we decided I’d drop her by the couch, so at least her head was by the couch. She also told me, “Fall on top of me — that’s a double laugh.” And so, we went over by the couch and danced. I dipped her, dropped her and then tripped and fell on her. Suddenly, I heard, “Hey! What’s going on? No touchy-feely! Stop!” We turned around, and it was Garry Marshall, her older brother and producer of the show. She told him, “We’re rehearsing the dance number.” But he went, “Dance straight up, just the hands — no touchy-feely!” Then he walked away.
She just shrugged and said, “He’s my older brother.”
Mr. Heckles on ‘Friends ’
The first time I was on Friends was before it was on the air. The scene was with Jennifer Aniston and Lisa Kudrow. They knocked on my door with a cat in Lisa’s arms. In the rehearsals, there was no cat, but right before we shot, they handed Lisa the cat. I knew it wasn’t going to go well — when working with kids or animals, you have to rehearse with them.
They knocked, I opened the door and the cat was fine. They asked me, “Is this your cat?” I said, “Yes,” but then the cat decided to improvise. The cat figured it would be cool if it screamed and jumped out of Lisa’s hands.
The cat went “mrrrow,” and I saw Lisa’s hand clutch really tight. They went white holding that cat. I was thinking, “Lisa, let him go,” but she went through with the scene and didn’t drop a line as the cat was digging into her arms. Finally, the director yelled, “Cut!” Lisa slowly backed out, went to the cat handler and passed the cat over. The cat, though, got loose and disappeared backstage. The director came over and said, “Okay, print that — we’re never going to find that cat again.”
Overall, I did five episodes of Friends, and Mr. Heckles became very famous. Here’s the thing, though: On your sixth show, you became a recurring character, which meant a big bump in pay. I got a call from my agent saying, “I have good news and bad news. First, Friends called for your fifth appearance…” In that moment, I thought, “I have a house.” Then he said, “You have a heart attack and die.”
Going into that shoot, I had a chip on my shoulder. I was going to let the producers know that I wasn’t happy. After we taped, I lost it. I went over to the producers and shouted, “What did you do!?!” Everybody just shut up. There were like a hundred people there because it was the first episode of the season, which is always a big party. They were all understandably startled. A female producer quietly leaned in and said, “Larry, can we talk about this a little later?”
That snapped me out of it. I looked around, and everyone was staring at me. I backed away and went to the craft-services table, where everyone just cleared out. I stood there for a few minutes and waited for the voices to come back up. Then this 14-year-old kid came over to me — I think he was somebody’s son — and said, “Dude, that was so cool!”
Tom Pepper, aka TV Kramer, on ‘Seinfeld ’
I had auditioned for Kramer when Seinfeld was first casting, but Michael Richards got the part. Later, when I saw him as Kramer, I knew they got the right guy. I knew Michael before that, too. He and I are both tall and we look alike, so we auditioned for a lot of the same parts.
Anyway, a few years after the Seinfeld audition, they were doing a couple of episodes about Jerry’s pilot — where someone played Kramer in their show — and Michael told the casting director, “If you’re going to get someone to imitate me, get Larry.”
Even though I was imitating him, I never really worked with him on the part. See, Michael is weird. He’s weird like I’m weird. Michael would rehearse in private, and he doesn’t like to give away his humor. He doesn’t like to do what he’s going to do on-screen in rehearsal — he’ll do something else.
We filmed both episodes back-to-back without an audience. At one point, the set was dark and I was sitting up in the bleachers. I saw Michael rehearsing his way of coming in the door. This was a great place to be. I was watching an icon of TV comedy create one of his door entrances. He had a pipe and a newspaper, and he had to open the door with the doorknob — there were three things he was working with and only two hands.
I watched him as he was figuring out how to put the pipe in his mouth, then reach for the doorknob, put the paper under his arm and then take the pipe out. He was going through all these options with the door, the doorknob, the pipe and the paper, and he was having trouble. I felt a kinship with Michael, so I got out of the bleachers and went down there and said, “Hey Michael, I was watching you do this thing, and I can help you out if you want.”
Then he asked me how long I had been watching him for. I told him, “About 20 minutes. If you want me to…” But he said, “No, thank you,” and walked away.
When I watched him do the entrance during filming, he did something he didn’t do at all in the 20 minutes I watched him. Like I said, he’s weird, but in fairness, so am I.
Old Joe on ‘Breaking Bad’
I’d done one episode of Breaking Bad already, but I came back for a second one. I loved playing Old Joe. I was doing my Uncle Murray. He was one of those guys. He didn’t own a junkyard, but he was an oil burner and he wore coveralls and was all greasy and stuff.
The second one was where I sold them the magnet. I was explaining the magnet to them in the junkyard, and I just kept going up on my lines. I have dyslexia, so it’s not easy for me to memorize scripts. For auditions, it was okay, but when I had a lot of lines, it was hard. In this case, I just forgot them. The director said, “Cut!,” and Bryan Cranston leaned in and whispered, “Get your lines down.” Then I went up on my lines again. The director said, “Cut!” and Bryan went, “What’s the matter with you? Remember your lines.” But that doesn’t do any good — it makes it worse.
I didn’t want to go through that a third time, so I stepped out and asked to talk to the director. I said, “Bryan’s giving me a hard time.” The director said, “Two things, Larry: First, all actors go up on their lines, it happens. The second thing is, we’re losing the light, so fuck Bryan and let’s just finish this scene.” I got back in, and I never forgot my lines again. The director scared the strength into me.
I get it, though. Bryan’s an actor. He takes this stuff very seriously. I didn’t. I mean, it was important for me to do the job well, but I didn’t need to be an actor in the same way a lot of other guys did. That’s why it was okay for me to get out of it. Plus, when you start to get older, the roles begin to get less and less because the industry doesn’t know how to change from what they knew you as. So about five years ago, I realized it was time for me to get out. Besides, I make enough residuals to pay my rent and my car payment.
Now, if someone wants me for a part and it’s easy enough, I’ll do it — like when they called me back to do El Camino. It was a little part, but I went up on my lines again and after a couple of takes, Vince Gilligan called a break for 10 minutes for me to get my lines down.
Come to think of it, maybe that’s why they never asked me to be on Better Call Saul.