On a New York winter morning three ominous looking men walk in a CIA office. One man, dressed like a mailman, goes into his mailbag and pulls out a hand held gatling gun. With a clenched jaw and cruel eyes, he aims and fires.
Thudda thudda thudda.
Within minutes, five people are dead and the drama is set up for Sydney Pollock’s 1975 thriller Three Days of the Condor. Starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway and Max Von Syndow, the film is remembered for its white knuckle anxiety inducing plot, and the famous fight scene between Redford and the killer mailman played by character actor Hank Garrett.
In a career that has spanned over fifty years, Hollywood tough guy Hank Garrett has had a long career in television and film playing goons, thugs, bartenders and cops. But in life Hank has not allowed himself to be typecast as an actor. He is a virtual ‘man for all seasons’ who has found success as a comedian, pro-wrestler, martial arts master and motivational speaker.
But life didn’t start out successful for Hank. Born to poor immigrant parents, Hank grew up on the mean streets of Harlem where he had to learn to fight to survive. Heading down a path of crime and violence, Hank’s life was changed when an unlikely show business legend took interest in him and gave him a job working at the Apollo Theater and setting him on a new path in entertainment.
Now Hank shares his incredible journey in a brand new book, From Harlem Hoodlum to Hollywood Heavyweight. Written alongside author Deanna-Marie Smith, Hank tells about his story filled with more adventure than one of the thrillers he appeared in. Filled with encounters with entertainment icons from his long and varied career, Up From the Streets is the unlikely story about a kid in a bad situation that got a lucky break, and ever since has kept on giving back.
Sam: I own a fair number of films you’ve appeared in within my own DVD collection, including Serpico, Death Wish and The Jazz Singer, but two nights ago I sat down and watched Three Days of the Condor for the first time. That was a commanding performance you give. You are not in the film very long, but you make the most of your screen time. You are so intense, and scary. My anxiety rose just watching you. It’s the kind of performance that could give someone nightmares.
Hank: Oh yes. Well it gave that to me for sure. Well, the fact is that I’m aa martial artist. I’m in the karate hall of fame. But, when they told me that I was going to go up for the audition and they made me go and see Sidney Pollack, well I had known so much about him. I sat there and he said “So, you’re a martial artist?” I said “Yeah” and he said “Then you’ve got the part.” I said “Do you want me to read?” He said “No, there’s nothing to read.” I said “Do you want me to do a demonstration?” He said, “I’ve seen your stuff for years, so let’s do it.” I said “Are there going to be any stunt doubles?” He said “Why? “ I said “Well, from what I can see there’s some pretty intense stuff.” So he said, “Yeah, I’ve got a couple of doubles but there is going to be a really great fight scene between you and the star.” I said “Okay, that’s okay” and I got to meet Robert Redford, and we became friends.
Sam: Did Robert Redford do his own fighting in the scene with you?
Hank: There were a couple of scenes where Robert used a double. In one of those scenes, I throw a kick and I told the double “Do you want me to throw it full out?” He said, “Yeah. Don’t worry about it because you’ll never touch me.” This scene I’m supposed to aim for his head, but we decided to aim for his shoulder. Well, I said to him, “Listen. I’m big, but I’m fast.” He said “Don’t worry about. It you’ll never touch me.” Well, I threw that kick and caught him right on the shoulder and he flew across the room. He came back and said “Damn, you’re fast.” But it was just terrific. Everybody in that scene was just terrific. You’ll remember that Faye Dunaway comes into the scene and hits me with a hammer?
Sam: Right, and you turn around and kick her.
Hank: Yeah. I said to her before doing the scene “Are you padded.” Well, she reaches for her chest and I said “No. No. Not there. I’m talking about your arm.” See, I had to do this thing called a rising block and if it’s not padded, I could have broken her arm. Well, she says “Thank you for telling me” and, sure enough, when she comes at me with the hammer I didn’t go as fast as I usually would have and I slowed it down because I realized her arm was as thick as a twig, and I would have snapped her arm. So we shot that scene for three days, and it was incredible, but intense.
Sam: The fight scene between you and Robert Redford is the film’s most famous scene, but I find your first scene, when you strut into the CIA office with Max Von Syndow and murder all of Redford’s colleagues to be one of the most chilling things I’ve seen in film. It’s so cold and methodical. Pollock takes time to set the film up to introduce these characters and, in a matter of minutes, you’ve single handedly murdered the entire cast as we know it.
