PASADENA, Calif. — The titular character in “Better Call Saul” used to have a 708 area code.
Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), the shady criminal lawyer in “Breaking Bad,” is really Jimmy McGill from Cicero.
“It all stemmed from the fact … that Bob in real life is from the Chicago suburbs,” co-creator Vince Gilligan said about the character’s origin story during the TV critics’ press tour Saturday.
The suburb’s notorious ties to lawbreaker Al Capone also helped in the decision to make it Jimmy’s hometown, Gilligan said. Ancient history played a role, too: Cicero was a renowned Roman Empire lawyer and orator. Anyone who’s watched “Breaking Bad” knows Saul is a smooth talker.
The hotly anticipated “Breaking Bad” prequel kicks off with a two-night premiere on AMC Feb. 8, following the midseason return of the network’s ratings juggernaut, “The Walking Dead.”
The series stars Berwyn-born Odenkirk as a struggling attorney in Albuquerque, six years before the man who goes on to adopt the name Saul Goodman meets the man who will change his life: future client Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin.
“Saul Goodman is not who he is,” Odenkirk said. “That’s a creation of his, as he tells Walter White the first time he meets him. It’s not my name, and this whole thing is a presentation. You are getting to meet who he is, sort of behind the scenes.”
Raised in La Grange before his family moved to Naperville when he was 5, Odenkirk (“Fargo,” “Mr. Show”) cut his comedic teeth in Chicago. He moved to the city to pursue sketch comedy acting and writing after graduating early from Naperville North High School and bouncing around a bunch of Midwestern colleges, including College of DuPage and Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
In the “Better Call Saul” pilot, we learn that McGill had quite the reputation in Cicero, where he got the nickname “Slippin’ Jimmy.” Slippin’ Jimmy was a young schemer with a knack for wiping out on patches of ice on Michigan Avenue and State Street, collecting a few thousand bucks in return for his pain and suffering.
The series also stars Michael McKean (Lenny on “Laverne & Shirley”) as Jimmy’s older brother, Chuck.
Other newcomers to the “Breaking Bad” universe include Rhea Seehorn (“Franklin & Bash,” “House of Lies”) and Patrick Fabian (“Big Love,” “Grey’s Anatomy”) as attorneys and Michael Mando (“Orphan Black,” “The Killing”) as criminal Nacho Varga.
“Breaking Bad” star Jonathan Banks is back, reprising his role as Mike Ehrmantraut. Gilligan and co-creator Peter Gould said more familiar faces will pop up over the course of the season.
“It allows the sky to be the limit in the sense that all the characters who are deceased when ‘Breaking Bad’ ends could theoretically show up,” Gilligan said. “Although Jesse (Aaron Paul) would be tricky because I think he would be in late middle school or maybe high school.”
Don’t hold your breath waiting for Walt, either. Gilligan and Gould said Mr. Chips-turned-Scarface won’t be making a cameo. At least not in the first season.
“We’re not saying it will never happen; we’re not saying it will happen,” Gilligan said, prompting Banks to pipe up: “Well, I’m saying it’s never going to happen.” (Banks also threw some shade on Cicero: “It’s Joey Mantegna’s town,” he quipped. “It’s a terrible town.”)
“Better Call Saul’s” freshman run spans 10 episodes that will air at 9 p.m. Mondays after the Sunday, Feb. 8 premiere. The already greenlit season two will be slightly longer at 13 episodes.
The series explores how Saul evolved into the “slippery, two-faced” strip-mall lawyer who first surfaced in the second season of ‘Breaking Bad,'” Gould said. “That wasn’t the guy who we’re starting with. There’s a lot more nuance to his ethics.”
Added Gilligan: “He wants to be good. But as you will see as the episodes progress, why does he want to be good? The question that we’re having fun with in the writers’ room is: Why is it better to be true to yourself? Because Slippin’ Jimmy, as you meet in that first episode, really waxes rhapsodic about the days when he used to be that guy before he was an attorney, and is it better to be true to oneself or is it better to be a good person? Or is there some mix of the two?”