I really enjoyed writing the feature last month about the “Five Memorable Roles” of character actor Ernie Sabella. If you read my tribute to Mr. Sabella’s career, you’d have read that I really enjoy watching the work of character actors over that of a megastar leading actors or actresses.
There are many character actors whose work I enjoy, so I decided to write another tribute to one of, if not my all-time, favorite.
His IMDB page reads like a list of television and film’s greatest hits: Laverne & Shirley, Family Ties, Days of Our Lives, Friends, Escape from Alcatraz, Billy Madison, Home Alone, Seinfeld, and many, many more. This character actor has made a career out of leaving lasting impressions with just a few moments on screen and is easily one of the most recognizable “that guy” actors in Hollywood. He can be hysterically funny or deadly serious. He’s Larry Hankin.
Like most character actors, the name might not have the same recognition a “Tom Cruise” or “Al Pacino” might. However, I guarantee you know who Larry Hankin is and at least several roles he’s had over the years. Easy to spot with his tall, thin build and distinct facial features, Larry has seemingly been in everything.
Larry Michael Hankin was born on August 31, 1940, in New York. After attending Syracuse University with a degree in industrial design, he moved to Greenwich Village and began doing stand-up comedy. There, he opened for the likes of Miles Davis and Woody Allen. While living in Greenwich Village, he shared an apartment with his college friend Carl Gottlieb, the eventual writer of the “Jaws” screenplay. After a brief run with the improv group Second City in Chicago, he and six other Second City members left for San Francisco to create another improv team called “The Committee.”
His time in San Francisco landed him his first role in Hollywood when Penny Marshal remembered him from a sketch with The Committee and selected him for the part of a tall, lanky guy needed on an episode of “Laverne and Shirley.” His Hollywood career was born, and he was soon cast in a co-starring role in “Escape from Alcatraz” with Clint Eastwood. From there, Larry has gone on to appear in over 150 roles in film and television.
Larry has appeared in roles in various films and television shows that are essential pieces of my childhood. Or, at least, they were memorable moments in my childhood. At times, I feel like Larry is an old, long-lost friend. For the record, I’ve never met Mr. Hankin, and he’s not really a friend. When I see him on screen, it’s like comfort food to me, as I’m reminded of better times from days gone by when I first saw these characters.
Most people from my generation would know Mr. Hankin from his role as Mr. Heckles on “Friends.” Unfortunately, I was never a fan of “Friends” and can’t include this character in my “Memorable” List. Originally just “The Weird Man” who lived downstairs, Mr. Heckles appeared in five episodes during Seasons One through Three. He would complain about noise and bang on the ceiling with his broom or show up in person to complain. His complaints were often dismissed as just ramblings, but when he “died,” the friends went to help clean out his apartment. There, they discovered any noise from the apartment above, even simply walking across the floor, was extremely loud, and perhaps he wasn’t so crazy after all.
My Grandparents were quite religious and would always watch “Joan of Arcadia.” They were in their late 80s when that show was on, and I’m not quite sure they understood what was happening, but the premise of the shoe was about having faith that God is all around us, so based on that alone, they would watch religiously (pun intended). I can remember watching a few episodes with them, and occasionally, God would appear as a homeless man that looked awfully familiar to me. It was my “old friend,” Larry Hankin.
What a prolific career he’s had so far. He has the extraordinary ability to appear aloof, intelligent, crazy, angry, or happy, all in the span of a few seconds. He excels at physical comedy and is downright intimidating when he’s serious.
So, without further ado, I’m excited to dive a little deeper into what I consider Five Memorable Characters Played by Larry Hankin!
Honorable Mention – Halloween Larry (“Home Improvement”)
If you read my Halloween on Home Improvement Article, you may remember my mention of Larry’s appearance in the 1996 Halloween episode “I Was a Teenaged Taylor.” If you haven’t, CLICK HERE to read the article, if you’d be so kind. “Home Improvement” was an important event in my family where we’d gather together as a family, and I hold this show (except the last season) in very high regard. Mr. Hankin plays “Halloween Larry,” who comes over to scare the boys as a favor to Tim. Later, the prank is ruined, and Larry returns as himself and intimidates the boys claiming he went unpaid for the first visit. As planned, the boys rush to the attic for the “emergency cash,” where Tim once again wins the annual prank war.
