EXCLUSIVE: Hank Garrett has enjoyed a successful career in Hollywood that has spanned six decades — and he’s lived to tell the tale.
The actor recently released a memoir titled “From Harlem Hoodlum to Hollywood Heavyweight,” where he detailed his unlikely journey from the no-nonsense streets of New York City to the big screen thanks to the help of an unlikely entertaining legend. Garrett went on to appear in films, television, as well as open for Tony Bennett — a gig that lasted for four years.
Garrett, 89, spoke to Fox News about starring in the ‘60s sitcom “Car 54, Where Are You?” as well as breaking Robert Redford’s nose on set, escorting Audrey Hepburn and sparring with Elvis Presley, just to name a few.
Fox News: How did Sammy Davis Jr. of all people help you turn your life around? Hank Garrett: Well, you have to go back to the beginning. My parents were immigrants from Russia and had me late in their lives. They spent 15-16 hours a day selling fruits and vegetables from a pushcart. So they didn’t have a lot of time for me. I was on the streets of Harlem. I slept in cardboard boxes, myself and a couple of other kids. So my mother was crying to a man who was the mayor of Harlem because I was always getting myself into trouble.
He found me and slapped the cigarette out of my mouth. I didn’t know who this guy was. I was going to take a punch at him. Suddenly these two massive bodyguards came towards me. Then this man says, “Listen, your mother wants me to take you out now in New York.” If you tell someone in New York, “I’m going to take you out,” it means “I’m going to kill you.” So I said, “My mother put a contract out on me?” He goes, “You got a suit?” I said, “Yeah, I got a suit.” He says, “Go get it and take a bath before you put it on.”
I get dressed and he takes me to the Apollo Theater. In huge bold letters, it says, “Starring Sammy Davis Jr.” I didn’t know who he was. Well, we went right into his dressing room and the mayor says, “This is the kid I was telling you about.” Sammy Davis looks at me and goes, “So you’re the tough guy?” I say, “Yeah, I’m tough.” He responds, “You know, tough guys only wind up with broken bones and scars. The way you’re headed, you’re either going to end up in prison or die.” I just stared at him. Because he was so right. I was 12 and I had a gun in my pocket.
Fox News: What happened after Sammy Davis Jr. gave you this stern warning? Garrett: He got me a job with an all African American band… It kept me busy and off the streets. And my mother had more money than she had ever seen before. Sammy Davis Jr. was really my angel. And eventually, I learned to be a comic. Because of Sammy, I got to be Tony Bennett’s opening act at the Catskills.
About 20 years later, I found myself standing on stage at the Sands in Las Vegas. I looked at the audience and ringside, there was Frank Sinatra, Peter Lawford, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. I finished the show. Frank gave me a standing ovation. The entire audience stood up because when Frank stands, everyone else does.
I remember Sam approached me and said, “You’re a funny cat. But where do I know you from? You look so familiar.” I said, “Sam, I’m the kid that you said was going to go to prison or die.” His eyes widened. “Is that really you?” We hugged. We are two grown lads but we’re hugging each other and crying like children. I still see him as my angel.
Fox News: You eventually starred in “Car 54, Where Are You?” What was your relationship like with the cast? Garrett: Oh my God, it was great… A friend of mine, who was a comedian, his wife was Nat Hiken’s secretary. He was the creator of the show. So they got me an audition. I remembered Nat looked at me and said, “You’re Ed Nicholson.” I said, “No, no, I’m Hank Garrett.” He said, “Just the kind of dummy I’m looking for, you’re hired!” And that’s how it started. I was just a kid at the time, really. At one point we were the hottest show on television.
Fox News: You somehow ended up in a brutal fight with Robert Redford. What happened there? Garrett: *Laughs* We were filming “Three Days of the Condor.” I played a CIA assassin disguised as a mailman… We had this fight where there was mineral oil all over the floor. I’m supposed to do this simple sweep over my knee. He slips all over the oil and came at me headfirst. And I came around with my elbow. The next thing you know, I end up hitting him right in the nose with my elbow. My reaction was “Oh dear God, no.” There’s blood coming out of his nose. I’m thinking it’s all over for me, but we continued from there.