Hank: I won the New York Film Critics award for that role, and a few months ago we were taken to Vegas and I received an award there for being in the best fight scene in film ever.
Sam: It’s a commanding performance. I mean, you play a nameless character, but give one of the most memorable performances in the film. You’re cruelty is enough to cause the viewer instant anxiety.
Hank: That’s because of Sydney Pollack. He told me, “Hank, you’re killing all these people in this film, but it’s just part of your job. You’ve got to play it that way. There’s no emotion. When you kill that beautiful Chinese girl, you just kill her.” You know, I grew up with a lot of mobsters, and I had two adopted brothers that were from the streets. And when they saw the movie they said to me “Why did you have to kill that beautiful girl? Killing the old guy in the wig, that I can understand. But why did you kill the girl?” When I go to shoot her, she says “I won’t yell” and Max Van Syndow looks at her and says “I know.” And I don’t pay any attention to her bravery or her beauty and I just shoot her, and she’s gone. A couple of people confronted me and said “why.” I said, “Because it’s in the script.”
Sam: You’ve made a reputation for yourself as being a Hollywood tough guy. Do you feel that growing up In the streets of Harlem that gave you that edge?
Hank: Absolutely. Let me tell you a bit about my beginnings. Mom and Dad were immigrants from Russia, and they sold fruits and vegetables from a pushcart. They had no time for me. I was born to them very late in life. They were so busy working fifteen to sixteen hours a day just to make enough money for food. So I was on my own. I actually slept in cardboard boxes in the street. At one point when I was little, a woman came up to me and my mother and asked my mother “Is that your son?” My mother was embarrassed that I was born so late in life to her and she said “Oh no no. That little boy is my grandson.” Well, I was just little but I stored that and didn’t question it. But later in life I was wondering why my mother said I was her grandson. Then a census taker came around and knocked on the door and my father answered it. The census taker asked how many were in the family and my father said “A mother and three kids.” My two half-brothers, and myself. So the census taker says “Who are you” and my father answered “I’m an uncle visiting.” So my dad is my uncle and my mother is grandmother? I started to question who the hell am I? Well my father was in America illegally. He met my mother, who was a widow with three kids, and moved in with her and assumed her last name. So when you looked at my birth certificate, there were four last names. I remember bringing it to my mother and said “Which one of these guys is my father?” and she smacked me. When my older brother came back from the military he said to me that I was left in a trash can and no one wanted me. I must have been in my early teens. So I was so angry that I was on the streets and fighting everybody.
Sam: Getting involved in show business is what got you off the streets.
Hank. Yeah. There was this guy who was a customer of my Mom’s named William Brant. He was this band leader called ‘The Mayor of Harlem.’ My mother was crying to him that I was always in trouble and that the cops were looking for me. So he saw me on the street smoking with my fellow hoodlums and he came over and slapped the cigarette out of my mouth. I looked up and I was going to throw a punch at him, and two mountains stepped forward – his bodyguards. So I decided that maybe I shouldn’t throw that punch. Well, he said “You’re Mom gave me permission to take you out.” Now when you say to someone in New York that you are going to “take them out” it’s that they are going to kill you. So I said “My Mom wants me to be knocked off?’ He said “No, stupid. Put on a suit. Do you have a suit?” I said “Yeah.” He said “Before you put on a suit, take a bath.” Well I put on a suit and he brought me to the Apollo Theater. We went upstairs to the dressing rooms and there were hundreds of people there. They were all trying to meet Sammy Davis Jr. Well, we walked through the crowd, and walked right into his dressing room. Sammy Davis looked at me and said, “Come on in, man. Sit down.” I sat down and he said “The Mayor told me you’re a pretty tough guy” and I said “Yeah. Yeah. I’m tough.” Well, you gotta understand. I’m only twelve years old and full of attitude. So Sam says to me “Well, tough guys usually end up with broken bones and scars but the way you’re going, you’re going to end up going to prison, or you’re going to die.” I said “That’s it?” He said “That’s right.” Well, he was right because what nobody knew is that I had a 24-caliber pistol in my pocket. I’m twelve years old and I have a gun. Well I listened to this man, and we talked. Then I went to see his show and for two and a half hours I wanted Sam sing and dance and do impressions and play every instrument on the band stand. I was enthralled. He was incredible. Well, Sam got me a job with an all African American band as a band boy. I would put up the charts to the right musicians. At the end of the gig I would collect everything and put them on the sleeves and back in the trunk. Lucky Millinder was the orchestra leader. He said “You’ve done a good job, my man” and gave me fifty bucks and said “Go get yourself some knew ’kicks,’” which were shoes. I went and got a new pair for fifteen bucks and gave the thirty five for my mother.
