TV & Radio

‘I was strangely upbeat after my heart attack’: Bob Odenkirk on his brush with death and new mid-life crisis comedy

Bob Odenkirk is a lucky guy. For starters, he’s managed to cultivate a career path that spans multiple genres. His cult Nineties sketch series Mr Show arguably kickstarted modern alternative comedy, an area Odenkirk has subtly shaped in the years since by giving creative breaks to the likes of Tenacious D and Tim and Eric. Then a successful rebrand as a dramatic actor led to his unforgettable conman-turned-lawyer Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad and its prequel series Better Call Saul, and his surprise turn as an unassuming neighbourhood hardman in 2021 punch-a-thon Nobody. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s also cheated death.

He was partway through filming the final season of Saul when it happened. As production paused and the crew began setting up a new shot, Odenkirk returned to the exercise bike he often used while watching Chicago Cubs baseball games between scenes. Suddenly he fell to his knees, with series co-stars Rhea Seehorn and Patrick Fabian rushing to his aid. If it wasn’t for some quickly administered CPR, he later admitted, he would surely have been “dead in a few minutes”. For those close to him, it was a particularly dark moment they remember all too well, but for Odenkirk, it remains a lucky escape comfortably shrouded in blissful ignorance.

“I’m still unpacking it,” admits Odenkirk, speaking over Zoom 20 months after the incident. Shortly after it happened, two stents were inserted into his coronary arteries to fix the problem that had caused him to suffer a “widowmaker” heart attack – named after the potentially devastating consequences of a sudden complete blockage in the heart’s main artery. “During the actual event, it was like I wasn’t mentally there,” he recalls. “Even weeks later when I returned to set, it was an emotional moment, but I was a little bit excluded from it. I don’t know if it’s a defence mechanism, but my brain really compartmentalised the experience. It really shoved that thing far away.”

Five weeks after his collapse, Odenkirk was finally able to resume work and finish production on Better Call Saul’s critically acclaimed final outing, but things were… different. “I had a strangely upbeat energy in the time after the heart attack,” he says. “I was chipper, and clueless about the enormity of what had happened to me, and what other people had felt being around it. It was only over time that what happened slowly sank in. My brain was completely hiding this thing from me. It was trying to make it disappear – and it did,” he laughs. The cast and crew, including his saviours, Seehorn, who plays Saul’s love interest Kim Wexler, and Fabian, who stars as rival lawyer Howard Hamlin, noticed. “People around me looked at me funny, like ‘You know you had a heart attack, right?’ I had this smile on my face, like ‘What are we doing next!” but they were like, ‘No, it was really bad.’ It was a weird thing.”

Cut to 2023, and while even more time has passed, the unpacking process is something the now 60-year-old is still wrestling with. That said, having thankfully survived this narrow brush with the beyond, he’s convinced it’s changed him for the better. “I feel kind of great. Like a blank slate, but in a good way. I feel like I’ve cleaned my palate,” he smiles. “It’s made me think about how you spend the time you have, and the bottom line is, I don’t want my days to be as packed. I want to be able to enjoy the good things in my life, and I want to enjoy the problems, too,” he chuckles. “When you’re racing around trying to fix things, you don’t enjoy anything. That’s been my life for a little while. I’m trying to cut back on it – and I’m doing a good job. I’m really trying to get some space in my life.”

With a new mindset, Odenkirk has been able to pick up his lucky streak right where it left off. Fresh from the heart-pounding tension of Better Call Saul, he’ll next be seen back on the small screen in Lucky Hank, a black comedy about an English professor in the throes of a mid-life meltdown. Based on author Richard Russo’s 1997 novel Straight Man, this eight-part dramedy gives Odenkirk an opportunity to blend his two standout skills: comedy and drama – and with the dust barely settled on Saul, it must be something truly special to have lured him back to telly so soon.

