Portland author Richard Russo’s novel “Straight Man” is being adapted into a TV series, with “Better Call Saul” star Bob Odenkirk in the lead role.

Richard Russo Photo by Barbara Russo

Russo said Thursday that he was “delighted” his 1997 novel about a college English professor’s midlife crisis could be made into a TV series and that the project is “moving forward.” But he declined to be interviewed or answer questions about it, saying he needs to focus on finishing his latest novel, the yet-to-be-titled third installment in his “Fool” series, following “Nobody’s Fool” (1993) and “Everybody’s Fool” (2016).

Russo had said in November that “Straight Man” was being considered for development as a TV series during a streaming interview  for “Maine Voices Live Waterville,” a virtual event put on by the Morning Sentinel, sister paper of the Portland Press Herald. But neither AMC nor the production companies involved publicly confirmed the project until Wednesday, when AMC posted a statement on its website saying it was “fast-track developing” the series to premiere in 2023 and that Odenkirk would star.

“Bob Odenkirk is just as good as it gets. We feel so fortunate to be developing a new show that would keep him at AMC after ‘Better Call Saul’ and ‘Breaking Bad,’ two iconic series that have been beloved by millions of fans and helped define AMC and its reputation for unforgettable characters and high-quality storytelling for adults,” Dan McDermott, president of entertainment and AMC Studios for AMC Networks, said in the statement.

People Bob Odenkirk

Bob Odenkirk Photo by Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP, File

Odenkirk called Russo’s novel “excellent” and “entertaining” in the AMC statement.

“This milieu (academia) seems very pertinent to the conversations we’re all having. I am drawn to the tone of humanity and humor in the novel, and I look forward to playing this role – something lighter than my recent projects but still closely observed and smart,” Odenkirk said in the statement.


“Better Call Saul” centers on a crooked criminal defense lawyer mixed up in the illegal drug trade. The show is a prequel to the series “Breaking Bad,” which centered on a high school chemistry teacher with a terminal illness who starts making and selling crystal meth.

Russo said he is not involved in the writing of the show being developed but is listed as an executive producer by AMC.

“Straight Man” would be the first of Russo’s novels to be made into a full-length TV series. “Nobody’s Fool” was made into a 1994 film starring Paul Newman, and Russo’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Empire Falls” was made into a two-episode miniseries for HBO, also starring Paul Newman, in 2005. “Empire Falls” was set in a fictional Maine mill town and was shot in Maine, with extensive filming in the Waterville and Skowhegan areas.

Russo, a native of Gloversville, New York, first came to Maine more than 30 years ago to teach English at Colby College in Waterville. Many of his books are set at least partly in gritty factory towns based on Gloversville, including “Mohawk,” “The Risk Pool,” “Nobody’s Fool” and “The Bridge of Sighs.” He says “Empire Falls” is also based on his hometown, though he set it in Maine. Russo quit teaching in the mid-90s to write full time.

Russo has described “Straight Man” as a story filled with “town and gown” tensions at a fictional Pennsylvania college located in a hardscrabble railroad town. The story is told by William Henry Devereaux Jr., the somewhat reluctant interim chair of the college’s English department. It’s filled with hilarious moments, including Devereaux’s appearance on local TV in a disguise – fake nose and glasses – threatening to kill a duck a day until the English department gets its budget approved.

“The novel’s greatest pleasures derive not from any blazing impatience to see what happens next, but from pitch-perfect dialogue, persuasive characterization and a rich progression of scenes, most of them crackling with an impudent, screwball energy reminiscent of Howard Hawks’ movies,” Tom De Haven wrote in a New York Times review when the book came out.


During his Maine Voices Live Waterville interview, Russo said that most of “Straight Man” was written by the time he came to Colby. He said much of the material in the book about how a college English department functions – or doesn’t – came from his time teaching at Southern Illinois University and Southern Connecticut State University.

But he did base one character on a colleague at Colby, who was known at staff meetings for often correcting and chastising people when they used a male pronoun. So if somebody said “he,” this department member would say, “or she,” Russo recalled. The character in the book is Campbell “Orshee” Wheemer.

“Most of the stuff came from other campuses, other English departments, but they’re all the same,” Russo said.

Russo said during the interview that he knew the book was being developed as a possible series and that producer Mark Johnson, who was also connected to “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” would be involved. He said he was told the series would be set in the present day, even though Russo’s own teaching experiences that inspired the book had happened more than 25 years ago. He said he thought the peculiar and funny workings of a college English department could be easily updated.

“The academic lunacy, it needs to be updated a little, but it’s still there. It’s still a feature of English departments,” Russo said.

Odenkirk was filming the final season of “Better Call Saul” in July when he suffered a heart attack. Odenkirk told The New York Times that he had known since 2018 about plaque buildup in his heart, but at least one doctor told him treatment could wait. The plaque was removed, and by September, he was back on the “Better Call Saul” set. That show’s final season is scheduled to begin airing April 18 on AMC.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.