Fifty-seven years ago, as a freshman at Columbia High School in White Salmon, Wash., Ernie Adams stumbled on the actor’s life following a bout of ill-advised flirting.

“I start chatting up this hottie who turned out to be our teacher,” says Adams, now 72. “Then, to make up for trying to impress her, I kept clowning around all year until I was about to flunk English.”

Noticing his flair for narration during class, she told Adams his only hope of passing required preparing a monologue for the Clark County speech meet. He took first place in three categories.

“That blew her away,” he says. “I could always read like a dickhead.”

Adams proved a natural thespian. It would take him only another half-century to land his big break.

Over the ensuing decades, Adams strung together a living through a series of odd jobs—“steak burner” at Sayler’s Country Kitchen, warehouse worker at Montgomery Ward, handyman for Bill Naito. In that time, the closest he came to show business was a brief gig as prop master for Rusty Nails’ pony shows at Alpenrose Dairy. A late-life enrollment at Portland State University furnished his portfolio with play credits, then a timely Craigslist post led to extra duty on local TV productions such as Grimm and Portlandia—and congestive heart failure.

“I was coming home from background work on Grimm when my heart just gave out,” Adams says. “They kept me in the hospital for about three days, getting my blood thick enough to put in the pacemaker.”

When he got home, he had a Facebook message from Portlandia director Jonathan Krisel, who asked Adams if he was interested in a recurring role on a new sitcom called Baskets starring Zach Galifiankis that Krisel was co-producing for FX. That’s how he ended up with the role of Eddie Haskins, the skinflint manager of a Bakersfield, Calif., rodeo. Adams didn’t even need to audition.

Though his character appeared only twice during the show’s second season, Adams celebrated his five-episode run in Season 3 by finally trading in his “leaky bucket”—a ’90s convertible whose top no longer closed, leaving inches of standing water on the floor following every rainfall—for a Porsche Boxster 987 with a vanity plate reading “BASKETS.”

As a loyal patron of the same taverns he frequented in leaner years, Adams says the flashy ride does help announce his changed circumstances among regulars at Montana’s Bar or Eastern Pearl who might be wary of red-carpet fabulists.

“A lot of people don’t believe me,” he laughs. “They think I’m a derelict or a senile old fart. Then, when they find out it’s all true—you know, they’re still not too happy.”

MORE