Sam: Did you stay in contact with Sammy Davis?
Hank: Well, let me tell you. Twenty years later I’m working as a comedian, and I’m the opening at for Tony Bennet. It’s opening night at the Sands and, ring side, is Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. After the show Sam came back to congratulate Tony and he turns to me and says “You’re a funny cat. Where do I know you from because you look so familiar.” I said “Sam, I’m the kid that you said was going to go to prison or die.” He looked at me and said, “You’re him?” I said “Yes sir” and the two of us hugged and cried. He was standing there sobbing and I said “You saved my life.” He said “Hey, play it forward.” So I’ve been doing the same thing ever since. I got to prisons, and I talk to kids between the ages of eleven and seventeen telling them that I was there were they are right now. I was there. God sent me an angel named Sammy Davis Jr., and God will send an angel to you, but you’ve got to be ready to hear the angel with your ears and hear it in your heat. Sammy Davis Jr. was incredible. I would not be sitting here if it weren’t for Sam. I would not have appeared at the Sands or do all the things that have happened to me, because he gave me a shot.
Sam: So how did you go from working at the Apollo to start acting and appearing in television?
Hank: Well, I started working as a comedian and was working the Catskills. I had gotten a collection of jokes and I wrote some stuff. It went from there to that I started appearing in a wonderful series, Car 54, Where Are You?
Sam: I just love Car 54, Where are You? It’s an interesting series in the fact that while it’s a totally goofball comedy, the writing is very sophisticated.
Hank: Yeah. Well, when I got that audition with the show’s creator Nat Hiken, I sat down and he looked at me and says to me “You’re Ed Nicholson.” I said “No, no. I’m Hank Garrett.” He said “Nicholson is the character. You’re the dummy I’m looking for.” I just sat there hoping he didn’t think I was an idiot.
Sam: Prior to Car 54 I saw you did an episode of Naked City. I watched a lot of Naked City earlier this year when we were in lockdown because of the COVID pandemic. Was that your screen debut?
Hank: Probably. I had done some commercials though, and did some voice acting. I actually did a lot of voices for cartoons in the 80’s. On GI Joe I played Dial-Tone and on Garfield I played two characters, Fluffy and Fast Eddie. But Naked City was an incredible time. All the shows were such excitement.
Sam: When I look through the shows you’ve been on its of many of my favorites – Kojak, Three’s Company, Knotts Landing, Columbo. So many shows I love. There you are playing a thug. Do you feel like you were typecast as a thug?
Hank: (Laughs) Well, I also played a lot of cops and bar tenders. I had such a wonderful time with Peter Falk when I did Columbo. I had actually worked with him before on another series he did prior to Columbo. It was called Trials of O’Brien, and Peter played an attorney. So, the director said “You’re going to be a tough guy and you’re going to go in and repossess the guys furniture. You walk in and grab the chair and he’s going to come in and confront you.” Well, I didn’t know who ‘he’ was. So I grab the chair and I hear that voice say “Hey, what are you doing with my furniture?” I turn around and say “That’s Peter Falk!” The director yells “CUT! Yes Hank. We know it’s Peter Falk. He’s the star of the show.” Well, in my comedy act I had been doing an impression of Peter Falk. So, I get a call to be on an episode of Columbo and Peter says to me “So Hank, are you still doing me in your act?” I said “Peter, I don’t do impressions anymore.” Peter says “Oh what. Did I lose favor from you?”
Sam: Another thing that you did for a while in your career is that you had a successful run as a wrestler! I love talking to wrestlers about their careers. It’s interesting for you because it seems to be just dropped in the middle of your career while you were doing so many things, but I understand you are in the Professional Wrestling Hall of Fame. How and when did you get involved in wrestling?
