A Bumpy Road Led Hank Garrett to ‘Car 54’ and Beyond

Childhood was rough for Hank Garrett. He grew up in Harlem in the 1940s and 50s, an especially tough time for that New York City neighborhood.
“We lived in the slums, and I’d walk into the kitchen in the mornings to find the floor covered with roaches,” Garrett, now living in California, said. “And I still remember waking up one day with a weight on my chest — it was a rat.”

 

Various hardships dogged him throughout his troubled teen years, as he outlines in his 2020 autobiography From Harlem Hoodlum to Hollywood Heavyweight.
“I saw fights, stabbings, and shootings — it was a daily situation,” Garrett said.
He endured a near-fatal car accident, which led to his focus on physical fitness. Following this path, Garrett ultimately become a professional wrestler and actor.
During a brief time on the New York police force, Garratt auditioned for Car 54, Where Are You?, a television comedy series that began in 1961.
“When I told my commanding officer I had a chance to work on a television series, he looked at me and said, ‘Tough decision, isn’t it Hank? Become a television star or stay a cop in New York!’” Garrett said. “Car 54 opened up an acting career for me.”
Garrett played Officer Ed Nicholson, turning him, he joked, “from real cop to reel cop.” The show also starred Fred Gwynne (later Herman Munster) and Joe E. Ross, who were partners in the series.
“Fred was very soft-spoken and truly a gentleman who also wrote and illustrated children’s books,” Garrett said. “He lost a child who drowned, and we were shooting when the news came. We were all devastated.”
As for Ross?
“What a character,” Garrett said with a laugh. “Joe would bring in ladies of the evening and at one point asked if one could be put on the payroll as his acting coach! The producers didn’t go for it. Of course, he could never remember his lines, and that’s why he always went ‘Ooh! Ooh!’ until the words came to him.”

Hank Garret as the mailman assassin in “Three Days of the Condor”

Numerous other roles came Garrett’s way.
He was often cast as the bad guy opposite some of Hollywood’s biggest names, including Kirk Douglas in A Lovely Way to Die (1968), where a stray punch from Douglas gave Garrett a bloody nose. But Hank got even with the A-lister crowd several years later in a memorably violent fight scene in Three Days of the Condor: He accidentally broke Robert Redford’s nose.
Playing the “heavy,” he said, wasn’t a stretch given his tough childhood. Nor has he forgotten his troubled past. He has worked tirelessly for years with prisoners, veterans, and at-risk youth he calls “Hankster’s Kids” (see www.hankgarrett.biz). The proceeds of his book will benefit disabled vets and children.

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