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Jonathan Banks’s IU Roots Run Deep

Jonathan Banks in Better Call Saul
In 2015, Jonathan Banks, who played Mike Ehrmantraut in Better Call Saul, won the Critics Choice TV Award for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. “I’ve been fortunate enough over the past several years to work with some of the most wonderfully talented people," he said during his acceptance speech. "I thank the critics very much. It means a great, great deal to me.”

Jonathan Banks’s grandfather laid the foundation of Indiana University—literally. Henry Sherman Adams, a farmer and limestone cutter, helped cut and lay the stone for what is now Franklin Hall (formerly the campus library) and Bryan Hall.

“He loved IU,” says Banks, LHD’16. “As much as I think Breaking Away is a good movie, I think it would have upset him very much—the idea that there was a difference between townies and students. From everything I’ve heard, the town could not have been prouder than they were and are of this school. There was not that division.”

Henry Sherman Adams also had a reverence for education.

“[My great-grandfather] was a preacher, and he made his two boys drop out of school and run the farm,” Banks explains.

The effect on his grandfather, Banks says, was that he developed a deep respect for education—he understood that it was a path to opportunities that had not been afforded him.

“Education was everything to my [grandfather],” Banks says. “That was certainly instilled in my mother, Elena, and passed on to me.”

Jonathan Banks with daughter at IU graduation
Jonathan Banks with his daughter Rebecca Banks at IU’s winter Commencement in 2016. Rebecca, now a production coordinator for Pixar Animation Studios, crossed paths professionally with her dad in 2020. “I was working on a Nickelodeon show called The Casagrandes and was able to work with my dad,” she says. “I suggested he voice one of our show’s characters—and voila!” Image courtesy of Rebecca Banks.

Banks has since passed it on to his children. Two of them—Ruth Garcia Gonzalez, BA’04, and Rebecca Banks, BA’16—are IU alumni.

“[My dad] talked about IU all the time [when I was a kid]. For him, IU was more than a school. It opened a whole world of possibility for him,” Rebecca says. “[During my] first visit to campus, we walked from the theater building—taking bridges and side trails—to the Sample Gates. It’s one of my favorite memories with my dad.”

Matriarch Moves

Following her father’s death in 1934, Emma Elena “Billie” (Adams) Banks, BS’45, worked alongside her mother, Myrtle Mae (Butcher) Adams, as a housekeeper at a Methodist parsonage.

She began attending Indiana University in 1939, but her schooling was put on pause for a secretarial job in Washington, D.C., ahead of WWII. IU found Elena a job in the Navy Department. She became Admiral Wilson’s private secretary and intermittently assisted Chester Nimitz, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Emma Banks
Emma Elena (Adams) Banks’s IU yearbook photo. “Growing up, [my grandmother] used to write me handwritten letters. They would usually include personal stories about her childhood or the natural landscape of Indiana,” Rebecca Banks says. “I remember her talking about the beauty of Bloomington in the fall. She would describe the fall colors with such detail. I felt like I was really there. I remember my first year at IU when the leaves changed. I sat outside the Union, taking it all in. I felt so close to her [in that moment]. It was about a year after her passing.” Photo courtesy of the Arbutus.

“She was a wiz at typing and shorthand,” Jonathan says. “She could type 125 words a minute. She spent Dec. 7, 1941, and most of Dec. 8, as the reports from Pearl Harbor came in, pulling the officers’ jacket [numbers] so Admiral Wilson could write personal letters to the families [of the deceased].”

After the war, Elena returned to Bloomington, Ind., to complete her degree. She eventually returned to the Washington, D.C., area, where she raised Jonathan.

“At some point in the ’50s, my mom went to work for the CIA, where she ran the secretarial pool,” says Jonathan, who describes his late mother as someone who could always see the beauty in life but had a “temper that would melt the paint off the wall.”

Elena had little patience for male misbehavior in the workplace. She was protective of the women she supervised and encouraged them to call out unwanted attention.

“She taught her girls that if someone came up behind them, they should throw their elbows straight back, stand up, and in a very direct voice say, ‘Mr. Smith that is not appropriate.’ And to do it loud enough so that it was heard,” Jonathan explains. “If it went past that moment, it wasn’t going to go in the girl’s favor. That was the power that a man had back then.”

East Coast Raised

Jonathan grew up in Chillum Heights, Md.—a place he says was nothing like the Garden District of Washington, D.C.

