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A History of Modern TV As Told By Jonathan Banks Guest Appearances

The future Mike Ehrmentraut was right under our noses for decades before anyone took notice.
  • Photos CBS, NBC, AMC.
    Photos CBS, NBC, AMC.

    Network TV is almost not a thing anymore. Like dial tones and VCRs, we're leaving ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox behind. There was a time when all of show business turned its gaze with great anticipation to the May upfronts in New York, when the four networks would roll out their fall TV lineups. This year, though, barely a flicker of attention was paid, and with good reason. The number of fall shows the networks introduced is roughly the number that are introduced on streaming in any given week. Streaming is where the action is, and those of us who do still watch network shows usually watch them on streaming.

    Fortunately, the Internet has given us the endless VCR buffet known as YouTube, where the glory days of network TV live on. Which brings us to a YouTube channel dedicated to the career of Jonathan Banks, the actor best known for his role as Mike "The Cleaner" Ehrmentraut in the AMC shows Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Before becoming an overnight sensation on basic cable, Banks shoveled coal in the furnace of network dramas for 30 years.

    Thanks to an overseas fan who goes simply by "J.B.," the network career of Jonathan Banks is now available as a carefully curated YouTube channel. "A lot of people forgot or never saw Mr. Banks in old movies and TV series," J.B. told me. "They know him only as Mike." As it happens, the career of Mike — er, Mr. Banks — offers a surprisingly complete timeline of network drama in its fading glory, as told through the videography of one particularly memorable bad guy.

    Barnaby Jones (1977), "Duet for Dying"

    After graduating from Indiana University and working as a stage manager for the traveling company of Hair, Jonathan Banks began to pick up small roles. He did a menstruation PSA and made an appearance in a TV pilot/movie with Andy Griffith. But his ticket to future glory was getting in with TV's megaproducers, the Dick Wolfs and Shonda Rhimeses of their day. Here he plays a used-car salesman on Barnaby Jones — "A Quinn Martin Production!" as the announcer always reminded us. Quinn Martin delivered the goods for 21 years, including The Fugitive, The Streets of San Francisco (starring 60-something Karl Malden), Cannon (starring a 50-something William Conrad and his huge Lincoln Continental), and this one, featuring a spry 69-year-old Buddy Ebsen. The Seventies were the last hurrah for the TV business as a truly mass medium. Advertisers paid for eyeballs, period. If a show reached 30 million viewers, the rate card factored in every last viewer regardless of age, race, gender or household income. The reason older actors like Ebsen, Malden and Dick Van Dyke (see below) got starring roles in TV dramas so late in life is that lots of older viewers liked them.

    Coming Home (1978)

    Banks also popped up in a couple of films including Coming Home, the Oscar-winning Vietnam movie starring Jane Fonda and Jon Voight. Though technically this was not a TV role, Coming Home will always stand out for me because in 1979 I watched it, uncut and commercial-free, on Home Box Office. For Gen-Xers like me, HBO was kind of like eating forbidden fruit (although I distinctly remember being shooed out of the room during the film's sex scene). The arrival of HBO — and the coaxial cable that it required — were the opening shots across the bow of network TV dominance.

    Airplane! (1980)

    Yes, Jonathan Banks is the guy who checks the Radar Range and says, "About two more minutes, Chief!" (I saw this one at the movies — several times — but it too was an HBO favorite.)

    Lou Grant (1981), "Rape"

    Casting directors clearly grasped Banks' career potential early on, casting him as a hijacker in a 1977 made-for-TV movie. Here he has two more thuggish roles that aired a month apart, in early 1981. The first was as a rapist in the fourth season of Lou Grant. One of the most unusual shows of its time, Lou Grant was an issues-driven drama spun off from a classic sitcom, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It worked mostly because Ed Asner's irascible personality moved easily between comedy and drama. Alas, his union activism probably cost him the show; despite good ratings, Lou Grant would be cancelled the year after Banks made his appearance. The show's dramedic formula, though, was a sign of things to come.

    Sanford (1981), “Cal the Coward”

    Sanford, starring Redd Foxx, was a sequel to his original hit comedy Sanford and Son, which itself was a Norman Lear adaptation of the UK comedy Steptoe and Son. Here Banks plays a hoodlum looking for $65,000 in stolen gold coins that were left at Fred Sanford's junkyard. If this scene were made today, the merch would be catalytic converters, which are worth their weight in gold.

