In the mid-1960s, Jonathan Banks stepped onto IU’s campus. Having grown up on the northeast side of Washington D.C., he said coming to school felt like paradise.
“I thought I’d come to a resort,” he said. “I thought this was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. And you know what? My opinion never changed. I love this place.”
Nearly 50 years later, Banks was invited back to his alma mater to receive an honorary doctoral degree.
Banks’ acting career has spanned the past five decades. Recently, he received recognition playing Mike Ehrmantraut in “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.”
Today, he is speaking at the IU Cinema as part of the annual IU Day celebrations.
However, his schooling at IU almost never happened.
His grandfather highly valued education, he said.
“He was forced to drop out of school in the sixth grade, while his itinerant preacher father went out and saved souls and made him run the farm,” he said. “Education was everything to him.”
Eventually, his grandfather began working in the limestone quarries and helped lay Franklin Hall, he said.
With the money earned, he said his grandfather paid for all of his kids to go to college, except for his youngest, Banks’ mother.
After trying to put herself through IU, Banks said his mother became anemic.
“It was basically shorthand for that she was starving,” he said.
Eventually, the University found a job for his mother with the Department of the Navy, he said.
Growing up in the home of a single mother who was going to school, he said he spent most of his time on the streets of D.C.
Banks said he wasn’t a bad kid, but the streets taught him a lot.
After graduating high school in 1966, he was prepared to join the service with his friends, he said.
However, after his mom begged him to try going to college, he was convinced to come to IU to study theater.
“I wouldn’t have come to school at all if theater hadn’t been in my life,” he said.
Because of his upbringing, Banks said moving to IU was not as frightening as students played it up to be.
“Was I confused about where I was going?” he said. “Yeah, but I was a kid that used to get on the buses when I was eight years old in Washington D.C., and travel all over and meet my mother after she finished work.”
Outside of his classwork, Banks said he would go swimming, play intramural sports and chase girls for fun.
He said exploring campus was his favorite activity.
“Everything was here,” he said. “I used to love to just walk around. I never got tired of the Jordan.”
Beyond campus, Banks said he would spend his weekends at McCormick’s Creek State Park, Brown County State Park and Turkey Run State Park.
Going to school during the Vietnam War, Banks said campus was often host to protests.
“That war became so odious to me that, yeah, I protested that war,” he said. “It was just a total abuse, in my opinion, of young men’s patriotism. We were the sons of guys who fought in World War II.”
From his freshman year until today, Banks said he cannot believe the kindness he has received from the school.
Although he doesn’t remember the names of many of his old professors, he said several of them gave him acting advice he will never forget.
“I had a theater professor who was working on her doctorate,” he said. “She looked at me one time, and she said, ‘Less. Less.’ And that ‘less’ has served me in my career for the last 50 years.”