Larry Hankin has never been a conformist – he readily admits that. The veteran actor has been bucking the system since his earliest days as a student at Syracuse University and has kept himself uniquely independent throughout his illustrious career as a familiar face on screen.
“I am a 1960 Graduate of Syracuse University,” Hankin explained. I was just going to college because my parents wanted me to go to college.” It was a five-year program in Industrial Design. I did actually get kicked out of Syracuse twice just for screwing around in class, really. I had, and still have, an attitude problem – though now they call it ADHD. I Told teachers to go to hell and things like that. It was fun.”
It was the fun of Syracuse’s Drama Department that inspired Mr. Hankin after graduation, when he and good friend and fellow SU grad, Carl Gottlieb (writer of “Jaws”) took their anti-establishment views to New York City. “We didn’t know we were going to be in show business – he was a writing and journalism major and I was industrial design – we just found ourselves hanging out together. We were in Greenwich Village and I was doing my stand-up and some summer stock.”
It was his comedic routines that made Hankin feel at home on stage, though he might have not always received the warmest welcomes.
“I always was a funny guy. I just wanted to make people laugh. But, I couldn’t get a job anywhere because I was considered a ‘hippie,'” Hankin said. “I was like Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor – I was too raw to be on TV or the variety shows because I talked about pot and cursed on stage – I was a bad boy.” He continued, “I was opening for The Kingston Trio, Miles David and Woody Allen but the audiences stopped me from doing that – the vitriol was horrible. I was booed off the stage, people came at me with bottles – it was really rough. I had to get police protection! I was just a middle-class Jewish kid and I didn’t know what was going on.”
Greenwich Village’s loss was Second City’s gain, as Hankin joined the comedic troupe in the early ’60s. But his experience with Second City was just a precursor to his next adventure – The Committee.
“Alan & Jessica Myerson didn’t like what was going on and wanted to be more anti-establishment so they started The Committee out in San Francisco,” Hankin explained. “It was either L.A. or San Francisco – and they made the right choice because when we got there it was just as Mario Savio began his movement at Berkeley. We got the brunt of the ‘60s movement because of our juxtaposition to Berkeley. I was happy to make people laugh. that’s all any of us wanted, until we got into movies – and got ‘the disease,'” he joked.
After couch-surfing in Los Angeles for a bit, Hankin found himself back in San Francisco at the behest of his agent. “I was doing some sitcom and television work, ‘Laverne & Shirley’ and things like that and my agent just said ‘go up there.’ I hadn’t read a script, I wasn’t called to audition – it was different in those days, you can’t do that today,” he said.
The audition was for “Escape From Alcatraz,” and Hankin found himself in front of legendary director, Don Siegel. “They were in the room talking about me – it was just a weird audition,” Hankin said. “They (Siegel and the casting director) kept saying, ‘what about this guard part’ and ‘but nobody would believe he could beat up Clint Eastwood.’ So he asked me to read for Charlie Butts, a co-star role – and I read it there cold and they hired me on the spot. It was a major job and kept me going financially for a while.”
Before the paycheck, however, Hankin had the difficult task of crying on camera for an instrumental scene in “Alcatraz” where his character gets left behind.
“I really had trouble with the scene,” Hankin explained. “I was an improviser. And Don wanted me to cry. I just said, ‘Fuck it, I’ll get fired.’ When it came time for me to cry, I couldn’t – so Siegel took some wintergreen and blew across the top of the bottle and the fumes went right into my eyes; I started welling up and Don said, ‘Action’ and we shot scene and he said, ‘Cut – Perfect, Larry.”