Robert calls me later that night and I’m thinking, “Great, I’m out of a job.” But instead, he tells me, “This is probably the greatest fight scene anywhere. Oh, and by the way, you broke my nose.” I’m laughing but he was actually serious. Now I’m really nervous. I blurted out “Oh God, I’m never going to work again!” Then he goes, “Oh don’t worry about it, my nose has been broken so many times, it doesn’t mean anything.” We became pals from there. And to this day, I’m still asked about that fight scene! He’s just an incredible guy to work with and very humble. And how do I thank him? By breaking his nose!
Fox News: You also met Elvis Presley. What was he like? Garrett: I was appearing at the Sands and a friend of mine, a fellow comedian working with Elvis, told him I’m a black belt. So I got a call from one of Elvis’ buddies. He traveled with this massive entourage. So this pal tells me, “Would you be interested in doing Elvis Presley the honor of sparring with him?” I said, “Sure, I’ll give the kid a break.” *Laughs*. He rented a hall and arrived with this huge group of people. He was wearing this suit that must have cost thousands of dollars. It was perfectly tailored and hand-sewn all over his body. One leg said “Elvis” and the other “Presley.” It was immaculate. And here I am, standing with my $1.95 outfit.
We looked at each other and he calls me “sensei,” which means “teacher.” I said, “Oh Elvis, you don’t have to call me that because we’re of equal rank.” And he says, “OK, sensei.” Then he goes, “Do me a favor, please. Don’t hit me in the face because I have a show to do tonight.” And I said, “Well, don’t hit me in my face because I, too, have a show tonight.” He responds, “Sensei, if I hit you in the face, it would be an improvement.” I said, “I’m going to kill you. You know that, right?” Then we spar. But he was wonderful. He was very, very good in fact. I’ve sparred with a lot of people and not many were as good as he was. But when we weren’t sparring, he was a gentleman at all times.
Fox News: At one point, you escorted Audrey Hepburn. What was that like? Garrett: I remember I got a call for a job as a bodyguard. I didn’t know who it was. I was just told that the job paid really well and I needed a tuxedo. I get picked up and we drive up to this beautiful mansion. The door opens and my jaw drops. I couldn’t believe it at first, but it was her. She said, “Hi, I’m Audrey” with this beaming smile. At that moment, I forgot to speak. We go to the Beverly Hills Hotel for a gala that was raising funds for children.
When we arrived, I saw all the other chauffeurs and bodyguards standing outside. One guy tells me, “You can go hang out over there.” But Audrey goes, “No, no, he’s with me.” So I walk in with her. I was going to stand in the back, but she goes, “Hank, come sit next to me.” I don’t think I stopped smiling the entire evening. She was so poise, sweet, gracious — everything you can imagine about Audrey Hepburn and more.
Fox News: You worked with Sophia Loren in 1979’s “Firepower.” How did you manage to not fall in love? Garrett: Good question *laughs*. I was playing a bad guy. We were filming a scene where O.J. Simpson is supposed to rescue Sophia. But he decided to play it his way. He grabbed my hair and slammed my head against the open edge of the door which cut me wide open. Down I go… She comes over and here I am lying on Sophia Loren’s lap. She has a towel and is blotting the blood. My then-wife, who was there, looks at me and I just see daggers shooting from her eyes. She goes, “Are you comfortable?” I go, “Well, I make a nice living.” *laughs*.
Well, my wife packed and got on the first plane… We were at odds but eventually reconciled. Then one evening, while we were walking on Madison Avenue, I see a door open at a little private hotel. Two guys in immaculate suits come out and look up and down the street. I say to myself, “Bodyguards.” Then another guy comes out with Sophia. She sees me and runs over! She tells me, “Oh my poor baby, how’s your head?” and hugs me. In the corner, I hear, “Taxi!”. Soon I got my divorce papers. No sense of humor *laughs*.
Fox News: Looking back, what do you think kept you going over the years? Garrett: I just remembered the streets. I remember growing up, I saw one kid trip and fall. Blood was gushing out of his head. Someone had shot him. Fired a rifle from a nearby roof. It could have been me. It scared the heck out of me. I have seen so much death… I wanted to make a difference. And I strongly believe God gave me this great opportunity to lead the life I have lived. And I wouldn’t have embarked on that journey without Sammy Davis Jr., my angel. He changed my life, changed my thoughts.
I lost a son in a motorcycle accident… It’s a pain no parent should ever endure. But now I share my story with other kids because I want to make a difference. I want to help turn lives around. You can achieve success, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t give back and help others. And I hope my story will inspire other kids like me to turn their lives around.