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The Transformation Of Bob Odenkirk From Childhood To Better Call Saul

It's been a long and winding road to stardom for Bob Odenkirk. Most audiences know the actor as Saul Goodman, his breakout role on AMC's "Breaking Bad." His status as a fan-favorite on that show led to the character getting his own spin-off series, "Better Call Saul." Long before Odenkirk ever donned the colorful monkey suit, however, he was already the secret sauce of sketch and late-night comedy. 

Odenkirk spent many years behind the comedy scenes, helping some of the greatest jokers and clowns of the modern era land their biggest laughs. In the 1990s, he became the co-creator and star of a sketch comedy show of his own, the trailblazing "Mr. Show." The new millennium saw him help launch some of Adult Swim's biggest projects, including "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" He's also the guy behind one of the most beloved "Saturday Night Live" characters ever crafted. And did we mention he graduated high school early?

Nowadays, Odenkirk is a bonafide movie star. Every single step he took along the way to his current peak of fame played an essential role in getting him there — and we're here to explore them all. This is how Bob Odenkirk transformed himself from being a goofy kid growing up near Chicago into the star of "Better Call Saul."

Growing up in Naperville

According to The New York Times, Bob Odenkirk grew up as one of seven children in Naperville, Illinois. This proved to be a fortunate place to mature, as it put him in close proximity to Chicago's Second City theater, a major comedy hotspot. But this didn't always matter to Odenkirk, especially in his youth. As he told TimeOut, he couldn't wait to grow up, so he could get the heck out. 

This is understandable, especially since Odenkirk's childhood had its share of rough spots. His father was a heavy drinker who was often absent; when he died, father and son had become completely estranged. This played a role in Odenkirk's decision to avoid drinking throughout his life, especially after becoming a father himself. Thankfully, the future comedy icon's troubled youth became a fruitful environment for his career aspirations. Odenkirk (alongside his brother, comedy writer Bill Odenkirk) became the jokester among his siblings, who were very close.

Early forays in comedy

Comedy has been part of Bob Odenkirk's life since he was a kid. Both of his parents were funny people, and laughter was a constant at the family dinner table. That was his earliest stage, soon followed by the classroom: Young Odenkirk found ways to work sketches, gags, and jokes into all kinds of school projects. Formative TV shows soon made their mark, especially landmark series "Monty Python's Flying Circus," which hit American airwaves in the 1970s. In conversation with the Chicago Reader, Odenkirk named the program as his single biggest influence.

As Odenkirk told Jimmy Kimmel, he graduated high school at 16 after realizing he'd accrued enough credits to do so. He proceeded to bounce between colleges in the Midwest, finally ending up at Southern Illinois University. There, he made some of his first forays into serious comedy through college radio. Soon after, he ventured into Chicago's improv scene, where he eventually hit the venerated Second City Mainstage. Odenkirk was officially on his way.

Creating Matt Foley and joining the boiler room boys

Bob Odenkirk hit the comedy jackpot when he was hired to write for "Saturday Night Live" in 1987. He, Robert Smigel, Conan O'Brien, and Greg Daniels soon formed a group Tom Hanks christened "the boiler room boys." It was during a summer break from "SNL" that Odenkirk found his biggest success yet, however: Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker. Odenkirk came up with this character while working alongside Chris Farley at The Second City. When Farley joined "SNL," he took Foley with him. The hilarious sad sack proved to be a big hit with audiences.

As Odenkirk told Michael Ian Black (via The Hollywood Reporter), he wasn't a perfect fit at "SNL," and left the series in 1991. But the experience was an undeniably important one which played a huge role in shaping his career. One major question now loomed before the young talent: How was he going to top Matt Foley?

Bouncing around the world of comedy

After leaving "SNL," Bob Odenkirk joined the writing staff of the short-lived but absolutely excellent "Get A Life" in 1991. After "Get A Life" folded, Odenkirk wrote for "The Dennis Miller Show" alongside major comic talents like Norm Macdonald and Herb Sargent. Sadly, that series soon met its end as well in 1992. Odenkirk proceeded to join the writing staff of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" in 1993, which reunited him with the titular fellow boiler room boy. He also began making small appearances on TV shows like "The Larry Sanders Show," as well as films like "Wayne's World 2" and "The Cable Guy." 

One of his biggest breaks came in 1992, when he joined the cast of "The Ben Stiller Show." Although it was canceled after just one season, it brought Odenkirk and writer David Cross together, as they recounted to The Globe and Mail. The duo soon discovered their comic chemistry, and began writing and performing together.

