My newest interview subject, Larry Hankin, has been in the entertainment business since the 1960s. My first exposure to him came when I saw the movie Home Alone, where he played the role of Officer Balzak. As I grew older, I would become more familiar with Larry via films like Annie and Running Scared. Larry has done a lot of amazing work over the years, and when I met him at the Chiller Theatre convention in April of 2019, I knew he would make for a fascinating interview subject. We spoke on August 15th, 2019, and I hope you all enjoy getting to know him and his work.
Say hello to Larry Hankin!
Larry: What’s up?
Johnny: I have my questions ready to go, starting with this: You first came to prominence as a member of The Committee, the noted 60s comedy troupe. As that was a fertile time period for comedy, did you view other troupes as competition, or did you all see yourselves on the same wavelength?
Larry: Well, at the time, we all came from the same place, so it was all one company that, in my mind, just split apart. To some people, I came to prominence with The Committee, but I actually started about a few years before that because I was a stand-up comedian. I was opening for Woody Allen and The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Blues Project and The Kingston Trio as a stand-up comedian. It wasn’t that I didn’t like it, but I was like Richard Pryor or Lenny Bruce. I had police taking me off the stage because I was cursing or talking about marijuana or God or religion, stuff you weren’t allowed to talk about in the 60s. I quit that, and my manager suggested that I join Second City. They were all talking about the same thing I was, but they had their own theater, so I joined Second City in Chicago. I was sent down South to St. Louis and stayed there for about a year, then when I came back, Alan Myerson, who was the director of Second City, got five people together, me included, and said, “Let’s go to San Francisco and start our own company”.
That’s how The Committee got started, so that’s how I got into show business, stand-up and then Second City and then The Committee. I came down to Southern Calfiornia because a lot of the Hollywood casting people, the stars of the sitcoms and stuff, would fly up to San Francisco to see our show because it was getting famous, and I think the flight was only 35 dollars round-trip at that time from L.A to San Francisco and back. We had a lot of people from Hollywood come in, and I finally became an actor when they decided to hire me. That’s kind of how I got started.
Johnny: Alright. Which sketch, or sketches, that you wrote for The Committee would you say are your best, the ones you’re most proud of?
Larry: Wow. Superman was the most famous one I was part of. That was my scene. I improvised a scene where I was Clark Kent turning into Superman, and it was pretty funny. That was one, and then the other one was where I played a person going to a psychiatrist. I think I was 4 or 5 different people, so I would just keep switching chairs to be five different people while one of the actors would be my therapist, so that was kind of funny, too. Those are the only two that I can remember right now. The rest? Everybody else was pretty funny, so it was a funny show.
Johnny: Alright. To go to the big screen, you played Philbaby in the rather unusual 1970 comedy The Phynx (Larry laughs). As you were closer in age to, and more in tune with, the cultural vibe of the late 60s and early 70s, were you given a chance to take a crack at the script, or were you just there to act?
Larry: No, not at all. I was just hired to play, I believe, a record producer. I was just there as an actor, but it was amazing. A lot of people were in that movie. The movie never went anywhere. It wasn’t a very good movie, but it sure had a lot of imagination and famous people in it. My scene was with Ultra Violet. Have you ever seen that movie?
Johnny: I’ve only seen the trailer, but I’ve read enough about it in books that it struck me as a rather fascinating idea. I mean, here you had these older directors and writers who were looking to get in tune with the New Hollywood, but had some difficulty with doing so, kind of like how, a few years earlier, Otto Preminger had done Skidoo.
Larry: Right. Well, I didn’t have anything to do with the writing. I was an actor. I didn’t know as much as you know about the movie, but now that you mention it, yeah, there were a lot of icons of the 60s in that movie, so the older writers were trying to cash in on what was going on with the youth, but I was just hired as an actor. By then, I was known as a funny guy, and they had a lot of funny people in it. It wasn’t a very good movie, just a lot of weird things in it.
Johnny: Alright. Yourself and many other members of The Committee came together for the 1973 movie Steelyard Blues. What made that project so special?
