The Role(s) of His Life
Patrick Fabian quietly built a 30-year Hollywood career by being the right guy for all sorts of jobs. As Howard Hamlin in Better Call Saul, he finally found the one that let him shine.
Working actors understand that every audition is an opportunity—to get a part, sure, but sometimes also to make an impression, to remind the people who decide their fates that they exist. Patrick Fabian took the latter approach when he showed up eight years ago to read for a prequel to the hit AMC series Breaking Bad, which had recently wrapped its acclaimed five-season run. The new show, an ensemble drama set to debut in 2015, would be called Better Call Saul. “The casting directors for this show cast a lot of stuff,” Fabian recalls, “and they hadn’t seen me in a while. At the time, they were casting The Walking Dead. And I thought, well, if I’m good in this audition, maybe I’ll get, like, a three-episode arc as somebody who gets eaten by a zombie in The Walking Dead. So that’s what I was going in for. I wasn’t even thinking I had a shot at Better Call Saul.”
His tempered expectations in that moment were understandable; Fabian ’87 A&A had recently missed out on a part on the Disney Channel sitcom Dog With a Blog. But something else working actors know is that, well, you never know. You never know what a casting director or showrunner might be looking for. You never know when you might be the answer. Two weeks later, he got the call to come in for a screen test. A week after that, he tested for Howard Hamlin, the polished, well-dressed, and ultimately doomed attorney with an unexpectedly sympathetic arc he would go on to play for six seasons in one of the best-reviewed shows in modern TV history.
It’s mid-August now, two days after Better Call Saul aired its series finale, and Fabian is on the phone from his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif., reviewing his career thus far and the role that he assumes will define it. He has two daughters with his wife, the writer and director Mandy Fabian, whom he met in the office of a commercial agent 16 years ago when they both were auditioning for voiceover work; on this morning, he had seen their fifth-grade daughter off to the school bus and made sure their sixth grader was ready in time for her carpool pickup. The family dogs, a mother and daughter of indeterminate breed rescued from the To’Hajiilee Indian Reservation in New Mexico during filming of the show’s final season, lounge nearby on the couch. (His daughters insisted on naming them Lucky and Star.)
Fabian’s work on the series has been done for some time; even beyond the lag between filming and airing, his character—spoiler alert—didn’t quite make it to the end of the show. But that distance did little to soften the emotional punch of the show’s conclusion. “Yesterday, I was like, ‘Why am I so cranky?’ And it’s because of that,” he says. “It’s now officially in the rearview mirror.”
For those not already familiar via its run on AMC or its prominent spot on Netflix’s streaming lineup, Better Call Saul tells the origin story of Jimmy McGill, better known as Saul Goodman, a charismatic con man-turned-lawyer whose character on Breaking Bad evolved from a comic bit player to an audience favorite who was increasingly integral to the plot. Saul’s relationship with fellow attorney Kim Wexler is at the heart of Better Call Saul, but the show works as well as it does thanks to the well-written ensemble cast of lawyers, drug dealers, and enforcers who help drive the story.
For Fabian, who appeared in 59 of its 63 episodes as attorney Howard Hamlin, the show’s impact went far beyond a career-defining role. He grew particularly close with the leads, Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seahorn, with whom he shared a house while they filmed in New Mexico; Fabian and Seahorn were the first people to come to Odenkirk’s aid last year when he had a near-fatal heart attack on set. “We’ve been doing it for seven years, and a lot has gone down in these seven years,” Fabian says. “We became a family.”
A quick glance at Fabian’s Instagram account confirms that that family lives on—from award show red carpets to hiking trips and ballgames, the Better Call Saul cast members seem to genuinely like spending time with one another—but the show will no longer dominate his life. “Now that it’s over, people ask, ‘What do you want to do next?’ Well, I’m auditioning, like I always have. In the end, you go back to work.” His IMDb page offers 30 years’ worth of evidence, in the form of 150 acting credits (and counting), that Fabian has never gone long without finding the next job.
Born in Pittsburgh, Fabian was 2 when his family moved to New Cumberland, Pa., where his father worked with the Penn-sylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. He was drawn to the performing arts early, joining the school band and performing in plays in elementary and middle school, then graduating to marching band, orchestra, and choir in high school. He found his calling in high school plays and musicals, and figured he’d take a shot at studying acting when he applied to Penn State.