5 – Old Joe (Breaking Bad – 2010, El Camino – 2019)
Larry excels at playing Old Joe in only roughly five minutes of screen time over two episodes of “Breaking Bad” and about as much time in “El Camino.” Much like the real person behind the character, his physical appearance is deceiving. He may look poor, old, tired, and broken, but he’s smart as a whip and not afraid of the police (or the DEA.)
When Hank’s search for Jesse Pinkman finds him at the junkyard owned by Old Joe, Joe appears in the nick of time to dispense his wealth of legal knowledge. Joe stands his ground against the DEA Agent by reciting legal codes requiring proper warrants for entry. His legal smarts prevent Hank from entering the RV and discovering Jesse and his brother-in-law Walter White hiding inside. When Hank leaves, Old Joe then destroys the RV using his junkyard equipment.
Later in the series, Old Joe is revisited by Walt and Jesse. They borrow a giant magnet that is used to destroy Gustavo Fring’s laptop. The laptop was currently in police custody, and Old Joe and his team install the magnet inside an old panel truck that drives next to the building, where its magnetic field destroys all of the evidence.
In the made-for-Netflix sequel called “El Camino,” Larry Hankin again appears as Old Joe when he’s brought back into the game by a phone call from the recently escaped Jesse Pinkman. Joe informs Jesse that everyone is looking for him before he heads to Skinny Pete’s home. He offers to dispose of the El Camino for free because it reminds him of old times and makes him feel young again.
4 – Preacher (Vegas Vacation – 1997)
While this too may be a short role, such is the life of a character actor. It takes a great character actor to make a tiny part memorable, and Larry does just that here in one of the final scenes of National Lampoon’s “Vegas Vacation.” He plays the sleazy, disinterested Preacher at a Las Vegas wedding chapel where Clark and Ellen Griswald renew their wedding vows. Having been a last-minute decision in the wee hours of the morning, The Preacher stands at the front of the “World Famous” Chapel of the Bells with a powder blue plaid bathrobe and pajamas, unkempt hair, and monotone voice. The Preacher performs the vow renewal ceremony with a disinterested flair only Larry Hankin can. The Preacher is interrupted several times by the wailing and crying of Cousin Eddie and Katherine, who tells her husband Eddie that “she doesn’t care if he ruined her life but” she loves him anyway. The Preacher’s annoyance comes across very clearly without a word said.
And with the power vested in him by the state of Nevada and “the Las Vegas Entertainer’s Association,” he pronounces Clark and Ellen man and wife. The Preacher joins the family outside to celebrate with the happy couple, and, after a few polite claps, he waves them off and stumbles back into the Wedding Chapel. The half-hearted wave as he turns back to the front door always cracks me up.
3. Officer Larry Balzak (Home Alone – 1990)
After discovering Kevin had been left at home, his mother, played by the great Katherine O’Hara, calls the police back home in Chicago. When the phone rings, we see a festive police station decorated with garland, ribbons, and miniature trees, immediately setting the mood that everyone is wrapped up in the holiday spirit and lack any interest in doing actual work. The first to answer the phone is billed as “Police Operator” but later called Rose (Kate Johnson.) She half-listens to what Kevin’s mom was saying as she’s busily wrapping presents to care. She hears enough and decides to connect her to the “Family Crisis Hotline” and places her on hold. She bangs on the wall and yells, “Larry, could you pick up? There’s some lady on hold… sounds kind of hyper.”
The camera pans to the next cubicle, where we see Larry Hankin as Officer Larry Balzak flipping through a magazine and holding a donut in one hand. Officer Balzak answers the phone and cuts off Mrs. McAllister with the following scripted responses: “Was the child involved in a violent altercation with a drunk and/or mentally ill member of the immediate family? Was the child involved in any household accidents? Has the child ingested any poison and/or any other object that has become lodged in his throat?”
While he’s asking these questions, something special happens that to me is the epitome of what makes Larry Hankin an excellent actor. While he casually eats a donut while speaking to an upset mother is funny enough, a piece of the donut falls onto the mouthpiece of the telephone. You can see him look down at it but opts to leave it there. To me, it’s so much funnier that he decides to leave it there than brush it off like I would assume most actors would. It eventually falls off on its own, but it adds to the humor of the situation. It’s a very small thing, but it makes me laugh every time.
Officer Balzak is in disbelief when Kevin’s mom begins yelling that none of those questions apply and they just want someone to go check on him. He responds with an aggravated “if you want us to just go check on him… let me connect you to the police department,” before banging on the wall again. Yelling out, “Rose, ‘hyper’ on two!” and passes the responsibility back to the police.