Larry: Well, it was because they had hired The Committee as a totality, in that they had hired the director of The Committee to direct the movie, and then they hired The Committee players to be the actors in the movie. That was kind of cool, and the airplane that was the star of that movie was a Catalina, one of those flying boats, those planes that would land on water. It was a beautiful plane, a very iconic plane at the time. Everybody loved the Catalina, so that was the only mark of being special that the movie had, that the director of The Committee and its’ members were in it, and I was fired from that, by the way, although I was rehired. The people who were producing that were a man-and-wife team, Michael and Julia Phillips. They had a reputation in Hollywood. Julia was kind of the shrew of Hollywood. She was known as a very neurotic person, and she would hire and fire people all the time. I guess that she had a temper. My first day on the set, the other members of The Committee had already started. They were going for a couple of days as I came in. Generally, as a habit, if my costume isn’t in my dressing room when I show up, I’ll go to the costume department or person, and I’ll ask to see my costume. That’s the first place I go to. I went to see my costume, and they said, “Yeah, it’s over there”.
It’s a big place full of costumes, and they showed me where my costumes were hanging and just left me there. They said, “You can look at it, and try it on if you want to make sure it fits”. They went away, and I was there with my costume trying it on. I noticed this lady standing behind me watching this, and finally she said, “What are you doing?”. I go, “Oh, I’m just getting into my costume”. She said, “You’re not supposed to be in here”. I said, “Yeah, I asked permission. This is my costume. I’m just trying it on. I’m one of the actors in the movie”. She said, “Well, you shouldn’t be here. You should leave”. I didn’t know who she was, so I said, ‘No, I’ve got permission. The costume people said I could be here, so I’m just going to try this on, and then I’ll leave”. She said, “No, you’re going to leave now because you’re fired”. I said, “Who are you?”, and she said, “I’m the producer”. Julia was the wife in this producing team, and she said, “You’re fired”, and just walked out of there. I went over to the costume lady who was watching this. She didn’t interrupt or anything, and I said, “Was she really the producer”, and she said, “Yes. She just fired you. Yeah”. I went to Alan Myerson, the director of The Committee and Steelyard Blues, and said, “Hey”. He said, “Get in your costume. You’re in the next scene. Hurry up”. I said, “No. I’ve just been fired”. He said, “What?”. I went, “Yeah, the producer lady fired me”. He had to go over there and kind of plead for me (laughing). He said, “No, I don’t have time to hire another actor. He’s okay. He’s fine. Let me use him”. She finally broke down, but yeah, I was fired from that. I talked back. I gave the producer lip, so that’s the only thing I remember from the movie…That, and there was a really great Catalina plane, and Jane Fonda was cool, so yeah, that’s that story.
Johnny: Alright. To go to my next question, you had a starring role as John Wainwright/Svengali in the 1974 film Lucifer’s Women, which was recently rediscovered and reissued by Vinegar Syndrome. What drew you to that movie, and what was your favorite part of making it?
Larry: Oh, there was no favorite part of that movie because I didn’t know what I was getting into. I did it because it was a lead in a movie, and I didn’t question it, but it was softcore pornography, which never really registered because I didn’t do any pornography. I was called Svengali, but basically, I was a hypnotist who hypnotized women to go off to this other person, I think he was a Committee guy, too, and he was the bad guy. He was the pornographer of the film. They called the movie Svengali, and I supposedly was the star because I had a name. I would hypnotize the women and send them to him, and he would do things to them in other parts of the movie that I wasn’t in. I wasn’t even on the set when that stuff happened. I would be in my office, and I would take the female lead and hypnotize her in my office, and I’d send her away to this other guy. That’s why I did it, because I was a lead and I didn’t have to do anything, you know? I was young and I needed the money, and the part was a lead, so that’s why I did it. I watched it once, and I was like, “Oh my god. Wow”. The reason I didn’t like the movie, or thought, “Holy cow, why did I do this?”, was not because of the softcore pornography. It was just softcore. There wasn’t any actual, visual fornication. It was my costume. I didn’t have a beard or mustache, but the character of Svengali does, so the director bought a beard and a mustache, and it was, like, from a Halloween costume.
It was really cheap, and they just glued it on my upper lip and my chin. It looked like a party favor kind of mustache you’d hand out to kids, so as I was watching it, I thought of the director, who was also one of the producers. Didn’t he know it looked totally fake? I couldn’t get past the mustache (laughing) and the beard, but that’s all I remember of the movie, really, and there wasn’t really any “pornography” pornography in it. They would suggest it, but the camera would stop right before it got to the part of the body that would be censored. That’s all I remember of it, and I’d hoped it just died a silent death, but it keeps coming up every once in a while. They kept on changing the title and putting different people in it, except for my part. It’s been reedited twice, becoming a different story each time. Now I think it’s a horror movie instead of softcore pornography. Do you know anything about that?
