As a child growing up poor in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, Hank Garrett, a son of Russian immigrants, was headed for trouble. Worried about the gang he was hanging around with, his concerned mother begged a local politician, who was a customer at her fruit stand, to intervene.

“He took me to the Apollo Theater to Sammy Davis Jr.’s dressing room. Sammy said, ‘So you’re a tough guy? Well, you’re either going to go to prison or you’re going to die,’” Hank, 89, exclusively recalls to Closer Weekly, on newsstands now. With Sammy’s help, young Hank got a job setting up the stage for a big band, which put him on a path to the life of a comedian and character actor. Though Hank is best known for playing Officer Ed Nicholson on Car 54, Where Are You?, his many other credits include popular TV shows and films like Serpico, Death Wish and The Amityville Horror. Along the way, Hank has accumulated fascinating showbiz stories about Robert Redford, Elvis Presley, Audrey Hepburn and more, as well as some valuable life lessons. He relates them in a new memoir, From Harlem Hoodlum to Hollywood Heavyweight, out now.

So how old were you when Sammy Davis Jr. set you straight?

Twelve. He said he saw something in me. I don’t know what that was. I guess he felt sorry for me because Sam was also from Harlem. My feeling is that God sent me an angel, and that was Sammy.

Did you ever get the chance to tell Sammy how he changed your life?

Yes. Some 20 years later, I was on stage at the Sands. I was doing comedy as Tony Bennett’s opening act. Ringside were Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. [Later] Sammy said to me, “You’re a funny cat, man. But where do I know you from? You look so familiar.” We ended up hugging, and we both cried. It was a funny feeling as people walked by seeing two men sobbing!

Of course, you became famous playing Officer Nicholson on Car 54. Is it true that you almost became a police officer in real life?

I always had a lot of anger for the cops because of the way we were treated on the street. The assumption was if you were on the street, you were a hoodlum. And if you’re a hoodlum, you must be doing something unlawful. So I thought I could make a difference. I went to the police academy, but I was fighting the system. I found that I couldn’t, although I tried very hard.

How did you get the job on Car 54?

A friend of mine got me the interview. It was with [producer] Nat Hiken, who was a very unassuming guy. He said, “Sit down,” and then not another word. I kept waiting for him to say something. Then he said, “You’re Ed Nicholson.” I said, “No, I’m Hank Garrett.” He said, “Just the dummy I am looking for. Ed Nicholson is the character!”

That’s so funny! Did you enjoy working on the show?

I kept saying, When am I going to wake up? It was an amazing dream. I was recognized everywhere I went. Car 54 is still being shown.

Hank Garrett Sammy David Jr.

Did anything funny ever happen while you were filming the show?

One time, Al Lewis, who played my partner, and I were on a break in the Bronx. So we walked into an Italian deli in uniform. The guy makes the sandwiches, and when we go to pay, he said, “I like to give my food away.” So we say thank you. It was June, but on our way out the door, he yells, “Merry Christmas, officers!”

Is it true that you broke Robert Redford’s nose while filming the fight scene in Three Days of the Condor?

Yes, he slipped and came at me headfirst. My elbow caught him square in the face. I thought, “That’s it. I will never work again.”

Did he blame you?

He called me that night and said, “Hank, wait till you see the fight scene. It’s the best ever. By the way, you broke my nose.” But he also said, “Don’t worry about it. My nose has been broken many times. It doesn’t matter.”

And you once fought Elvis Presley! How did that happen?

When I was appearing at the Sands, I got a call from one of Elvis’ people [who heard]
I was a martial artist. Elvis rented one of the halls at the Sands for us to spar. He said, “Sensei, please don’t hit me in the face because I have a show to do tonight.” He was excellent and a gentleman. Very, very sweet, humble and respectful. We sparred and became friends.

Wow. Were there any celebrities whom you were really excited to meet?

Once, I was asked by my manager if I would like to make some extra money as a bodyguard for some star. A limo comes by, and I see a young woman. And, oh God, it’s Audrey Hepburn. We went to the Beverly Hills Hotel for a fundraiser. When we got to the event, she said, “Hank, you’re my date.” So we sat and had lunch, and they raised $25,000 for a children’s hospital. Later, the chauffeur took me back to my hotel. He told me, “You know, you haven’t stopped smiling from the minute you got in the car and saw Audrey.” My face was frozen in a big smile.

Why do you think you have had such great staying power in Hollywood?

God is good. I have no other explanation. I try my best, and I never say no to somebody who needs help. We’ve got a thing now called Hank’s Kids. We’re trying to get kids off the streets.

That’s so inspiring.

When I speak to kids that are incarcerated, I see myself and my son. My oldest had attention deficit and hyperactivity. He was always in trouble and wound up in prison.

He got out, got a job at Universal. With his first paycheck, he bought a motorcycle. He’s gone now. Killed in a motorcycle accident.

We’re so sorry. Why did you decide to write a memoir now?

So much had gone on in my life that I had forgotten about, but my wife Deanna-Marie kept saying let’s do this. And so I started to write.

What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned?

That God is good, and he doesn’t make mistakes. I tell kids that God sent me an angel and there is an angel waiting for you. But you’ve got to be ready to listen with your heart.

— Reporting by Amanda Champagne-Meadows

For more on this story, pick up the latest issue of Closer magazine, on newsstands now.