Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk on how a heart attack changed his life

The actor, comedian and writer tells Hannah Stephenson how his perspective has changed since his brush with death.
Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk on how a heart attack changed his life

By Hannah Stephenson, PA

Actor, comedian, writer and action hero Bob Odenkirk is well aware of how lucky he is to be alive, thanks to the medics who gave him CPR following a heart attack while filming Better Call Saul.

Odenkirk, 59, who first appeared in Breaking Bad as shifty lawyer Saul Goodman and later became the star of its spin-off show, collapsed when he was filming the sixth and final season in New Mexico.

“It happened in July last year,” he recalls, the event indelibly stamped on his brain. “We’d been shooting all day long and I went off to sit with my castmates Rhea Seehorn and Patrick Fabian.

“We were just reading and talking and stuff, and I was going to play a baseball game on a little TV I have. I just went down on a knee and then went all the way down. I turned grey right away. I stopped breathing. It would have been death if someone hadn’t been there very quickly.

“They [the medics] started CPR – and if you haven’t brushed up on your CPR you should, because it saved my life. It saved my brain and my body, because it kept oxygenated blood going through me.”

He says he’s now completely back to normal, although it took him a couple of months to recover – and he takes medication every day. “I feel great now. I had little ridges of plaque in my artery. If you’re over 50, go get a check-up,” he says.

Odenkirk had spent the best part of the previous two years training at the gym for the 2021 action movie Nobody, which he suggests helped his body recover.

“It’s changing my perspective. In a weird way, I was not included in the experience, because I didn’t have any memory of it for two or three weeks afterwards. It’s impacted me over time,” he reflects. “I still think about it every day – and certainly every night, I lay in bed listening to my heartbeat.”

He says it’s making him consider “the time I have left”.

Odenkirk is still super busy, but spending time with his family – Naomi, his wife of 23 years, and their children Nate, 23, and Erin, 21 – has become a priority.

“I’m almost 60 and you think, ‘What if I dialled it down? What would that look like, and could I do it?’ A lot of people think that’s easy to do, but I don’t think it is. If you’ve worked hard to keep things going for years, it’s hard to slow down that train of thought and effort. But I am going to do it. I do think it’s important to try to have some space in my life to have perspective, and spend time with the people I love.”

Bob Odenkirk in the Universal Pictures film Nobody (Alamy/PA)
Bob Odenkirk in the Universal Pictures film Nobody (Alamy/PA)

He says he values life so much more now. “When you’re young, you live like you’re never going to die, and when you have an incident like this, you start to think how can I really engage with life?”

The heart attack came after he’d finished writing his memoir – Comedy, Comedy, Comedy, Drama – charting his childhood and early years on the comedy circuit in Chicago, through to the success he achieved in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

At times it’s been an uphill struggle. As one of seven children, he had a difficult relationship with his father Wally, an angry character who made business forms for a living.

“He wasn’t around much, and he was shut down emotionally,” he says. “I don’t think he wanted kids at all – and he had seven. He didn’t have any interest in children. I don’t know what was going on in his mind. Maybe he had some challenges that weren’t understood at the time. I judge him harshly, because I think if you bring kids into the world, you should at least make a mild effort to spend time with them.”

Bob Odenkirk and his wife, Naomi (Alamy/PA)
Bob Odenkirk and wife Naomi (Alamy/PA)

He says his Catholic mother Barbara was a rock, and as a 15-year-old he was delighted when his parents separated.

Odenkirk’s father died when was 22, and saying goodbye to him was “a shrugging affair”, he writes.

“I wanted it to be more than that,” he recalls today. “I got to spend time with him in the last few months before he passed away, and I wanted to make a connection and even learn about who he was, but I found it to be an unbridgeable gap, mostly because he seemed to have absolutely no interest in the family.”

His legacy has left a lasting effect on Odenkirk, who now lives in Hollywood. “I think it was what made me anti-authoritarian, and the kind of person who goes into comedy to kick back and make fun of adults and how they behave and go about life,” he muses.

“My favourite comedy has a little anger in it, and I think that came from my family – but also a lot of love. We were a large family, who loved and cared for each other and still do, we still have a lot of laughs together.”

His early career in the “comedy trenches” of Chicago in the early-Eighties, inspired by the likes of Monty Python and his comic idols John Belushi, Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd, saw him writing and performing conceptual and improv skits at comedy clubs and becoming a cast member of The Ben Stiller Show.

But his profile rocketed when he clinched the role of shady lawyer Saul Goodman in the hit series Breaking Bad, starring Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul.

“I was older, around 45, when I was in Breaking Bad. The show wasn’t a hit until the fourth season – and then it became a crazy, huge, massive hit. When you get that kind of fame as an older person, it’s very good, because you appreciate it and are more able to separate out what the fame is for, versus what it feels like.

“It very much feels like you are beloved by people, but the truth is the project you’re in is what people love. You are just part of it.”

Working with Cranston was an “immediate lesson in acting”, he says.

“The gravity of his presence and his ability to focus his energy is something that, if you are paying attention to it, really leads you on. I’ve always learned better from being up close with people who are doing great work.”

He was going to turn down the spin-off Better Call Saul – until his children persuaded him to do it.

“Once they decided to shoot the show in Albuquerque, in the same place they shot Breaking Bad, I felt I couldn’t leave my family. My kids were 13 and 15 at the time, and there was still a lot going on at our house. But both my kids came to me and said, ‘You should do that show, and we’ll help out at home’, which they did.”

Although season six has been declared the last (premiering on Netflix on April 19), Odenkirk says he wouldn’t be disappointed if there wasn’t another series. “But, he adds, “I’d be very happy if there was more”.

Book jacket of Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama by Bob Odenkirk (Hodder Studio/PA)
(Hodder Studio/PA)

Comedy, Comedy, Comedy, Drama by Bob Odenkirk is published by Hodder Studio, priced €23. Available now

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