Johnny: I do know that it was reedited at one point by the late director Al Adamson and entitled Dracula’s Women.
Larry: Right, so then I was Dracula (laughing). They changed the title and my name, but my costume stayed the same, the same beard and mustache. It was just crazy. San Francisco, at that time in the 60s and 70s, was a pornography capital of the West Coast. It was out in the suburbs, out in the Valley, and so all the porno movies were made out in the valley. I was in another softcore pornography movie. I can’t even remember the name of it, but again, I had nothing to do with the pornography. I wasn’t even part of it. I played a gangster’s bodyguard or something, so I don’t even remember seeing any pornography because that wasn’t my part in the movie.
Johnny: To go to my next question: You played Charley Butts in the classic thriller Escape From Alcatraz. What was it like to actually be filming on Alcatraz?
Larry: It was kind of interesting because it was a real place. A lot of tourists go there, but I never went there, so it was an interesting place to film a movie. Alcatraz is now a national monument, so when you go to a real place to do a movie, it’s got variances, because the reality of the time helps you act in a way. We were in Alcatraz, I was playing a convict, and it sure gives you the vibe of what you should be feeling, those cement cells and those bars. I would sit in my cell for hours. Instead of my dressing room, I would go to my cell that I was assigned to act in. That was my cell in the movie. I would sit in and just get the feeling of it. I would sit down and read a book and talk until they would call me to act, and they came and started setting up my scene in my cell. It was really cool, but the interesting thing about filming on Alcatraz is, because it’s a national monument, it’s a tourist attraction. We were filming not only in a real prison, but in a real national monument with real tourists coming through. The only way that Paramount could allow Clint Eastwood and his company to film on a national monument was if they didn’t disturb the fact that it was a tourist attraction.
We couldn’t shut down Alcatraz for the three months that we were there filming, and so the rule was, as we were filming in the section of Alcatraz that the tourists were coming through, which was 90 percent of the places we were shooting, no matter what we were shooting or when we were shooting, if a tour came through, we had to stop filming and let the tour come through. We could not film or hold back a tour by saying, “We’re filming right now’. The people would walk through a Hollywood movie set on this national monument, Alcatraz, and it was very disconcerting because when making a movie, time is money and money is time, so to stop filming in the middle of a scene with Clint Eastwood, just to let a tour group go through, made everybody mad. I mean, not me. I had nothing to do with it, but the producers and the director and even Clint got kind of peeved, but that’s what we had to do. Even if we were in the middle of a scene, they wouldn’t say, “Hold it while we finish the scene”. They just said, “Okay, cut. Let them through”. We would stop and stand back and let them through, and they would look at us. The straw that finally broke the camel’s back was outright fighting between the Smokies, as we called the tour guides in Smokey The Bear hats and uniforms since they weren’t dressed like prison guards, and us. They would say, “Hey, you’ve got to stop shooting. Blah blah blah”. Because we took umbrage at them coming through, they started to bring tours through more frequently just to bug us (laughing), so that was going on.
There was this fight going on between the tour guides and us, and it just kept up for the whole shoot. It was really a little war going on. One of the reasons that the Smokies were actually angry was that they would show the tourists where prisoners like Al Capone’s cell. They wanted to see Clint Eastwood’s cell Which really pissed off the Smokies, who were really very dedicated historical guides through this National Monument.
And that’s when they started to bring tours through when the tours weren’t even supposed to come through. They just wanted us off that island, so that’s what I remember about shooting on Alcatraz, not the making of the movie, but the battle on the island.
Johnny: Okay. One of your most unique projects as a writer was Solly’s Diner, a short film which earned you a nomination for the Best Live Action Short Oscar. What was the inspiration for that film?