Hank: Well, I started working out when I was thirteen years old. I started pumping a lot of iron, and I started to get really huge. I was training with a guy that was the gold medalist in weight lifting. I could not get the finesse to do competition, so I became a power lifter. I was at the Y and a guy came up to me and asked if I would be interested in doing some pro wrestling. I was only fifteen at the time. I said “Does it pay well?” He said “You get paid by the match, and because you’d be what is called a ‘baby face’ the money won’t be there until you start proving yourself.” Well he, and a guy who became my manager, labeled me Hank Daniels, the Minnesota Farm Boy. Now, I’d never been to Minnesota and I’d never saw a farm. Well I couldn’t wrestle pro without a license, and I was too young to get one. So, they added ten years to my age and they got me my license and the next thing I knew I had a fan club of a bunch of old ladies. They’d come to the matches and bring food for me. All the other wrestlers loved me because I’d go back to the dressing room with all this food and we’d eat it all and they’d ask when the fan club was coming back. I worked with some big names. I wrestled Killer Kowalski and Jimmy Snuka. During one of my matches, I was down on the mat and my opponent, I can’t remember his name, was supposed to come down on me with an elbow but all of a sudden I heard a big ‘smack’ and he was down on the mat with me. One of my fans had hit him on the back of the head with a Coca-Cola bottle. Honest to god. She looked like she was a hundred and four years old. She yelled “Leave him alone, you damn bully.” He looked at me and said “I’m not going to hit her, but I’m going to kill you.” I said, “Hey, I didn’t hit you. It was her.” So I got up, escorted the old lady out of the ring and I’m standing ringside with her and looking at my opponent and she says “Get back in the ring.” I said, “No. It’s dangerous.” I got fined, but it was wonderful because everybody in the place was screaming.
Sam: Most of the stuff you did in the early part of your career was New York based. When did you go to Hollywood?
Hank: Well, before I went to Hollywood I actually went to London and did British television. I was a regular on That Was the Week it Was with David Frost.
Sam: That’s unexpected! How did that happen?
Hank: Well, I was doing comedy at the Copacabana and a guy came to me and said, “You do dialect so beautifully.” I did what you call dialectic gibberish. You don’t do words, but you get the sound. Well he was a British guy and I didn’t know who he was, but he said “David would love to have you on his show.” Well, I was represented by the Morris Office and I told them and, sure enough, they got a call from London and they said that Peter Ustinov had seen me in New York and had recommended me. Next thing I know I’m in a hotel in London and I’m told by the writers not to worry about the dialogue because I’m going to be introduced as a different character each week. All I had to do was the dialect of the character he introduces and they will translate what I say. It worked beautifully and I was there eighteen months. But when I came back to America it felt like I had to start all over again because everyone thought I had died or had left the business.
Sam: Another great crime drama you appeared in was Death Wish. How did you find working with Charles Bronson like?
Hank: I never had a word with him. I got on the set; I rehearsed my scene. Bronson would come out of his dressing room, played the scene, and go right back into his dressing room. I never got introduced to him. Never really met him. We were in a scene together, but then he was gone.
Sam: Well let me ask you about someone I do know you met. I’m excited to find out about this because I am such a big fan of this person but you could be the onl6 person I’ve spoken to that met her. I know that you spent a night as an “escort” for Audrey Hepburn! What was that all about?
Hank: Yes. Well, the wrestling company I was working out of gets a call, and they say “We’re looking for a body guard, who wouldn’t look like a body guard who would look like a date.” Well they don’t tell me who it’s for, but they say “Hank, would you be interested?” I said sure, and they worked out a price. So a limo comes and picks me up and I think this is pretty great. I get in and ask the driver “Where are we going?” He says “We’re going to Malibu to pick up the person you’re escorting.” I get in the limo, we drive, the chauffeur doesn’t say anything and we drive to this mansion in Malibu. I stay in the car. The chauffeur goes in, comes back and Audrey Hepburn walks out with him. Well, I get out of the car and I just tripped over my tongue. Well, she says “Hi! How are you?” And I say “Homina homina homina.” The chauffer says “He’s Hank Garrett. He wrestles under the name Hank Daniels the Minnesota Farm Boy.” She says “You’re a wrestler. How fun!” I escort her into the limo and what we were going to was a fundraiser. People are going to bid to have lunch or dinner with the stars. So all these millionaires were going to this big hotel for this affair. I get out of the limo and help her out, and I didn’t know what to do. I saw all of the other chauffeurs and bodyguards standing outside. This guy says to me “You can go hang out over there” but Audrey Hepburn says “No no no. He’s my date.” Okay. I waltz in the room with her and I was going stand in the back but she says “Hank, come sit next to me.” Wow. Well, I kept feeling my chest to make sure my heart didn’t stop. Some guy bid $25,000 to have dinner with her.
