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‘Better Call Saul’s’ Jonathan Banks Remembers His Start as a ‘Music’ Man

Before emerging as complex ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut on “Breaking Bad,” which led to his powerful turn in the same role on this year’s “Better Call Saul,” Jonathan Banks was best known for his Emmy-nominated work as Frank McPike in the 1980s series “Wiseguy” and his sharply etched tough guys and villains on TV and in hit films from “48 Hrs.” and “Beverly Hills Cop” to “Identity Thief.” His first brush with Variety came in the June 24, 1974, Daily for the Los Angeles stage production of “A Little Night Music.”

Before you became one of the hardest working men in films and TV, you trod the boards.

My first paycheck in the business was the Brown County Playhouse in 1967. I thought I was the cat’s a–. It was the summer theater at the University of Indiana, where I graduated.

How long did you work in theater?

When I got out of school, I was second-assistant stage manager for the national tour of “Hair,” and got my Equity card and traveled to Australia and New Zealand. I went to Auckland and directed “Grease,” which was a dismal failure — 1973 was a brutal year.

Why?

I didn’t seek out my fate, as I should have. I just sat around and felt sorry for myself. And I learned to never do that again.

So Los Angeles was a sunnier time, as it were.

I grew up in D.C. and worked in Chicago. So I when I got to L.A., and it was sunny and beautiful, I was sold. I remember Richard Brooks and Jean Simmons invited the cast of the show up to their house in the Hollywood Hills to play tennis and swim. So when I got the chance, I bought a house in Zuma Beach, and I’m still here.

Did you have a key mentor or teacher when you worked in theater?

My inspiration as an actor was someone from the movies — Anthony Quinn. I still watch “Requiem for a Heavyweight.” Look at him in “Viva Zapata.” Marlon Brando has to work to hold his own with Quinn! But I didn’t find that mentor-teacher until I met Gordon Hunt in L.A. and I studied with him for 18 years. He constantly put the responsibility back on me.

Any nostalgia for those days on the road?

I loved it. I was carrying around a big steamer trunk, sleeping all day, eating at midnight. I still have the steamer trunk.

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