From Kearny to Hollywood: How Thomas Schnauz made it big on the small screen

By Kevin Canessa Jr.
Observer Correspondent

If you’re a fan of “Breaking Bad” — and let’s face it, you really should be — you’ve probably seen his name in the opening credits countless times. He’s a producer and writer for the series that in just a few short seasons, became one of the most popular TV shows in American history — and one of the most watched ever on cable TV.

His name is Thomas Schnauz, and until he was age 10, he called Kearny home. In the time since he lived here — Ann and Drew Taylor are his aunt and uncle and still live in Kearny — he’s gone on to be one of the most prolific TV writers of a generation. And yet, he still fondly recalls, to this day, many great memories of growing up in West Hudson.

“I spent a lot of time in Kearny when I was younger. I was born there and grew up on Highland Ave., and went to school through the fourth grade at Garfield Elementary,” Schnauz told The Observer exclusively. “Even after my mom, dad, sister and I moved to South Jersey when I was 10, I’d come back at Christmas and the summer to visit grandparents and friends. I don’t get back as much as I’d like (now). When my grandmother, Dorothy Yobs, moved down to South Jersey, that’s when my visits started to tail off. When I can take a detour between South Jersey and New York City, I try to get fish and chips on Kearny Ave.”

Making it big in Hollywood 

Schnauz says he realized he could make it in Hollywood around his junior year in college. That year, he left undergraduate studies at Rutgers for film school. After he finished film school, he took the bold step of moving to Los Angeles to take a shot at TV — and wouldn’t you know it, at the time, he knew Vince Gilligan, “Breaking Bad’s” creator, head writer and executive producer, before Gilligan was a huge name in the industry.

“I called him for advice, and my call came just as they were starting an ‘X-Files’ spinoff called ‘The Lone Gunmen,’” Schnauz said. “He told me to come up with some story ideas for the show and to come pitch them to the producers. I came up with six ideas, and luckily they liked one of them. They hired me to write that idea, and they liked the writing enough to put me on the staff. There was a lot of luck in the timing of that phone call. Another month later or earlier, who knows what would have happened?”


‘Breaking’ not so ‘bad’ at all 

It all happened perfectly for Schnauz, because his relationship with Gilligan led to his being hired ultimately to work with Gilligan — and actors Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul — on “Breaking Bad.”

“He (Gilligan) has a great sense of what makes a compelling and fun story,” Schnauz said. “Like I said, all of us writers get to pitch crazy ideas, but he has final say of what goes to the screen, and his choices are always fantastic.”

Schnauz says it was a thrill to see what he’d written put into action by Cranston, Paul and other “Breaking Bad” cast members.

“It’s one thing to write all of this crazy stuff, but it is so comforting as a writer to know that these actors will take what you’ve written and raise it to a level that you didn’t imagine,” Schnauz said. “I was so happy with the ‘End Times’ (episode) scene on the page, but to see what Bryan and Aaron did with it was just jaw-dropping. And it was always like that with them.

“They worked hard on every scene and dug things out that you didn’t realize were going to be there. The skill they have is amazing, plus you have the added bonus of them (being) fun to be around, so work was always a joy.”

After ‘Breaking Bad’? 

“Breaking Bad” fans have known for some time now that a prequel to the show, “Better Call Saul,” starring Bob Odenkirk, is set to debut in November on American Movie Classics (the same network “Breaking Bad” was on). The show will feature BB character Saul Goodman, the not-so-ethical attorney who was always protecting Walter White and Jesse Pinkman — only before they met the lawyer. Jonathan Banks, who played BB’s Mike Ehrmantraut, is also expected to be on the prequel.

Schnauz is currently in the midst of writing scripts for the show — and actually was doing just that when The Observer approached him for this story.

“It’s a prequel to ‘Breaking Bad,’ so we’re exploring what made Saul, Saul,” Schnauz said. “The tone will actually be similar to BB, but I think Bob Odenkirk is going to bring a comedy edge to even the most serious of scenes.”

The bottom line for Schnauz, however, is that for all of his recent success, he says all of it was possible because of the time he spent in Kearny.

“Kearny really shaped who I am as a person and I was sad when we left,” he said. “All my friends were there and my favorite school teachers were at Garfield. And I certainly had great summers playing kick the can and manhunt in the streets — and the best fish and chips I’ll ever have. I’m sorry so many of the shops are gone.”

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