Sam: Was she as wonderful as we all have heard she is?
Hank: Oh, she was incredible. How sweet. In fact, the chauffeur drove her home, and when he was driving me back, when I got out of the car he said “Mr. Garrett, you haven’t stopped smiling since she got in the car.”
Sam: Another very different encounter you had was with Elvis Presley. You and he were sparring partners. How did that come about?
Hank: Yes, yes. I was at the Sands, performing there, and a friend of mine was Elvis’ opening act, who was performing at another hotel. Well, I get a call from one of Elvis’ henchmen. A guy named Red.
Sam: I was wondering about that. I’d be intimidated to be sparring with a guy that had a posey of thugs.
Hank: (Laughs) Well Elvis was a cool guy, because he was outstanding at Karate. So, Red calls me and says “Will you do Elvis Presley the honor of sparring with him?” I said “You want me to do Elvis the honor? Okay. I’ll give the kid a break.” He rented a hall for us to spar and showed up with thirty of his buddies. He’s wearing the karate gi and it must have cost him twenty-five grand. One leg had the word Elvis spelt out in rhinestones and diamonds, and the other leg was spelt King. I’m looking at my gi and it was worth a dollar ninety five. Well, Elvis called me ‘Sensei’ and I said “Elvis, you don’t need to call me Sensei because we are equal rank.” He replies, “Okay, Sensei.” So we were about to spar and he stops and says “Sensei, please don’t hit me in the face because I have a show to do tonight.” Well I say, “Okay, then don’t hit me in the face because I also have a show to do tonight.” He replies, “You do know if I hit you in the face, Sensei, it’ll be an improvement.” I say to him, “You know I’m gonna kill you Elvis. I’m going to beat you to a pulp.” Well we sparred and we became friends. He was very good. He was an excellent fighter. He was a charm. A gentleman at all times.
Sam: So you have a new book out. What made you wait this long to write your story?
Hank: Well, I didn’t know if people would believe all the things I’ve done, because I’ve done so many things. But then I met a lady named Deanna-Marie Smith. We started talking, and she said “Why haven’t you just sat down and wrote a book? What if I sit with you and let’s do it?” So I would sit and start talking, and she would be writing, and then she’d start asking me questions like “Wait a minute. You were doing this and you were going to high school at the same time?” I said yes. She said “Did you ever witness and violence? I said “Every damn day of my life.” I was walking to school one day with a bunch of kids, and one of the kids fell. We thought he had tripped but we looked down and he was bleeding from his head. Someone had shot him from the roof. I saw a friend of mine, when we were raising pigeons on a roof, and him and another kid were pulling at a rifle as if who was going to shoot some of the hawks, and the gun went off and my friend Moreno Sola was dead. So I saw a lot of violence and a lot of death as a kid. It became common place. A lot of these things I guess I didn’t want to remember anymore. But Deanna sat there and she wrote and wrote and asked questions and brought back all these memories. She kept saying “This is going to be an amazing book.” So far that’s what I’m hearing, and people say it should be a movie.
Sam: Well, I think you’ve lived an amazing life. To get off the streets, do so many varied things in athletics and show business and to be working with young kids to help them get off the streets is an amazing legacy. Your story should be a movie.
Hank: Well, we are hoping to build a place called The Hanksters Kids. A place where kids can come after school, and get the help that they seek, be it with homework or to just get off the street. We’re going to have athletics, and guys in college who will work with the kids helping them and give the kid a break. So that’s what we are hoping for.
Sam: You know, you’ve played some cold-hearted killers, tough guys and thugs. But you are such a joy to talk with and are such a nice man. How do you get into the head space to be those tough guys?
Hank: Well, it’s called acting.
I love stories like Hank’s. A truly nice guy to talk to, Hank has hd an incredible career and puts a ton of heart in everything he does. A far cry from the icy killer from Three Days of the Condor, Hank Garrett is a truly nice man to talk to, with a unique legacy in the entertainment industry.
From Harlem Hoodlum to Hollywood Heavyweight is now available for sale in book shops and on-line. For more information, and to order your own copy, visit publisher Briton Publishing’s web-site at https://britonpublishing.com/authors-hank-garrett/.