Larry: Wow. I had just done Escape From Alcatraz, and I had gotten a lot of money for that, more money than I had ever gotten because I was a stand-up comedian maybe three years before that, and maybe a year before that, I was still in The Committee. When I got Escape from Alcatraz, I had just moved to Hollywood maybe three or four weeks before I auditioned, so I was new to the whole Hollywood thing of being a movie actor and stuff. I had been on Laverne And Shirley doing a dance with Penny Marshall…Little parts in sitcoms. I would fly down from San Francisco where I was with The Committee, but I didn’t think of myself as a Hollywood actor. I thought of myself as a San Francisco improviser, a Second City improviser. That’s where my head was at, so I got Alcatraz, and then I got costar out of nowhere. When I auditioned, I didn’t audition for a costarring role. I auditioned for a small part, but I got a costarring role, and that meant not $1000 or $1500 for one week. It was $35,000, so that was unbelievable. I couldn’t get my head around it, so I thought to myself, “I’ve never had that much money in my life”.
Cocaine was really big at that time. All of Hollywood was on cocaine at the time. That was in the air, so I thought, “Wow, I never had this much money to buy any kind of drugs. I could throw the biggest party ever”, because that’s where your mind goes when you don’t know about money at all. I thought, “Alright, I could do that”, and then I went, “No. I’d better do something that will last. That will probably be the only $35,000 I will ever earn in my life”. I had no big eyes at that time. I was just trying to get a job every week or every month to pay my rent, so I thought, “Okay. Let me make a movie”. That was the inspiration. I just didn’t want to blow it on drugs, so that was the entire thing, “I’d better do something with this money”. I didn’t even think about saving it. I just thought about spending it in some proactive way, as near as I could get to being judicious about all that money. A camera operator’s wife was in The Committee, and so she said, “Why don’t you make a movie and let my husband do the cinematography because he needs the reel. He’s only a camera operator now, but as cinematographer of your film, he would have that on his resume. That’s what he needs”.
Harry Mathias was his name, and Anna was his wife’s name, so that’s what I did. I called him and said, “Your wife said we should do a movie together”. He said, “Yeah, let’s do it”. I said okay, so I gave him the money and we made the film. The inspiration was not mine. It was the factors that were happening in The Committee that caused me to make choices I would never have made, having that amount or money or having Harry’s wife suggest what I should do with it. He was really a cool guy and a good camera operator, but it turns out he was an excellent cinematographer. I mean, he really helped me a lot because I didn’t know how to direct, and I had never written anything before, but he helped me write. He said, “Do something cheap, something in the area, something you don’t have to go anywhere with”.
I was eating at this cheap diner called Solly’s Diner. I think I was the only customer there. Solly was the owner, and it was right around the corner from where I lived on Hollywood Boulevard. I asked him, “Could I shoot a movie here? It would be just three days”, and he said, “Yeah, sure”. He charged me $300, $100 per day, so the diner came up. I said, “Good. I’ll write a diner”, so the ideas kept on coming to me as things happened. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I’m going to make a movie about a diner and then hand it in for an Academy Award and maybe win one”. It never entered my mind. I didn’t even want Harry to hand it in when we edited it together. We fought all the time because you should never edit a movie with your cinematographer. All he wanted to do was keep these great shots (laughing) in the story. He would say, “No, no, that’s a great shot”. We were fighting, saying things like, “I’m going to burn the film”. That came up. “If you don’t do it my way, I’m going to burn the film”. We finally got it together. He wanted to hand it in to The Academy, and I refused. He said, “It’s good”, and I said, “No, it’s not”, so then there was a big fight about THAT. I said, “No, it’s my money. I’m the producer. No!”. He said, “Alright, fine. You win”. That was it. I put it in storage, and then about three weeks later, Harry called me and said, “I got good news and I got bad news”. I said, “Okay. What’s the bad news?”. He said, “The bad news is I took the film out of storage and I submitted it to The Academy”. I said, “No! Aw, man!”. In those days, I was so naive that you only had one chance in your lifetime, and I have no idea where I got that idea, to hand in something to The Academy for an Academy Award. It’s a bizarre idea, but that’s what I thought, and I thought it wasn’t good enough, so with one chance, I wanted to hand in something better. I never said that to anybody. It’s just what I thought, and that’s why I refused. I didn’t think it was good enough. I said, “What’s the good news?”. He said, “The good news is we’ve been accepted”. “Oh” was all I said. I said, “Well, just don’t do that again”. “Oh” was all I could give him, but when I hung up, I went, “Yay!” Finally, I met Harry in person and said, “Thanks a lot”, (laughing) but at the time, I couldn’t get it out of my head that he went against my wishes and snuck out this film, but I’m certainly glad he did. It was the luckiest move that anybody did for me. That’s the story of the inspiration. It wasn’t inspiration at all. It was a series of happenstances that got it to where it was, and thank the lucky stars of whoever that it got in. That’s that story.