    T.J. Hooker (1982), "The Witness"

    In this role you really see the features that would make an older, more gravelly-voiced Jonathan Banks so attractive to casting directors. His dead-eye expression and sadistic laugh instantly convey the malefactor role. In an age of white hats and black hats, that's huge. We'll forgive the fact that in the closing scene he gets the crap beaten out of him by William Shatner, who's 20 years his elder.

    Murder Me, Murder You (1983)

    Franchise TV is pretty much all the networks do now, but franchises were also a staple of prime time in the 1970s and ’80s. The difference is that they were mostly packaged as two-hour movies. I doubt that the public's attention span was longer back then. The networks could command our attention for that long because they had no competition. This franchise was built on the Mickey Spillane character Mike Hammer, who was played rather poorly by Stacy Keach (plus the Hammer hat was comical). Here Banks isn't evil so much as sleazy, playing a producer of illicit female mud-wrestling films.

    Wiseguy (1987-1990)

    Finally, after a decade in the network trenches, Jonathan Banks got a chance to shine. J.B. informed me that Banks was the first actor to be nominated for Primetime Emmy Awards for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series for three different shows: Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul and this one, from one of TV's biggest producers of the day, Stephen J. Cannell. In one of his rare good-guy roles, Banks played Frank McPike, a senior FBI agent who supervised Vinnie Terranova, a deep cover operative for the bureau. Vinnie was played by Ken Wahl, who left after Season 3 because he wanted to be in The Movies! Good move, Ken.

    Many visitors to the Jonathan Banks YouTube channel are unaware of this early star in his resumé, according to J.B. This one-hour-plus supercut is essential viewing for every Banks fan.

    Matlock (1994), "The P.I."

    By the 1990s demographics had taken over the TV business. Advertisers put pressure on networks to feature younger, hipper stars to attract audiences with disposable income to spend on Taco Bell, Zima and cell phones. But every network had a show or two that was shamelessly aimed at the older viewer. Even though the 55-plus audience wasn't as lucrative, they liked low-budget crime shows that could be plugged into any part of the prime-time schedule. In Matlock NBC got a bankable star in Andy Griffith, who'd been a TV star since the 1960s. Ben Matlock, a deceptively homey defense lawyer, proved to be his longest-running role. Here Banks plays a killer who, echoing his T.J. Hooker appearance, improbably loses a fight to Andy.

    Diagnosis Murder (1996)

    And then there was Diagnosis Murder, the cozy mystery series starring Dick Van Dyke as Dr. Mark Sloan, who solved crimes with his son Steve (played by his real-life son Barry). Banks played a dirty cop who kills a fellow officer with "friendly fire." Note that his voice is getting more gravelly now, and Banks is starting to channel the character that he would make famous on Breaking Bad. "You can't get any more Mike than that," observes one commenter on this YouTube. The two would later reunite on Van Dyke's Hallmark Channel show, Murder 101.

    The District (2001)

    The District was CBS's first real stab at copaganda, shows that shifted away from depicting criminal acts (which, as media nannies always pointed out, glorified crime) and emphasized more the act of crime solving and keeping streets safe, led by pacesetters Law & Order and Cops. The District would be CBS's first foray into backing the blue, and now these shows are the heart of the CBS lineup: Blue Bloods, FBI, SWAT.

    The Ghost Whisperer (2005)

    Here he plays Lyle, the unfriendly ghost. By this time, Banks had to be wondering if he'd peaked. He also had roles in Joan of Arcadia, Without a Trace, Cold Case, two of the CSIs, Due South, Seaquest DSV, Walker Texas Ranger — small roles on shows where he was often the youngest dude in the scene. And he wasn't a spring chicken anymore. He wasn't Titus Welliver, another reliable but younger character actor with an obviously bright future. Banks seemed to be taking whatever paid, as actors do. He even struck a professorial pose on the short-lived sitcom The Trouble With Normal, but that just made him seem even older.

    Breaking Bad (2008)

    But then, with the golden words, "Saul Goodman sent me," Jonathan Banks strolled onto the set of Breaking Bad and into our hearts. As we can see, Banks' evolution into a beloved enforcer on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul was a success story 30 years in the making. It happened right before our eyes, on network TV, and most of us didn't even notice.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Jonathan Banks, Barnaby Jones, Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, Diagnosis Murder, The Ghost Whisperer, Lou Grant, Matlock, Sanford, T.J. Hooker, Wiseguy, The District