While Nalbandian had appeared in over 50 movies and TV shows, he still never quit his day job. During his long, dual career you could see Nalbandian on TV in such films as American Graffiti (1973) or So I Married an Axe Murderer (1993), and then spot him working at his flower stand on Geary and Stockton by Union Square most days of the week.
“They all get a kick seeing me out here and they all quote the lines,” Nalbandian said about being recognized at the flower stand for his movie roles in a 2006 interview. “They know the lines and I’ve forgotten them.”
Al Nalbandian’s father, Paul Nalbandian arrived in San Francisco in 1915 after fleeing the Turkish massacre of 1.5 million Armenians that year, a grim chapter in history known commonly as the Armenian Genocide. The elder Nalbandian started selling flowers on the streets near the Powell Street Cable Car turnaround. Selling flowers back then was akin to food trucks today: it was a somewhat illegal enterprise that gradually became a legitimate part of the city’s commercial landscape. In the early 20th Century, there were over 160 flower stands in the city, but only a handful are left scattered around downtown today.
Al’s mother, Ardemis Ziazan Hinaekian, was the surviving member of an Armenian intellectual family. “Because of her, the family was always interested in art and culture,” Nalbandian said in a 1982 San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle story. Al’s sister, Dr. Louise Nalbandian taught Armenian studies at University of California Los Angeles and Fresno State until she died in a car crash in 1974.
Al’s brother, Harvey Nalbandian (Nov. 20, 1924-July 29, 2014), took over their father’s original flower stand on Powell Street, and Al bought his stand on Geary Street from a relative in 1944. While Al had studied drama at the University of San Francisco around the same time, he learned as much about acting from the street scenes he observed every day at the flower stand.
“When you’re at the stand, you’re on stage, you’re playing a role,” Nalbandian explained in 1982. “I can fall into my dramatic characters because I’ve seen these people on the street, felt their humanity.”
Nalbandian took frequent breaks from the flower business to drive down to Los Angeles for auditions “if there was a possibility of a part.”
Nalbandian soon landed roles in several 1950s TV courtroom dramas as well as such films as The Raging Tide (1951) with Shelly Winters, and The Story of Will Rogers (1952).
Nalbandian’s probably best-known film role came as Hank the diner owner in American Graffiti, a film directed by a young George Lucas, and produced by Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola. Nalbandian went on to appear in four more Coppola films after that: The Conversation (1974) with Gene Hackman, Peggy Sue Got Married (1986), Tucker: the Man and His Dream (1988), and Jack (1996) where he got to ad-lib with Robin Williams.
“When you work with a few directors you appreciate the better ones and he’s one of the best,” Nalbandian said of Coppola.
While juggling the film and flower businesses, Nalbandian also amassed a large collection of Armenian art and manuscripts including calligraphy by author William Soroyan. Nalbandian’s collection was extensive enough to supply an exhibition of the works of French Armenian painter Edgar Chahine at the Legion of Honor in 1976.
In what is now a final public appearance (in addition to the ones continued to make ever day at his flower stand), Nalbandian took the stage at the Castro Theatre for a screening of Once a Thief (1965) at the Noir City Film Festival on January 25.
“They used to make pictures in this town,” Nalbandian told the large crowd of movie buffs. “Now all they make is condos.”
A few moments later, Nalbandian was splashed across the screen playing a dope pusher in the black and white heist flick from 52 years ago.
After the screening, Al posed for selfies in the lobby with his new fans. He continued to get recognized at the flower stand for days after that.