Johnny: Very cool. As we discussed at Chiller Theatre, which I’ll ask more about later, you appeared in the video for Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately?”, playing the cook at the diner the video takes place in. How did you land that gig, and what do you recall the most about filming?
Larry: Well, in some of these interviews that I do, like with you, things turn up that I had forgotten, and they’ll ask me about those things. As it turns out, as I look over my recent interviews, my career is full of happenstances that I never really saw as going anywhere. I never had an idea for a goal like, “I want to be an actor” or “I want to be a filmmaker” or “I wish I could work for that person or be in this sit-com”. I never had those goals, except maybe make a certain amount of money. I just want to be on a stage, in a play, in front of an audience or in front of a camera. That was what I liked…The performing of it, the processes, the rehearsals and stuff. That’s what I kept auditioning for, to get a paycheck and be in this thing, not to be in a lot of things to get somewhere. When it comes to the Janet Jackson video, it was such a small, obscure thing in my career, but I had the same relations with that as I had with Escape From Alcatraz. It was just happenstance, and it was connected to Solly’s Diner. The costume designer that a friend hired for Solly’s Diner, as I didn’t know anything about anything when I made that, although I had some money to hire a costume designer, happened to work a few years later as the costume designer for the Janet Jackson video. I got a call from the costume designer saying, “Hey, Larry. I’m working on this Janet Jackson music video, ‘What Have You Done for Me Lately?’. It’s just a small part in the background. You don’t even have any lines. You’re just standing at the counter, and it’s being shot in a diner”.
I guess that’s why she got the diner costume gig, because she worked on Solly’s Diner. She called me, and that’s how I got it. I thought, “Janet Jackson. Wow, that’s pretty close to Michael Jackson”, so that’s what I was thinking. “Oooh, I’ll be in a video with Janet Jackson, the sister of Michael Jackson”. That’s pretty close to getting to be in a movie with Michael Jackson himself. So, that’s what I was thinking…small-time stuff, fan stuff. That’s why I did it. Janet was very young. It was one of her first big things, the album Control. She hadn’t come into her own yet. I remember she had chubby cheeks. Now she’s svelte and stuff, but that was later on, so I remember that about her. It registered, “Oh, Michael Jackson is so cool a dancer, and she’s kind of the chubby kid sister”. I couldn’t put it together. I thought she should be really sleek and high-end. Everybody was taking care of her. I remember that. I thought, “Wow, how pampered this person is”, but she seemed to take it in her stride. She didn’t act like a diva. She was just a normal person. That was refreshing. When they started filming, they put me in a lot of scenes. I thought that was kind of cool, so even though I didn’t have any lines and I was just hired as a prop, really, when it came out, I thought, “Wow. Hey, that’s me all over the place in a lot of the shots”. That was kind of it. It was a small thing of time, you know, but it was Janet Jackson, who was the sister of Michael. That’s why I did it, and then the weirdness of my costume designer from Solly’s Diner who hired me to be in that. They didn’t even know I was alive, but the costume designer knew of me. I guess it was returning the favor. She was hired to design costumes for Solly’s Diner, and that led to something I had a job in. That was something I had forgotten, but I liked that, and I still like that.
Johnny: To go to my next question: You worked with the late John Hughes several times, most notably playing Doobie in Planes, Trains And Automobiles, and Officer Balzak in Home Alone. What was it like to work with John Hughes?
Larry: Well, that’s a good question, because it was great and not great at the same time. That’s what happens, I believe, when you’re working with somebody who is famous, and is really good at what they do. Working with them is a good thing because of what they know and how they work. John Hughes was a great storyteller on film. I mean, Planes, Trains And Automobiles was a genius comedy to me. I’ve watched it several times, and if you’re going to make a funny movie, watch that one. I was working for that guy, and he had a reputation with Sixteen Candles and the like before I was hired by him. I was very happy to audition for him and be in the movie because I looked up to his talent. It was just amazing, but people who are that talented and that famous also have a dark side. They want things their way.