Much about the university’s theater program appealed to him, not least the blunt appraisal offered by then acting teacher Bill Kelly ’70, ’78 MFA A&A. To Fabian, he promised, “I’ll make you a better actor.” Talking to Fabian’s parents, Kelly was similarly direct: “I assume you’re paying for this. It’s a tough business. I can’t guarantee him a job.”
It would be the first of many invaluable lessons Fabian learned on campus. He developed his craft, to be sure, but much of what he took from college was an embrace of the work. Making a living as an actor is a job, one that—if you’re lucky to be working—requires you to show up every day, to take on roles that might seem below you, to accept direction you might disagree with, to be overshadowed and not complain, to sacrifice for the good of the team.
“I held a lot of spears in Shakespeare plays on the main stage,” he says. “I was not a featured player, but there was a lot of opportunity if you wanted it. I auditioned for every play we had. I helped build sets. It was a real training ground for the idea of the collective. We all pitch in; sometimes the spotlight’s on you, sometimes it’s not. Know what your role is and do it to the best of your ability.”
There were plenty of moments that transcended mere toil. He appeared in The Beaux’ Stratagem at the Pavilion Theatre, with legendary theater professor Helen Manfull directing, and in Kelly’s production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. Then there was a production of the Tennessee Williams play Camino Real, directed by Bob Leonard. Fabian played the role of A. Ratt, the owner of a Skid Row flophouse; he had only a few lines, but the ensemble nature of the play meant he was on stage for much of the show. “It was a beautiful, haunting production,” he says. “Everything that’s good about theater is in that piece, I think, both in the experience of performing it, and for the audience receiving it. I loved that, and that’s the sort of feeling I kept chasing.”
Leonard retired in 2000 after 24 years at Penn State. He worked primarily with MFA students when Fabian was an undergrad, so his interactions with the young acting student were limited. But they were enough to leave an impression.
“I did direct Patrick once; it wasn’t a huge role, but it was significant, and he stood out in a cast of 75 characters. He was a dream to work with, and I’m proud of the seriousness with which he approached a relatively small role,” Leonard says. “I remember his good looks, keen sense of humor, talent, and dedication to the art of theater, especially acting. He also [had] the drive and expertise at promoting himself, auditioning well, and succeeding.”
Fabian had all the tools, in other words, and so he decided to take a shot, graduating and moving to New York City, where his work consisted mostly of catering jobs. While there, he was accepted into the master’s program at Cal State Long Beach, just south of Los Angeles; never having been west of the Mississippi, he took the chance, landing on the West Coast in the fall of 1987. Two years later, MFA in hand, he moved to West Hollywood, where he rented an apartment right behind the historic Warner studio lot.
It took the better part of three years to work his way up the ladder of wannabe-actor clichés: He waited tables; he joined a non-paying theater company; he got a commercial agent; he waited more tables; he appeared in local Shakespeare in the Park productions, which helped him get an agent agent; and then he started booking jobs. Soon, he didn’t need to wait tables anymore. “I’d walk into auditions, and you know, there’s 20 of me. They all look like me, except better—better hair, better teeth, bluer eyes, whatever,” he says. “But because I was trained well, I always thought, ‘Well, I’ve got a degree under my belt. I know how to audition. I know what I’m doing.’”
The earliest credit on his IMDb page is a guest spot on a 1992 episode of Bodies of Evidence, a short-lived CBS crime drama most notable for the presence of a young George Clooney. Over the next few years, he landed one-off guest spots on shows ranging from Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place to Star Trek: Voyager, Xena: Warrior Princess, and Murder, She Wrote. He enjoyed an extended run in 1993 and 1994 on Saved By The Bell: The College Years, appearing in eight episodes as handsome professor Jeremiah Lasky. (Until Better Call Saul, it was probably the role he was most recognized for, particularly among Millennials who grew up watching the show via endless reruns on basic cable, and who never forgave him for kissing Kelly Kapowski.)
He never landed a series of his own, but typically for Fabian, it was not for lack of trying. In the days before streaming and prestige cable drama, most new shows were cast during the spring pilot season; a show was conceived, a script written, and actors hired in the hopes that a single episode would lead a network to pick it up for (at least) a season. Fabian shot 13 pilots. None were picked up. “You were always hoping to get on that show that becomes a hit,” he says. “And then it wouldn’t go, so you’d go guest star on somebody else’s show, or you’d get a recurring role. But you’re always trying to push it up that hill.”