Mr. Show shakes things up

Bob Odenkirk and David Cross' sketch series, "Mr. Show with Bob and David" (commonly referred to as "Mr. Show"), hit the small screen in 1995. A wonderfully absurdist series "Mr. Show" featured a number of then-emerging comics who have since become major names, including Tom Kenny, Sarah Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, and Jack Black

Though it was canceled in 1998, the show has become a deeply respected cult classic whose legacy stretches into the modern day. Without "Mr. Show," we might never have gotten projects like "The Sarah Silverman Program" or "Tenacious D," which involved multiple "Mr. Show" alumni behind and in front of the camera. It's not a stretch to say that the modern comedy landscape would look entirely different without "Mr. Show," either: According to Vulture, the creators of shows including "Key & Peele," "Portlandia," and "Inside Amy Schumer," among others, have cited it as a major influence.

Bob Odenkirk meets Tim and Eric

One of Bob Odenkirk's biggest creative ventures following "Mr. Show" came from a mysterious package he received in the mail. As he told Pedestrian.tv, it contained a DVD and an itemized bill for its mailing. The DVD showcased the talents of comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, better known nowadays as absurdist comedy duo "Tim & Eric." Odenkirk was so struck by the duo's unabashedly strange comedy, he helped them develop "Tom Goes to the Mayor" and "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!," which both made waves on Adult Swim. 

"Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" soon established itself as something of a successor to "Mr. Show": It's just as bizarre, multifaceted, and packed with big talent, including John C. Reilly, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and Richard Dunn. Reilly's character, Dr. Steve Brule, even got his own spin-off show in "Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule."

Odenkirk almost became Michael Scott

The late '90s and 2000s saw Bob Odenkirk guest star on a wide variety of shows. An episode of "Arrested Development" reunited him with David Cross: Odenkirk played a marriage counselor who works with Cross' Tobias Funke and his wife. Odenkirk also snagged a recurring role on "How I Met Your Mother" as Marshall's aggressive boss, Arthur Hobbs. He enjoyed many other small parts on series like "NewsRadio," "Entourage," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," and "Just Shoot Me!," among others.

During this time, Odenkirk auditioned for the role of Michael Scott on the American adaptation of "The Office." He came incredibly close to landing the now-iconic part, according to The New York Times, but it ultimately went to Steve Carell instead. Fortunately, Odenkirk did eventually appear on "The Office" as the boss of a different company, whose mannerisms happen to be nearly identical to Carell's Scott. 

Bob Odenkirk in the director's chair

Bob Odenkirk might be best known as an actor and writer, but he's also a seasoned director. His first film, 2003's "Melvin Goes to Dinner," captures a dinner conversation between old friends with a complex history. It features quite a few famous faces in a variety of roles, including Jenna Fischer, Kristen Wiig, Fred Armisen, and even future "Guardians of the Galaxy" director James Gunn. 

Odenkirk followed up "Melvin Goes to Dinner" with 2006's "Let's Go to Prison." The film was co-written by Thomas Lennon, known for his work with influential sketch comedy troupe "The State," and stars Will Arnett, Chi McBride, and Dax Shepard. Sadly, it was brutally panned by critics. Odenkirk's third film, 2007's "The Brothers Solomon," also starred Arnett and McBride, alongside Kristen Wiig and Will Forte. Sadly, it too received negative reviews. Though Odenkirk hasn't directed a theatrical movie since then, he has helmed various TV episodes and specials.

Joining the world of Breaking Bad

"Breaking Bad" is one of the most celebrated TV shows ever made. But as he admitted on "Off Camera with Sam Jones," when Bob Odenkirk landed on set to play Saul Goodman, he'd barely seen any of it. Saul was originally intended to be a minor character, but Odenkirk's performance was so spectacular, he became a key part of the series. The opportunity couldn't have come at a better time: In conversation with Howard Stern, Odenkirk revealed he had been struggling financially prior to landing the role.

"Breaking Bad" and all its stars soon skyrocketed to mainstream success. Bob Odenkirk was no longer the man behind the curtain, writing material for incredible comedians like Chris Farley or David Cross. Now, he was on millions of screens all around the world, putting a face to other people's words with inimitable panache.

Staying grounded in comedy

Though Odenkirk gained a whole new level of fame through "Breaking Bad," he didn't forget his roots. In 2011, he developed "Let's Do This!," an Adult Swim project that skewers Hollywood ambition. He also worked on "The Birthday Boys," an IFC sketch series that also involved Odenkirk's old pal Ben Stiller. Odenkirk occasionally guest-starred on the show as well, alongside comedians like Paget Brewster, Jack Black, Tim Heidecker, and Eric Wareheim.

In 2017, Odenkirk co-wrote and starred in comedy-drama "Girlfriend's Day." He plays a greeting card writer whose divorce has robbed him of his talent. Though it received mediocre reviews, Odenkirk's presence in the production is a testament to his comedy bonafides. Even when he's got a role on one of the biggest dramatic TV series on the planet, he makes time for offbeat laughter.