Nobody talks about that side of great, famous people. Even Clint Eastwood (laughing) got angry at me. It takes a lot to get Clint Eastwood angry at you, but I accomplished the task. He liked me; he saw that I was always on the set watching; never in my dressing room. He’d give me little hints and stuff, but when I got in his way, he would be like, “Get out of here! What are you doing!?”. With John Hughes, it was the same thing. He fired somebody, which put the fear of God in me a little, so I figured I’d better mind my Ps and Qs, but he was also very friendly. He invited some of us to a party he was invited to. There were three actors he liked, me and two others, and one of his ADs, and his wife and him. We all piled into his chauffeur-driven limo and went to a party in Chicago, where we were shooting in the suburbs. It was a big, huge party in a building that was like a Studio 54 type of party. It was a building built for a lot of people dancing and listening to music. Going there, John was really jovial and joking around. It was a car full of happy people, and then when we got there, we split to go dancing or do this or that, and John just sat there and didn’t do anything. He just sat in one spot and watched. His wife would go off dancing with other people from the movie. It was packed with partygoers and dancers and bands and stuff, but he just sat there the whole time, just watching the wide, master shot of the event. Every once in a while, somebody would wander back and check on John, “Hey, John. How are you doing?”. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m fine”. Something happened, and to this day, I don’t know what, but all of a sudden John was off. He was calling people and saying, “We’re going. We’re going. We’re getting out of here.” He would send other people to find the people in his car, the two other actors, the limo driver, whoever. It was about six peop[le, we got outside, got into the limo, and he was pissed. To this day, I don’t know about what, but the limo drive back was the weirdest, quietest, most silent, on-edge drive I’ve ever been in. Nobody said anything the entire time. We just noticed that John wasn’t happy. John was pissed, and I don’t know why. He just sat there and stared straight ahead. His wife sat next to him, there was somebody on one side of her and somebody on one side of him. Two of us sat on the two seats that fold out from the back of the front seat, and nobody said a word the entire trip back to the suburbs. It was never explained. So, “How was it to work with John?” There were these two sides. All I cared about was that he liked what I was doing on camera. He never said a word.
Like all great directors, I’ve noticed this: If you’re doing well or great with your job, they don’t say anything. He only would talk to you if you weren’t doing it well or right. He would say something. “Do it again. Don’t do that”. He’d give you a little direction, but unless there was a mistake, he didn’t talk. Woody Allen is the same way. Don Siegel was the same way on Escape from Alcatraz. All the big ones. I worked with John Huston on “Annie”. Bill Hader on “Barry”…Same thing. He never said a word to me except afterwards. “Thank you, Larry. Folks, Larry’s wrapped.”
Larry David on Seinfeld…He wasn’t the director, but he’d stand next to the director, and he’d watch somebody’s take. He’d have an idea to change something. The director was Tom Cherones, and Larry D. would say, “Let me talk to this actor here”. Tom would say, “Cut!”, and Larry’d go over. He did that to me once. Larry doesn’t say anything unless he thought of a way to be funny or funnier, and he gave me the greatest direction ever. He said, “Tom, I want to talk to Larry”. He took me over to the side, which was really cool; he wouldn’t talk or give directions in front of others. He’d talk to you privately, which is kind of nice. Don Siegel did the same thing with Clint Eastwood. He’d call him to the side, never in front of anybody. So, one time Larry David called me to the side, and he said to me, “I know what you’re trying to do”. That “trying to do” accusation got my ire up. I got very defensive and a little angry. I said, “Oh, yeah? Well, what am I trying to do?”. (Laughing) I’m challenging him, and he didn’t change expression. He just said, “You’re trying to do nothing”, and that just blew my mind because that’s exactly what I was trying to do. I was trying to do nothing because I had Buster Keaton in mind for my character, Tom: just let attitude and situation tell a story. So, I was taken aback, I wasn’t ready for him being right. So I said, “Wow, yeah. That’s right”. And he said, “Well, you’re doing something”, and he just walked away. “Wow. That’s the greatest direction I ever got, man”. It’s right on. No blah blah blah. He just got to it, and I got that. He was helping me get where he saw I wanted to go.