Then there were the pilots he auditioned for but didn’t land: the sitcom with “the terrible generic name” that turned out to be Friends, and the hospital drama with the similarly uninspired title, ER. “And then you begin the time-honored tradition of saying, ‘Well, if I would’ve gotten that job…’” He gained a philosophical acceptance of such disappoint-ment; among his demographic—white guys born in the early to mid ’60s, say—Fabian admits, “everybody wanted to be Brad Pitt. Well, it turns out Brad Pitt had already taken that role. You have to learn to accept other people’s success and grab what you can along the way.”
And so Fabian kept grabbing, mostly one-offs (including a guest spot on Friends), with occasional recurring roles in between: Dharma & Greg, Will & Grace, Rizzoli & Isles—anything with an ampersand, apparently—Desperate Housewives, Boston Legal, three variations of the CSI franchise, and dozens of other shows whose names were forgotten as soon as they aired. He appeared in more than a dozen TV movies, and occasionally in commercials for the likes of JCPenney and Hyundai. He kept showing up, even when he didn’t think he had a shot, in case it landed him that coveted Guy Eaten By Zombie role somewhere down the road.
Because, as every working actor knows, you never know.
Howard Hamlin’s first appearance in Better Call Saul comes 25 minutes into its first episode; almost immediately, the show establishes the cocky, sharply dressed law firm partner (the personalized license plate on his Jaguar reads “NAMAST3”) as a foil to the show’s obnoxious, feloniously inclined but ultimately sympathetic lead. As the series goes on, circumstances reveal Howard’s arrogance as at least partly cover for his insecurities; he’s also shown to be loyal and trusting to a fault, and possessing a steadier moral compass than perhaps anyone else on the show. When Howard meets his fate—cluelessly and brutally—midway through the final season, he has turned the first impression on its head. By the end, no one deserves the viewer’s sympathy more than Howard.
Fabian had a lot to do with how that turned out.
Speaking with Entertainment Weekly in May, Better Call Saul co-creator Peter Gould explained how the actor helped steer his character’s arc simply by infusing him with a bit of his own personality. “Our view of Howard, as writers and as filmmakers, can’t help but be colored by how we see Patrick,” Gould said. “He is one of the nicest, sweetest, most talented, positive guys I’ve ever met in my life. In a weird way, I think Howard grows, and becomes a little bit more like Patrick.”
Fabian credits the writers for “giving Howard a new window into his emotional life, really, every season.” But he had a clear sense of how he wanted to approach the character: “What I really liked about Howard was, I thought he was a decent guy. I incorporated a lot of my father into Howard, in the posture; I think of my father as being the most honest man I know, and I thought Howard was like that, too. I think he tried to be as honest as possible.”
Howard’s wrong-place, wrong-time demise, which pushes the show through the second half of its final season to its almost universally acclaimed conclusion, allowed Fabian unexpected closure. “There’s nothing weirder than sitting on your couch watching your own memorial, that’s for sure,” he says. (The show used some of Fabian’s actual vacation photos as props in the memorial scene.) In the final handful of episodes, Howard is seen only as a dead body; afterward, Fabian explained to his parents that actors get paid even if they appear in an episode as a corpse.
Howard and the rest will live on in streaming immortality. The show’s place in TV history is seemingly secured: While the final episodes aired too late for 2022 Emmy con-sideration (expect a slew of nominations next year), the series ended with a 96% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 99% rating on the site’s “top critics” survey. In August, longtime NPR TV critic David Bianculli deemed the collective work of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul “the best drama series yet presented on television.”
Residuals will help pay his bills, but they will not fill Fabian’s days. During a break in filming Saul, he starred in the 2017 indie film DriverX, and he’s got roles in a couple of upcoming studio films. He executive produced the indie film Jess Plus None, directed by his wife, a role he says mostly consisted of “making coffee, washing dishes, and going to Costco.” And, for the first time since landing Saul, he’s back to auditioning regularly, adapting to an industry permanently altered by the pandemic—the days of in-person readings are all but over—and to the passage of time. “In seven years, which is how long I’ve sort of been off the market, things have changed,” he says. “I’m on the wrong side of 50. All of a sudden, I’m going in for the dad role. As I should.”
Auditioning now means a bedsheet tacked up over a bookcase, and a tripod-mounted iPhone in place of casting directors. He misses the nervous energy of a crowded waiting room, of pacing hopefuls running lines in their heads. But this is the job now. He’ll keep showing up.