“I read Lucky Hank about six months before we finished shooting Saul, and before I had the heart attack, and the reason I liked it was because it was so totally different to Better Call Saul,” he reasons. “I’m always looking for dynamics in my career. Going from one thing to something really far away from it in spirit – and tonally, this is so different.” A quick look at the series trailer is enough to show you just how much lighter, comedically, Hank is than Saul. Something else mattered, too: heart. “What was so meaningfully different to me was that Hank loves his wife, and Lily loves Hank,” he says of his onscreen spouse, played by Mireille Enos. “There’s no drugs and no guns; the stakes are really closer to normal life.”

Perhaps the re-evaluation of his own priorities is also a factor in his wanting to play someone who’s miles away from the troubled loner he played so memorably in Better Call Saul. “There’s something about [Hank] being genuinely connected to the other characters that I can relate to and feel for. Saul was a loner, and so was Kim Wexler. Maybe what kept them together is that they could recognise that the other person was a loner as well,” he ponders. “They had a relationship, but it wasn’t a fulfilling one, whereas Lucky Hank is so fundamentally different.”

Using another drama to lean into his comedy background was a definite selling point, with Dumb and Dumber co-director Peter Farrelly setting the tone by shooting the first two episodes. Odenkirk’s rise through the halls of alt-comedy is well documented in his aptly titled 2022 memoir Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama. In it, readers get a glimpse inside his journey as a performer – one that began in Chicago under the guidance of improv-master Del Close, and led him through the writer’s room of Saturday Night Live before arriving at Mr Show. It also sheds light on the methodical approach he takes to being funny, and reveals the often underappreciated work he’s done to help bring newcomers into the spotlight.

Perhaps the biggest example of this is his long-standing collaboration with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, two Mr Show fanatics who caught Odenkirk’s attention by sending him a demo tape complete with an invoice for their postage fees. The bit made him laugh, and as a result, US audiences eventually got Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! – Adult Swim’s mad sketch comedy that paved the way for other weird late-night faves like The Eric Andre Show and Nathan for You.

Odenkirk is quick to admit that British humour has played a big part in forming his funny bones, citing Monty Python as a major influence. “A lot of British comics have inspired me. When David [Cross] and I were doing Mr Show, we’d watch The Fast Show and Harry Enfield. My favourite show is The Royle Family. I think it’s the greatest TV comedy that’s ever been done,” he reveals. “The way it describes a family dynamic that’s painful, damaged, ugly and beautiful is astounding. I’ve always thought that somehow the coolest s*** comes from England. In America, when people make the leap to getting a TV show, their ideas sometimes get sanitised to a place where they lose that personal texture that’s somehow retained so beautifully in England.”

Later this month, UK audiences can hear Odenkirk speak candidly about his career so far, during a brief book tour. Meanwhile, fans of his 2021 indie-actioner Nobody, in which he played Hutch – an incongruous family man turned homespun John Wick after a violent home invasion – will soon find him in the film’s hotly anticipated follow-up.

While we’re chatting, Odenkirk has the sequel script open – but he remains tantalisingly tight-lipped. “[Hutch] is still a family man, but his relationship to violence is different. He’s changed, but he’s still got a long way to go to find real balance in how he’s living his life,” he teases, before admitting that he loves this movie and role probably more than he should. “I care about this more than you could imagine,” he smiles. “You’d think it’s the personal story of my life, and not an action-genre movie.”

Speaking of which, while he may feel like a sure-fire contender for Marvel’s next fan-favourite character, don’t expect to see Odenkirk in spandex any time soon. “I always like to keep things grounded, relatable and smaller. I don’t think I’m built for that world,” he suggests, bringing things nicely back to the traits that made his comedy, along with Better Call Saul and Lucky Hank, work so well. “I’m built for characters that make you feel like that guy could live next door.”

Bob Odenkirk’s ‘Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama’ book tour starts on 17 April

In ‘Lucky Hank’: ‘There’s something about [Hank] being genuinely connected to the other characters that I can relate to and feel for’

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