Awards, accolades, and movie stardom

Though his roots remain firm in the world of comedy, Odenkirk's performance as Saul Goodman couldn't help but raise his dramatic profile. An early manifestation of this arrived in  2013, when he played a supporting role in "The Spectacular Now" alongside Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, and Brie Larson. The film received a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and glowing reviews.

That same year, Odenkirk starred in "Nebraska" alongside Will Forte, Bruce Dern, and June Squibb. "Nebraska," which mostly takes place on the road, is shot entirely in black-and-white, making it a rarity in any modern filmography. It was nominated for multiple awards, including the Oscar for best picture.

Odenkirk's dramatic work continued throughout the 2010s. He played Mr. March, the titular girls' father, in Greta Gerwig's 2019 adaptation of "Little Women," and portrayed journalist Ben Bagdikian in Steven Spielberg's 2017 drama "The Post." His biggest role thus far, however, is probably Hutch Mansell, the hero at the center of 2021 action-thriller "Nobody." According to Vulture, playing this hitman-turned-ordinary-father required Odenkirk to train hard in martial arts, firearms, and knife fighting.

The long legacy of Mr. Show

The "Mr. Show" crew has remained tight-knit, even though many years have passed since the show's cancelation. In 2002, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross joined several former castmates on a live U.S. tour called "Mr. Show Live: Hooray For America!," which, The Philadelphia City Paper noted, regularly sold out. In 2013, Odenkirk and Cross published "Hollywood Said No!," a collection of unused sketch ideas, scripts, and sundry other odds and ends from the show. According to AudioFile, the audiobook features a number of the series' actors, who act out some of the material.

The biggest "Mr. Show" revival came in 2015, when the cast and writers reunited for a Netflix series called "W/Bob and David." It functions almost identically to the original program, and features new faces including Keegan-Michael Key and Paget Brewster. The COVID-19 pandemic soon inspired another "Mr. Show" reunion in the form of "Mr. Show Zoomtacular Annual Business Call Event for Charity." This charity special featured a brilliant parody of Gal Gadot's viral "Imagine" video, one of the pandemic's earliest pop culture flashpoints. Jack Black, Sarah Silverman, Patton Oswalt, Tom Kenny, Amber Tamblyn, Rachel Bloom, and Fred Armisen, among others, awkwardly sing "Weird Al" Yankovic's "Eat It" in this clip, which is as brilliant as it is cringe-inducing.

What's next for the "Mr. Show" crew? Something big: According to IndieWire, Odenkirk and Cross are developing "Guru Nation," a comedy series for Paramount+ that will see them star as rival cult leaders.

Saul Goodman gets his own spin-off

"Breaking Bad" came to an end in 2013 amid a deluge of critical praise. While many of the show's principal characters suffer tragic fates, Saul Goodman happens to be one of the few who makes it out alive. Granted, Saul also ends up vanishing from Albuquerque and starting a new life in Nebraska, where he manages a Cinnabon. But hey, it's better than being dead.

Though Saul begins as a fairly minor character, show creator Vince Gilligan and writer Peter Gould were considering a Saul-centric series before "Breaking Bad" even ended, as they revealed to The Ringer. They teamed up to create "Better Call Saul," a spin-off that explores the character's origin as an upstart lawyer named Jimmy McGill. Incredibly, the series managed to carve out its own legacy, thanks in large part to Odenkirk's humorous and layered lead performance. But "Better Call Saul" certainly isn't a one-man show: It features unforgettable work from Michael McKean, Rhea Seehorn, and Jonathan Banks, among others. Making a worthy successor to "Breaking Bad" can't be easy, but they make it seem almost effortless.

Surviving a heart attack

In July 2021, fans around the world were shocked to learn that Bob Odenkirk had collapsed on the set of "Better Call Saul." According to The Guardian, he was rushed to a New Mexico hospital, where he was found to have suffered a heart attack. This news prompted an immense flood of support across social media, which deeply affected Odenkirk. "Social media is a place of poison and evil," he told Jimmy Kimmel, "and then this moment was just beauty and love from strangers ... it felt so damn good."

Odenkirk bounced back fairly quickly from this incident, resuming filming in September 2021. He was incredibly open about the entire experience on the press tour leading up to the final season, which provided fans with fascinating insight into his process. In an interview with The Washington Post, he discussed the two stents put into his arteries and his desire to create a little more breathing room in his life going forward. Being busy and successful is all well and good, but as he put it, "The way you appreciate life is putting a little bit of space in between all your hustle and activity ... I've had to rush for about the last four years." With this experience behind him, Odenkirk's future looks bright — and hopefully a bit more restful.