When his agent called Bob Odenkirk in 2009 to offer him a small role in the then-relatively unknown AMC series Breaking Bad, the actor didn’t even know it existed. He said one of the easiest yeses of his career, without seeing a single minute of the series, for the simple reason that he was almost broke and desperately needed money to support his family of four. He boarded the plane to Albuquerque with the script and a few episodes of the series in his luggage.
During the flight he watched a little less than one episode and did not bother to memorize his lines, since, as he has stated in interviews, he was sure that by the time filming began, they would have been cut, as is always the case with peripheral roles. His was to be a fringe lawyer, sleazebag, verbatim, conman named Saul Goodman, whom Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and writer-producer Peter Gould intended to bring into the plot for two or three episodes – a somewhat light and expendable character on the fringes of the show’s dark universe, like a brief pleasant interlude. But Odenkirk’s stunning performance, which took a character bordering on caricature and gave it acting weight, impressed Gilligan-Gould and secured him a permanent spot in the cast and eventually his breakthrough series, Better Call Saul, which has given him to date five Emmy Award nominations, rave reviews and an enthusiastic and devoted audience. Unsurprisingly to those who knew him, Bob Odenkirk was perhaps overlooked and underrated, but never expendable.
A near star
Odenkirk was no stranger to the entertainment industry. At the age of 25, having apprenticed with legendary improv teacher Del Close and having been tested on the Chicago comedy scene, he joined the dream team of Saturday Night Live writers, a job that earned him his first Emmy. He received the second in 1993, as a screenwriter for The Ben Stiller Show, while his resume also includes the very good The Larry Sanders Show, the underrated Get a Life and the excellent Mr. Show with Bob and David, now one of HBO’s cult hits.
He began his path to a career in the American comedy scene as a child in his family’s kitchen, performing sketches for his six siblings and his mother Barbara. His father was absent most of the time, a drunken and irresponsible man who eventually went bankrupt and abandoned his family, leaving Bob with a legacy of great anger, which, along with his childhood traumas, he has turned into a point of reference in his acting range.
By the mid-1990s, Bob Odenkirk had earned well-deserved respect and recognition as an outstanding comedian and screenwriter, some of whose sketches shaped America’s comedy scene. He had confidence in himself, knew the ingredients of a good skit, was a workaholic but also stubborn and difficult to work with. But while his contemporaries such as Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Judd Apatow, David Cross were gradually developing into stars, winning roles, money, awards, Odenkirk seemed to have dried up. He made a few attempts at projects that either never made it to air or were soon pulled from the air, as well as bad movies, and had a few short-lived success breaks from brief appearances on shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, Everybody Loves Raymond – he was nominated and for the lead role in The Office, which was eventually won by Steve Carell. But he refused to discount his creative vision. Odenkirk, above the money, the glory, the little boy, put good comedy and sketches, they were the center of his creative universe. Even if they didn’t get the attention he wanted, he could live with it – but not pay the bills, and that brings us back to the beginning of our story.
The joke that became a series
Ever since the glory days of Breaking Bad, one of the common jokes in the writers’ offices and on the set was the so-called “Soul Goodman Project,” a show starring Odenkirk’s character that would chronicle his transformation from outsider lawyer Jimmy McGill, as his real name was, to his alter ego, con man Saul Goodman. When the end credits rolled for Walter White, it turned out that Gilligan and Gould weren’t kidding at all. They were determined to invest in this actor who came almost out of nowhere – the two were big fans of the sitcom Mr Show. “The more we worked with him, the more we discovered he had depth and soul,” Vince Gilligan told The New York Times about why they kept working with him. “He did so well, we started making plans for what else he could do.” Odenkirk himself, when he realized the two creators were starting to set up the new series, has admitted he had his doubts. He was in danger, if something went wrong, of being the man who screwed things up and ruined the legacy of Breaking Bad.
Thus was born the excellent Better Call Saul, which recently ended its run on AMC but is still winning over millions of fans on Netflix in a binge-watching frenzy, and is a serious contender for the All-Time Hall of Fame, alongside in behemoths like The Sopranos, Mad Men and, of course, Breaking Bad. This is how the actor Bob Odenkirk was reborn who, making a painful and exhausting introspection into the dark parts of his own soul, gave a shocking performance, giving flesh and bones to a character who moves between light and shadow, until he finally jumps into the dark side. On this journey Odekerk reached acting depths and extremes he had not dared to touch until then, with such spectacular results that renowned Hollywood creators such as Alexander Payne, Steven Spielberg, Greta Gerwig entrusted him with roles in Nebraska, The Post, Little Women, respectively, and to dare to realize Nobody, his full-length action film, which was inspired by his personal experiences – his family has been the victim of burglars twice, a particularly traumatic experience for him.
The late glory
Before all that, when Breaking Bad hit its stride after a ten-year run of failures, it was in a phase of self-doubt. “When you have so many failures, you start to wonder if there’s anything of value left in you,” he told the Guardian. He has admitted that he no longer cared about his jobs; it was a self-protection mechanism because he knew that if he cared too much and failed again, he would feel bad. With this mentality, he started filming in Albuquerque, but he quickly discovered that he had a great challenge on his hands, which not only gave him feelings of fear, but also fascinated him. When he found himself in front of the camera for the first time playing the main character of a first-line series, the weight of responsibility crushed him. In the first week of filming he lost his voice due to stress. It was around this time that he called Bryan Cranston, asking to know how to become a “regular actor”.
Until then he had remained on a comfortable fringe that allowed him to move between projects without the burden of star system fame and expectations. He is rather relieved, he has said, that fame has come knocking on his door in his 50s, because he feels that if it had happened earlier, he wouldn’t have been able to handle it. “Now I don’t worry about becoming too famous,” he has said. “I’m 59, I don’t have much time left. I recently had a heart attack. Let’s be serious.”
The heart attack happened in July 2021, during the filming of the sixth season of Better Call Saul. He was saved by the immediate reaction of his co-stars Rhea Seehorn and Patrick Fabian and the team doctor, who restored the heartbeat using a portable defibrillator. It seems like a joke of the universe, but he had time to complete his memoir, Comedy, Comedy, Comedy, Drama, an account of his journey in showbiz and an attempt to not forget iconic series of past decades. On a personal level, he has admitted that he doesn’t want his legacy to be one-sided, with the emphasis on his successes in recent drama productions, but also to celebrate his tenure in comedy, which he is set to return to with the series Guru Nation which prepares with his brother Bill. Because his star may have shone in dark television worlds, given his soul, as he has said, to serve Better Call Saul, but his heart always beats funny.