2 – Doobie (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – 1987)
After Neal and Del’s plane to Chicago can’t land because of a snowstorm, the pair get stuck in Wichita, Nebraska. Del convinces Neal he can get him a room at the Braidwood Inn when all other hotels are full. Del once sold them shower curtain rings and is owed a favor, as long as Neal picks up the cab fare. Enter Larry Hankin as “Doobie,” the owner and operator of “Doobby’s Taxiola.”
The pair get into the 1968 Pontiac Bonneville painted in red and gold that reads “Doobby” on the door. Doobie (as it’s spelled in the film credits) looks a little rough, with greased back hair and the sinister smile of someone who is figuratively (and literally) taking them for a ride. The red and gold cab has light strips running along the doors and what appears to be a row of rubber ducks strung along the top of the windshield. The shifter knob has been replaced with a light-up devil’s head, and the cab is complete with pin-up girl photos and leopard print seat covers. The appropriately titled “I’ll Show You Something Special” by Balaam and the Angel plays at ear-piercing levels on a radio with a large equalizer display. It also has hydraulics that lower the car’s frame when they finally arrive at the Braidwood Inn.
Larry has only a few lines in the scene, but with a devilish grin, says he wants to show Del’s friend the town since he’s never been around before. It may have been only a few lines that made the final cut, but, according to John Candy, after filming this scene, John Hughes sent everyone home except a skeleton film crew, Candy, Larry Hankin, and Steve Martin. Hughes instructed them to improvise and then filmed the trio for several hours. Larry says he has never seen the 10-minute clip that John Hughes created, but he knew it exists because director Christopher Columbus had told him he’s seen it.
I think that’s something the entire world would like to see!
1. Tom Pepper (Seinfeld – 1993)
Mr. Hankin appears as Tom Pepper in the two-part Season Four finale of what many consider the greatest sitcom of all time, “Seinfeld.”
In Part One, Jerry and George have been given the green light to produce their sitcom “Jerry.” When auditions begin for the pilot episode for their “show about nothing,” several different actors come in to play the part of Kramer. Then, a tall thin man with wiry, crazy hair slides through the door in the typical Kramer fashion. It’s Larry Hankin, as Tom Pepper. He’s dressed just like Cosmo Kramer, in a light blue leisure suit sportcoat and slacks that are just a tad too short. Just his entrance gets a laugh from the audience and his gaze at Jerry makes Seinfeld appear to break character momentarily. He then performs a scene with a casting agent that recreates a scene from the Season Two episode “The Pony Remark,” where Kramer tells Jerry he plans to rebuild his apartment into three different wooden levels. Tom Pepper gets the room to laugh in his spot-on impersonation and walks over to the coffee table to talk with Jerry and George. He looks down at a box of raisins, picks it up, pops some into his mouth, and then puts the box back down. As he says his goodbyes, he sets his briefcase on the desk and scoops up the box of raisins before walking out of the room. George, always the shrewd one, notices the missing box of raisins.
In Part Two, rehearsals for the pilot episode begin. We see Jerry rehearsing with Tom Pepper, as Kramer, alongside Michael Barth (Jeremy Piven) as George. Following the script, they argue about whether Haagan Daaz is a real name or just made-up words, but the real George Costanza interrupts rehearsal to criticize Tom’s emphasis on the wrong word. Annoyed at direction by a non-actor, Tom studies George before simply saying, “I’m not going to say it like that.” George asks Jerry again about Tom and the raisins during a break, and Jerry warns him not to bring it up.
Later, George confronts Tom about the raisins, and with utter contempt, Tom gives him “a word of advice.” He warns George, “I want you to stay away from me. I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t want to hear your stupid little notes or suggestions. I don’t like you. So if you have any problem whether it’s raisins, prunes, figs, or any other dried fruits… just keep it to yourself and stay out of my way.” Larry Hankin excels in this scene, showing his disgust for George and his absolute defiant attitude about not stealing the raisins that he obviously did.
Before filming the pilot episode, we see Tom Pepper eating a box of raisins backstage. As he’s about to go on stage, George again confronts Tom. As George goes on and on about the raisins, rage builds in Tom’s face before he finally bursts out with, “How would you like it if I just pulled your heart right out of your chest and shoved it down your throat?”
On Larry’s personal website, he describes Tom Pepper as being completely convinced he’s the best actor in the world and thinks being an “emotional hair-trigger” is cool and macho.
As a neat little side note, Larry Hankin actually auditioned for the role of Kramer before the actual “Seinfeld” began production several years earlier.