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Cameos on episodes of FX’s Louie are typically limited to A-list comedic friends of Louis C.K.‘s, such as Chris Rock, Sarah Silverman and Jerry Seinfeld. But the show’s season-five premiere Thursday night featured a relatively obscure New Yorker: a banjo player whose expert picking in Washington Square Park inspires C.K. to attend a potluck following a depressing therapy session.
That one-man band is 37-year-old Morgan O’Kane, who has busked on the streets of New York since 2008. While singing and playing the banjo, he uses his feet to bang a tambourine and a bass-drum pedal rigged to a suitcase. C.K. told O’Kane that because so many musicians imitate his style, it was difficult to track him down for the part after the comedian lost a CD he had bought from O’Kane years ago.
“He seemed happy that he found me,” O’Kane tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I don’t watch that much TV, but I love Louis C.K.; he’s hilarious. So he asked me to do it. Then I watched a bunch of the episodes before I went in there.”
Says C.K., “I saw Morgan many times playing on The High Line and had never seen anyone that sounded just like him. His voice, the banjo and his innovative suitcase drum could have come from any century. Also he’s a great guy.”
O’Kane hasn’t seen the new episode yet but remembers the shoot well. “He said, ‘Play whatever you want,’ ” he recalled, referring to C.K.’s direction. O’Kane played a single take of “Compass Rose” from his 2014 album, The One They Call the Wind, on a day after a blizzard hit the Northeast in late January. “It was so cold out that my fingers really couldn’t move very much, and it’s totally hard to sing when it’s 10 degrees outside,” he says. “So I picked that song because it was easy to play for me. A little repetitive, so I didn’t have to move my fingers that much.”
Adds C.K., “He came into the studio and recorded pieces for us to use in editing, though most of the music was recorded on location. As soon as we started filming him in the park, I knew his music would be used throughout the episode, and I had his drumbeat in my head as I walked around each scene.”
The song served as the episode’s score, punctuating moments like C.K. frying chicken for the potluck and, later, having sex with a pregnant stranger.
O’Kane, who lives in a trailer park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, has recorded three albums for the Canadian label Dollartone Records. (Ironically, he’s not allowed in Canada, which deported him when he was 19 after “a scuffle with police,” as he told Narrative.ly in 2013.) He plays folk and bluegrass music with a punk twist, a sound his producer calls “Himalaychia,” and is a vocal opponent of mountaintop mining for coal.
O’Kane was a runaway at 16, when he hopped his first train from his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia. He spent the next several years traveling the country by rail and squatting where he could until arriving in Brooklyn in 1999. But he didn’t discover music until he fell from a roof and broke both feet while painting a house. He spent a year teaching himself the banjo while confined to a wheelchair.
He has a young son with his former girlfriend, the musician Domino Kirke, the sister of actress Jemima Kirke from HBO’s Girls. The two remain “best friends,” says O’Kane.
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