Yeah, man. This guy knows what’s happening. I was doing something, and I didn’t even know it, so on the next shot, got it: “I’m doing nothing here”. “Cut.” I see him walking in my direction but he was walking too fast to be walking to me. I thought he’d pass me by and say something to someone standing behind me, but as he walked past me, he whispered, “You’re still doing something”, and he kept on going. I thought, “Wow, this guy’s cool”. My memory is of him paying attention and directing, but he was playing, too. He still had a sense of humor, and I thought that was great. Those kinds of directions, where they don’t tell you something, a lot of actors don’t like that. I know a lot of actors who have worked with Woody, and they’ve said they were thrown by the fact that he doesn’t say anything. “I don’t know what I’m doing right or wrong”. I was speaking to one famous actor who worked with Woody Allen, and he was complaining about the fact that “I never knew what he wanted. He never told me anything”. A lot of actors need that reinforcement, that feedback…”Am I on the right track?”. That throws some people, so i just roll with it. Anyway, that’s that.
Johnny: Alright. As you did mention Seinfeld, that takes me to my next question. You did play Tom Pepper in the Seinfeld episode “The Pilot”, and you had a brief recurring role as Mr. Heckles on Friends. As both Seinfeld and Friends retain popularity to this day, with people coming to know every little facet of both shows, which guest role have you been more recognized for when you walk down the street?
Larry: That’s an easy question. It’s Friends, and there’s a very simple reason why. Friends, right now, is more popular than it was when it was popular when it came out during its’ first big run. That’s why, and teenagers are now my fans again. When I was in it, the fans were in their twenties, but now original fans come up to me as they’re older now, and their kids, too, which blows my mind. I was walking down the street, and an older person said, “Oh, you were in Friends! I love you so much!” I thought, “Okay: She remembers me, she’s a fan, and I was in it when it was popular back in the day.” She said: “We were watching you last night.” I said, “Wow, you still watch it?” She goes, “I don’t watch it, really, but my daughter does, and she’s a big fan of Mr. Heckles”. That blew my mind. I thought it would be on obscurely, like YouTube. She said, “She watches it regularly now. She’s a big fan. All her friends come over and watch Friends”. And then the second most recognized role is Seinfeld. That’s true, but I’m trying to get rid of that now. What I’m working on now is my own stuff, so I hope that will fade into the distance, you know? Every actor’s fear is the George Reeves Superman phenomenon where he committed suicide because he couldn’t get a job because everybody thought of him as Superman and because he looked like Clark Kent. “We need an actor”. “But I am an actor”. “Yeah, but everybody looks at you and sees Clark Kent”, so he committed suicide. That’s every actor’s nightmare. That, and going up on your lines onstage in the middle of a play on opening night with all the reviewers in the first row plus all your girlfriends in the second row (laughing). Those are the two actors’ nightmares.
Johnny: That actually leads me to my next question. As you continue creating characters, one that you created in the previous decade, and are still working on in this decade, is the character of Emmett Deemus. How did you create him?
Larry: It took me years to get to that point. I thought, “Where am I going with this?”. You know, you keep on doing shows, and nothing adds up. I hit a plateau of money. I was getting more and more money, and then boom! I hit a glass ceiling of some sort. I still, to this day, don’t know what that glass ceiling is. Is it my hair? Is it my looks? Is it my face? Times are changing? I don’t know. I had a feeling I couldn’t make any more money than this, so I decided, “Okay. I’ve got to take the reins and aim myself”. There was one factor that I used. Around 2010, I decided this was going nowhere. My hair is getting white. My roles are changing because my hair was black, and now my hair was white, so I was getting older roles. The quote that I remember that was happening during that time before, and even in the 1990s, was that movie actresses who were 35 and older stopped getting jobs in movies and started getting jobs as mothers in sitcoms. All these famous actresses that I’d grown up with as lead actresses were now playing moms. It started with Lucille Ball, who wasn’t a mom at first, but eventually had children on the show. They all just started playing moms. I was meeting these actresses and talking to them, and they were saying they hated it because they thought their chops had gotten betterpreparing them for even better roles, and instead, as they got older, they got downsized to TV Moms.
