“Solly’s Diner”: Larry Hankin’s Oscar-nominated live-action short (1979)

By on June 19, 2015

“Solly’s Diner” is probably my best known short film. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best live-action short in 1979, back when short films were so expensive that wanna-be directors couldn’t afford to make them as a way to getting a green light from the movers and shakers to make a feature film.

Actually, I didn’t want to direct or make films. I wanted to see my character, Sometimes Jones, up on a screen. As simple as that. Just sit and watch him.

To me, “Solly’s Diner” was just an experiment in acting (and comparatively, “Solly’s” was done for very little money: $10,000; but it took me almost a year to save it up and we had to put the short (9 minutes) together in sections: save up money, shoot principle photography; shut down, save up, edit picture; shut down, save up, do the music and SFX; shut down, etc… A year and 9 minutes goes by pretty slowly that way.

“Solly’s” came about because an actress friend of mine, Anna Mathias, told me that her husband, cinematographer Harry Mathias, wasn’t getting any feature work and he thought having a short film on his reel might be just the thing to get directors to hire him. She introduced us and he asked me to write a film short that would be cheap to make, that I would star in and direct, and Matthias, Hankin, and Jay Zukerman – a friend of Harry’s, would produce: (“Jay’s good with money,” Harry promised – and he was excellent. We just were bad at making realistic budgets).

At the time, I’d had been kicking around an idea for a funny, homeless character that called himself Sometimes Jones (in my mind, like Charlie Chaplin). My actual, realized film character was nothing like Chaplin’s “little tramp.” But in those days, I didn’t pay attention to the fact that Chaplin was a little guy and I was 6′ 4″: Chaplin’s character was homeless and so was Jones – close enough.

We began.The plot involved Jones holding up a diner for one hamburger and ends with him being a genuine hero by saving the diner and the waitress from a much larger crime.

It was inspired by a diner owned by Solly Thompson, a real-life Short-order chef from Oklahoma who had just bought a diner on Hollywood Blvd., right around the corner from where I lived: on Gramercy Place, one block west of Western Avenue. I ate at Solly’s diner every day as I only had a hot plate in my little apartment and Solly’s was real cheap and he’d piled on the semi-hemi-demi-okay food as he wasn’t moving it much, and I was only eating one and occasionally two meals a day as my acting jobs were few and Solly assumed I loved his cooking because I ate there so much.

My Sometimes Jones idea became a reality when Matthias swore he could produce it for $5,000 dollars in three days, and Solly agreed to close his diner for the shoot in exchange or $300 a day (the place was averaging $50 a day in business at the time and struggling to stay open).

I started saving my TV and movie paychecks (thankfully I started to get a few good roles) and in six months a put $5,000 in cash in a paper bag, knocked on Harry’s door, handed him the bag and said, “Now what?” Harry didn’t even blink. He just said, “Get your cast together. We shoot in two weeks.”

I called two friends for the 3-person little short and two weeks later we were filming at Solly’s. One full day ended up being wasted because the camera was out of register, we begged Solly for an extra day — he raised the price to $400 — cool — and we finished principle photography. But we’d spent the whole $5,000 on just the principle photography (due to no fault of Harry’s friend, Jay, Harry was just bad at budgets): so we just shut down for another three months while I saved up another $5,000 to do the post work and it was done. Finally.

Then, two weeks before we showed the first finished print to the cast and crew, Solly sold the diner and moved back to Oklahoma and the next owner turned Solly’s Diner into a video arcade. I’ve never been able to track Solly down and to this day I don’t know if he’s ever seen “Solly’s Diner.”

After the nomination, there were tons of producers contacting me about “My Feature Project,” which I didn’t have, nor did I know you were supposed to have. “That’s why you make the short: to sell the feature,” said one producer. I’d spent about nine or ten months on “Solly’s Diner,” I was starting get acting jobs regularly so it was hard to find the time to write again, and by the time I did write a feature screenplay, two years had gone by and the movers and shakers who contacted me were all in the middle of another project, had a lot on their plate, had too much on their plate, changed their job specs, retired, or were making deals in on The Other Side.

Larry Hankin
Marina Del Rey,
6.16.15

P.S.: And then there’s the neighborhood movie venue “Solly’s” had to show in to qualify for The Oscars — a pornographic movie theater on Santa Monica Blvd. — and actually going to the Oscars. But that’s a whole other story.

HANKIN 5

About Larry Hankin

Larry Hankin is a writer, performer, director, producer and Oscar-nominee - and one of Hollywood’s most recognizable faces in the world of character actors. A graduate of “Second City”, an original member of “The Committee”, Larry has gone on to play roles in such diverse projects as “Laverne and Shirley”; Charlie Butz in "Escape From Alcatraz": the convict Clint Eastwood left behind. He stole the raisins on "Seinfeld"; he was Mr. Heckles, The downstairs neighbor on "FRIENDS"; on "Breaking Bad", Larry was the junkyard owner who destroyed the "Meth" Winebego and supplied the huge electro-magnet this season.   Larry's been seen in over 120 other TV shows and movies along the way, including Michael Bey’s: "Pain & Gain" with Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (“In the film, my character ultimately gets the crap beat out of him by Dwayne Johnson, and I consider it a milestone and an honor in my acting career”, Larry was quoted as saying). But comedic storytelling is where his heart lies: all along, Larry's also been writing short, satiric fables which he‘s been turning into film shorts (30, at present), then directing and starring in them as “Emmett Deemus”, an old, street savvy homeless poet. In Larry’s first film short: “Solly’s Diner,” he introduced his younger, comedic street character, “Sometimes Jones” to audiences here and abroad and was nominated for an Academy Award.   Larry's written and starred over 30 of his own shorts – including Larry's second incarnation of his Sometimes Jones character: Emmett Deemus: basically Don Quixote on a motorcycle: a heroicly inclined, odd elderly biker on a battered old motorcycle with a sidecar: ”The Outlaw Emmett Deemus”. At present, Larry's writing a feature and TV series for Emmett. -xxx-