“It could be dangerous at times,” he says. “Not many people were motivated to get up and see the world.”

Jonathan Banks yearbook photo
Jonathan Banks’s IU yearbook photo. Photo courtesy of the Arbutus.

While his mom worked all day and went to school at night, Banks could often be found at the movie theater. He fell in love with films such as Peter Pan, Singin’ in the Rain, and Zorba the Greek.

Before making the decision to attend IU and study theater, Banks nearly enlisted in the Marine Corps, along with his friends.

“[My mom] begged me to at least try school,” he says. “When I got to Indiana University, my first reaction was, ‘I’m in a resort.’ The creeks, the bridges, the chapel, and the beautiful girls, I thought, ‘Oh my God.’”

When asked if he regrets not joining the military, Banks’s answer is simple.

“I do,” he states. “My friends who went to Vietnam carried my shit. Did I agree with [the war]? I didn’t. But if it hadn’t been for my mother, I would have been there.”

Stage Presence

No surprise, Banks spent most of his time at IU on the theater stage. One of his favorite performances was as the “street singer” in The Threepenny Opera. The role was double cast—Banks shared it with fellow Hollywood actor Kevin Kline, BA’70, LHD’14. Kline could be seen playing the part during Friday night performances, while Banks took the stage on Saturday nights.

The blossoming actor attended IU for two years before he “assisted in a pregnancy.”

“We were young,” Banks says. “We weren’t seeing each other anymore and we didn’t know what to do. I had to drop out of school [in 1968] and go to work.” His first daughter, Joanna, was born in 1969.

It wasn’t until 1974 that Banks moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. His first big break, a role in Beverly Hills Cop, arrived a decade later. In 1989, he was nominated for his first Emmy after starring in Wiseguy.

“I’ve made my living playing hard asses,” says Banks, who’s best known for his role as Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.

Brown Country Playhouse playbill
Banks’s first paid gig as an actor was a production of Summer and Smoke at the Brown County Playhouse in the summer of 1968. It was here that he received an acting note that he would never forget. “The direction was ‘less,'” he recalls. “I believe that with all my heart. It doesn’t mean that I don’t know how to be big, but the camera picks up everything.”

The IU alum attributes “a long life” to his successful portrayals of criminals, hitmen, and hard-nosed detectives.

“I do think if you’ve lived a long time, you’re carrying a lot of stuff in your soul, your heart,” he explains, “You’ve seen some bad things. You’ve hurt people. You’ve been hurt. It serves you well when you [play certain] characters.”

But embracing these villain-type roles can come at an emotional cost.

In the 1991 film Don’t Touch My Daughter, Banks played a child molester.

“I pretty much will do any role,” he says, “But it would give me pause if that came along again. There’s no redeeming quality of someone who tortures a child. I had to [actively] shake off that character.”

IU is Home

Despite his busy filming schedule as one of Hollywood’s top supporting actors, Banks returns to his alma mater at least once a year.

In 2016, former IU President Michael A. McRobbie, DSc’21, presented Banks with an honorary degree. Three years later, the actor was presented with a Bicentennial Medal.

Jonathan Banks at IU speaking event
Banks speaking to a group at the Lee Norvelle Theatre and Drama Center on the IU Bloomington campus in 2019 before being presented with a Bicentennial Medal. Photo courtesy of IU Theatre & Dance.

Note written by Jonathan Banks
During a campus visit in 2016, Banks asked Hutton Honors College students to write “thank you” notes to IU Landscape Services. “We wrote about 50 notes to the grounds crew,” Banks says. “The head of horticulture sent me a message [and said] that they read them all at a picnic.” Banks’s note (pictured) said: Dear people of the garden, you are great. Everything is beautiful!

His long-standing friendship with the IU Cinema often brings him back to IU for special appearances, where he offers students advice and shares stories from his career. But Banks’s talks always end the same way—with a love letter to IU Bloomington.

“There isn’t a time that I’ve walked through campus and it didn’t heal me. I feel very at home there,” he said during a virtual event in 2020. “I’ve drawn aces my whole life. The best ace I might have drawn was being able to go to Indiana University. I owe IU a lot.”

Written By

Samantha Stutsman

Samantha Stutsman, BAJ'14, is a Bloomington, Ind., native and a senior content specialist at the IU Alumni Association.

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