I thought, “Well, that happens to guys, it just happens later”. Around 45-55, you start to get lesser roles and become TV Dads in sitcoms. I didn’t want that to happen, even though I wasn’t that famous and it could go either way, you know? I started thinking, “What am I going to do when I’m really old?”. I thought of Charlie Chaplin. How he solved it was that he became famous as The Little Tramp when he was 18. He was 18, and he put on a moustache and dirty hat and these old clothes,and became The Little Tramp. His character was at least 10 to 20 years older than what he really was. He just acted older in that costume, and he could stay like that until he was 55 or 60. He was still The Little Tramp, and the only reason that he went and changed and became Monseuir Verdoux, which was an older character, was because he just couldn’t do the things that the 18-year old, or even the 30-year-old, Charlie Chaplin could do anymore. That guy was a ballet dancer and an acrobat, and he just couldn’t do it, so his roles as The Little Tramp became harder to write, and he finally started writing older characters which weren’t as successful, but he still did two or three more films before he hung up the hat. I wanted to do the same thing, so I invented Emmett as a character I could grow into. I started to work on him at 35, or maybe 40. I thought, “I’ve got to develop an older, older character that I can grow into, so that I won’t need the costume”. That was basically a totally premeditated character, and I’m just now becoming aware that I can just step into him, and just be myself. I’m Emmett (laughing). I mean, I’m growing into the age Emmett actually was, so that’s how and why I invented the character of Emmett, and I thought, “Who could I base it on?”. I wasn’t that old, so I thought, “Well, the oldest, funniest, most satirical old person I know of is Don Quixote. He’s got a moustache. He’s got white hair. He’s older, with a beard”. Emmett is really based on, and the log line was, “Don Quixote on a motorcycle”. He has a sidecar, so my theory was, and still is as I’m trying to sell it to this day, though I’ve just started, is that his Sancho Panza is the person he picks up each week in the sidecar. A hitchhiker, a runaway, somebody’s car broke down…Every week, he puts somebody different in the sidecar, but I can be this character because now I’m old enough to be “Don Quixote on a motorcycle”. I think of Don Quixote in the book. Cervantes said he was about 65, I think, on the first page. I used to read him a lot as a kid. I thought Don Quixote was the funniest (laughing) old guy I ever read. He was really cool, so that’s why I invented Emmett. To this day, I’m still making Emmett shorts. I put them up on YouTube, and now his name is Barnum Justice. I just wrote a book about him, and it’s going to come out soon. It’s called “The Loopholes Dossier”, and it’s got a chapter on Barnum Justice, who is actually Emmett Deemus. That’s how I came to that.
Johnny: Cool. To come to my final questions: You’ve appeared at several conventions like Chiller Theatre, where we met back in April of this year, so what’s been your favorite part of attending conventions, and what’s been the most wonderful piece of memorabilia you’ve signed?
Larry: Ha! That was only the third one I’ve ever been in. I don’t do many of those. I don’t seek them out. I was at Chiller, where we met, because I got a call from a booker to be there. They look around for actors, semi, demi-famous actors, to be on their payroll. They say, “Oh, Chiller’s coming up, you can sign autographs and charge this amount of money for it, and I get a percentage of it”. That’s how that works, so they just go around looking for actors who are famous, and might have a fan following that might come to a Chiller or a Comic-Con where they’ll pay you money to get their autograph, and that’s how they’ll get their money. This booker, asked, “Do you do autograph signings?” I said, “I don’t do many, and I don’t seek them out, but if you need somebody, sure”. He said, “Why don’t you come to Chiller? There’ll be a lot of people. I’m sure you’ll have fans there, and you can make some money there”. I said, “Okay”, and they paid for my plane fare there and back and the hotel room, and that’s why I went. I didn’t know about it, but the booker called and said, “Hey, why don’t you do it?” So, unless somebody calls me, I don’t do them. As for my favorite memorabilia that I’ve signed: The cliché’ is to autograph a beautiful blonde female’s buxom breast. The closest I’ve come to that is is signing a kid’s broken foot cast. If any fans are out there, and you’ve got something weird for me to sign, I’ll talk about it in my next interview (Larry and Johnny laugh).
Johnny: Well, that does it for my questions. I thank you for taking the time out of your schedule to speak to me. It was great to hear your stories.
Larry: Oh, thank you. Thank you.
Johnny: It was an honor to speak to a person of your talents, and I hope you have a fantastic afternoon.
Larry: You, too. I hope to talk to you again.
Johnny: Thank you very much and have a fantastic afternoon.
Larry: You, too. Bye.
I would like to thank Larry Hankin for taking the time out of his schedule to speak to me. For more of Larry and his characters, you can visit his YouTube channel. Stay tuned to the Flashback Interview as you’ll soon be seeing conversations with Elizabeth Shepherd, the actress who worked alongside Vincent Price in The Tomb Of Ligeia, and Kathleen Wilhoite, whom I first interviewed via e-mail for RetroJunk earlier this decade, and will be going more in-depth with next month.