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As 'Better Call Saul' wraps, Bob Odenkirk reflects on his life-changing heart attack

Bob Odenkirk plays lawyer Saul Goodman on the <em>Breaking Bad</em> prequel/spin-off, <em>Better Call Saul.</em>
Greg Lewis
AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Bob Odenkirk plays lawyer Saul Goodman on the Breaking Bad prequel/spin-off, Better Call Saul.

As the Breaking Bad prequel and spin-off Better Call Saul wraps up its final season, series star Bob Odenkirk says there's a point in the current season when he brought a whole new energy to the role. That's because Odenkirk suffered a near-fatal heart attack while filming episode 8, "Point and Shoot."

Odenkirk's heart stopped beating for 18 minutes. Luckily, someone on set knew CPR and had access to a defibrillator. But production halted for five weeks, and when he returned, Odenkirk felt different — weirdly better.

"I came out of it with a strangely fresh energy towards my whole life, like I was born again," he says. "Like, "Hey, everybody! ... Let's go back to work and make stuff!"

Showrunner Peter Gould, who created the character of Saul, noticed the difference in Odenkirk's approach to the role.

"It was a very suspenseful moment, because I was not there when Bob got sick, but I was there when he came back," Gould says. "And we were all wondering, 'What's it going to be like?' And it turned out it was great. It was one of the most hopeful things imaginable."

Better Call Saul fills in Saul's back story before he was Walter White's sleazy lawyer on Breaking Bad, back when the character was known as Jimmy McGill. As a writer, Gould says, there are constraints with writing a show that's so tied to an earlier series. But, he notes, those limits can also be helpful.

"It gives you it gives you a problem to solve, which is always a good thing in creativity," he says. Plus, he adds, the character of Saul has been "sure as hell fun to write."

Interview highlights

On developing the character of Saul Goodman in Season 2 of Breaking Bad

Peter Gould: As we were talking about what could happen next, now that Walt and Jesse are trying to sell drugs, the question came up, "What happens if one of these guys gets arrested?" And of course, then they have to go to a drug lawyer. And somebody said, "What if his name is 'Saul Good,' like 's'all good.' And then somebody said, "Saul Goodman.' And then somebody talked about the Cadillac and the license plate. And I think we just thought he was going to be this slickster who was going to be Walt and Jesse's guide into the underworld. He was going to be kind of like a helper character who'd help them and kind of look out for himself along the way. And having said that, once we started thinking about him, we just had so much fun, because he was happy with himself. And also he was the only character who wasn't tormented by his misdeeds, it seemed, on Breaking Bad. He saw things very mechanically. He would always see the shortest distance between two points and he'd say, 'Why don't you just do that?' No matter how violent or distasteful. ...

A lot of us in the writers room [are big fans] of screwball comedy and films from the '40s where people were fast-talking and had a lot of metaphors in their speech and used slang. That was fun, but this is the amazing thing about being a dramatic writer: Then Bob comes in and plays the role and you start seeing there's more to him than that original conception. In one of his first scenes, [we gave him], like, two pages of dialogue, what Bob did was he created all these transitions in this big wall of dialogue. ... What you saw was that there is a guy who's thinking a mile-a-minute and maybe ... his confidence isn't as high as maybe he's putting forth to the world. Having Bob play the role absolutely changed everything.

On Saul's transactional way of seeing the world

Bob Odenkirk: [Saul] sees the world as a bit of a game, in which you make deals and you don't really have hard feelings about those things. You play hard and then you let it go and move on to the next negotiation. ... That's how Jimmy perceives the world when he's being Saul — as transactional. ... It's a point of view on life that I don't particularly ascribe to. But I see that a lot of people do, and it's fun to play a guy who does that.

On how a coincidence helped save Odenkirk's life during his on-set heart attack

Odenkirk: Rosa Estrada — we were very lucky that this woman was nearby because she knew how to do CPR properly, and she had the AED [defibrillator] in her car, and she only had it in her car because she was returning it to somebody who she borrowed [it from]. It was a total crazy coincidence that she had put it in her car, and I guess she'd had tried to return it, but the friend wasn't home. Otherwise she wouldn't have had it either. And so it's only because of that circumstance that it was in the trunk of her car. And I'm sure that helped me immensely. I mean, the CPR is number one, but the fact is, I didn't get a heart rate for 18 minutes after this started, and that's a long time. Please take a CPR class because the fact that it was done almost immediately — within a minute and minute and a half — and it was done so well, it was done properly — that's what really saved me.

On coming back to the set after his heart attack

Odenkirk: It made it even easier, much easier to be in the moment ... of looking at the world almost like you just woke up and don't remember anything. ... My wife straggled in after a day of not sleeping and getting phone calls and having a private jet that Sony was so good to send to get her in New York. And she came into the hospital room and I popped up after surgery that morning going, "Let's go to work!"

And that energy carried through and it made it easier to be in the moment. Which is your job as an actor. That's the weird mind game you play, is getting yourself in the moment of someone else's life, but really feeling on the edge of, 'I don't know what happens next here.' ... And it was easier for me to do with this kind of weird, new-found POV on the world. ... I really want to stay in touch with what happened there because it really was a great reconnection to being alive. And so I'd love to ruminate on it every day and try to reconnect.

On saying goodbye to the series and the character

Peter Gould: I haven't fully assimilated it because I've been working on the show, but it's only starting to hit me a little bit. And this show and Breaking Bad have been such a huge part of my life creatively, but also personally. It's almost my whole social world because I've been doing nothing but working for so many years. And it's a little bit like graduating from high school. You've been in this hermetic environment for so long with the same group of people, and suddenly I'm applying to college again.

Heidi Saman and Susan Nyakundi produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.

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