Before Bob Odenkirk stepped into the role of a scamming lawyer, his career was all about making people laugh, either by writing or acting. In fact, before he landed the iconic “Breaking Bad” part in 2009, he’d never seen an episode of the critically acclaimed drama. He always believed he’d remain in comedy.
“I loved writing comedy so much that I figured I’d stay in that corner. I loved it and I still do love it,” he tells Variety. While currently in production on the final season of “Better Call Saul,” Odenkirk is already looking to what’s next: A “pure comedy” project with David Cross, a longtime friend and collaborator.
Just over a decade after taking the “Bad” part, Odenkirk — who won two Emmys for his work in comedy — has earned 13 Emmy nominations for his drama work in “Better Call Saul.” And on April 18, he’ll receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the spot right next to “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston.
At age 14, the Illinois native began visiting Second City Theater in Chicago, continuously entertained by slapstick comedy. After graduating from Southern Illinois University in 1984, he worked closely with many legends, first studying with Del Close and eventually meeting Robert Smigel at the Players Workshop. In 1991, he landed a spot in the “Saturday Night Live” writers’ room — a dream job that led to penning one of Chris Farley’s most famous sketches, “Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker.”
But it was the relationships that he focused on — and that paid off.
While at “SNL,” he met Ben Stiller and when he decided to pursue a career performing, he began starring in and writing on “The Ben Stiller Show.” When the Emmy-winning series ended, Odenkirk began working with Cross, whom he met on “Ben Stiller.” Eventually, their live sketch shows evolved into “Mr. Show With Bob and David,” which ran on HBO for four seasons.
“He still owes me a significant amount of money, so he’s been slowly working it off,” Cross jokes of why their relationship has lasted so long. On a more serious note, he adds, “Well we deeply respect and appreciate each other’s brain and although we might have two wildly different takes on something at first, together we can bring out the best of that particular idea. And there are no hurt feelings with decisions we make … I’ve rarely met someone as driven and willing to put in the hard work. It’s both admirable and concerning.”
Odenkirk “has no ego,” says Cross. “He wants to do what is truly best for the piece. If that means giving up a fun, juicy part that he thinks I or someone else could play better or more believably or what have you, so be it, it’s all to serve the piece.”
In 2009, Odenkirk’s career took an unexpected turn. He received the “Breaking Bad” script and was offered the part of sleazy Saul Goodman, a character who would have such a big impact on his life.
“I thought I was being asked to do three or four episodes. They weren’t sure at the time. I couldn’t do the fourth because I was signed up for ‘How I Met Your Mother.’ As a result, they invented the character of Mike [played by Jonathan Banks] because I wasn’t available for the fourth episode,” he says. “Thank God for ‘How I Met Your Mother.’ It made it possible for me to have this other show, ‘Better Call Saul,’ which was me and Mike, at least when it started.”
During his time on “Breaking Bad,” Odenkirk worked closely with Cranston, who also had a career in comedy before taking on the emotionally taxing role of Walter White.
“He was nervous coming in,” Cranston recalls to Variety. “He had a character that had the gift of gab and he had to rattle off dialogue. That’s a hard thing to do anyway, even if you’re completely relaxed. To have him come in, new to a show and that’s your character? It’s difficult. It was fun to see him go from a nervous cat to a mountain lion of confidence and be able to pull it off on such a high level. I’m so impressed by his ability and as a leader.”
When “Better Call Saul” was about to begin, Odenkirk called Cranston.
“He said, ‘Can I go to lunch with you?’ And I said, ‘Only if you’re paying.’ And he said, ‘Maybe we better just talk on the phone,’” Cranston says with a laugh. The pair went to lunch and Odenkirk asked for advice when it came to being No. 1 on the call sheet.
“I told him that what I realized is that it took as much energy to try to resist taking a leadership role than it did just to accept it. So, I said, ‘I just put my arms around it. Bob, I think that’s what you should do. Just embrace it.’ He did that. He became the leader of that show. They looked up to him, they took their cues from him.”
Odenkirk’s star will sit beside Cranston’s on Vine Street, something the “Malcolm in the Middle” alum can’t help but crack a joke about: “Primarily, it’s to share the rent and expenses of the cleanup, and I hope he’s a good roommate because we’re gonna have problems if he doesn’t hold up his end of the sidewalk.”
It took years for Odenkirk to understand the impact of Saul. Even when landing “Better Call Saul,” it didn’t sink in. Now, in the midst of filming the sixth and final season, he has a lot of feelings about saying goodbye to Jimmy McGill (aka Saul Goodman).
“I’m not running from the guy. I think sometimes people do that. I think one of the reasons I’m not running away from him is the way he was scripted by Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and all the writers. I got to do comedy on one page and four pages later, do the most earnest drama written. It was this great mix with unbelievable dynamics to it, so it’s a hard thing to imagine another part being that wide-ranging,” he explains, noting that he never particularly liked Saul or his choices. “I did like Jimmy McGill, the character behind Saul Goodman. I still didn’t love the choices he made with his life energy. He really let his resentments guide him and he let his feelings of hurt be the core driver of what he did. I just think that’s obviously a mistake. I can understand where people do it … but it isn’t gonna take you anywhere over a long period of time that’s good.”
Careful not to spill any details on the last season, Odenkirk notes that the character grows quite a bit in the final episodes. “Because he grew, that made it easier to play him over time. I think if you’d asked me in the third or fourth season, I would have said, ‘Yeah, I can’t wait to be past this guy,’” he says. “But he had this arcing in growth, especially toward the end. He does wriggle away to another place that’s, I think, a bit more mature, even if it is tragic.”
When he wrote his memoir, “Comedy, Comedy, Comedy, Drama,” he realized he didn’t remember many important moments in his career. “I wasn’t pausing to celebrate much. I was very much driven to get to the next place. And I think it’s time to stop cracking that whip constantly and see what I see around me a little more,” he says.
Another thing that changed his perspective was suffering a heart attack in summer 2021 on the New Mexico set of “Better Call Saul.”
As for what he still wants to do? “I think what I want to accomplish is I want to be a better person. I think we go into the business, and we have certain things we dream of, mountains we want to climb, and I got to climb a lot of those mountains,” he says. “I think there comes a point we have to stop arguing with providence, start appreciating only and start being present. I want to do more cool shit, but I think my focus should be on that as soon as it can be, which is now.”
The health scare “definitely helped” him change his view on life. “It’s especially pertinent in the modern world we live in where the idea of being constantly driven is sort of just an accepted game plan for every day of your fucking life. The people we celebrate are people who wake up at 4 a.m. and work out for an hour and eat kale and do yoga and then try to own the world,” he says. “That’s super cool in some ways, and in some ways, it’s kind of gross and sick and misses the point.”
WHAT: Bob Odenkirk receives a star on the Walk of Fame
WHEN: April 18, 11:30 a.m.
WHERE: 1725 Vine St.