Taking just wacky to whacked-out

Times Staff Writer

Bryan Cranston, best known as the buffooinsh dad from “Malcolm in the Middle,” is back on the domestic front in AMC’s new “Breaking Bad,” marking his latest foray into playing fathers who really don’t know best.

In addition to being locked in midlife crisis mode, the actor’s two offbeat dad portrayals have something else in common: They both favor briefs over boxers. In the opening moments of “Breaking Bad,” which could easily be confused with a “Malcolm” outtake, Cranston’s frantic Walter White is in his underwear, a gas mask and little else, driving a recreational vehicle wildly down a desert road.

“Yeah, I keep going back to the tighty-whiteys,” said Cranston.

But unlike “Malcolm,” the plight of Cranston’s character in “Breaking Bad” is anything but a laughing matter. White, a financially strapped chemistry professor with a growing family, learns he has inoperable lung cancer. His subsequent partnership with a former student to make and sell crystal meth for a quick windfall leads to a domino effect of disastrous mishaps.


“Breaking Bad” represents a significant test for AMC in its quest to secure a new identity as a cable venue that combines its known classic film lineup with higher-end original programming that can compete with edgy fare on HBO, Showtime and FX. That strategy gained a huge boost this week when “Mad Men,” the network’s original series, nabbed a Golden Globe for outstanding drama series.

The series also marks a career turning point for Cranston as he moves from supporting player on a sitcom to a dramatic leading man who is in almost every scene. It’s quite a turnaround for the actor, who was largely overshadowed during his “Malcolm” stint by costar Jane Kaczmarek, who played Lois, his loud, no-nonsense wife.

Though Cranston scored three Emmy nominations, Kaczmarek drew the most attention, earning nominations for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series each year of the show’s seven-season run (she never won). While drawing positive notice, Cranston knew that Kaczmarek and Frankie Muniz, who played young genius Malcolm, were the breakout stars. He stayed philosophical and supportive, embracing his role as an essential part of the show’s comedic makeup.

Cranston compared his current situation to that of an athlete who longs to come off the bench and score a game-winning basket at the buzzer.


“I was perfectly content with just being a working actor, and I never took anything for granted,” he said. “But I’m not ready to retire.”

Still, he said he was anything but a slam dunk for key executives at AMC and Sony Pictures Television, producers of the drama, who didn’t feel “the goofy dad from ‘Malcolm’ ” was necessarily the ideal fit for the emotionally tortured lead character. “It was the word of Vince Gilligan that was instrumental in me getting this role,” he said.

Gilligan, the show’s creator, said he was always convinced that Cranston could handle the demands of the White character. The two had worked together several years ago when Cranston appeared on “The X Files,” where Gilligan was one of the executive producers.

“I wanted him right from the start, but as is always the case with the people who put their money on the line, they wanted to know my reasoning,” Gilligan said. “I loved working with Bryan, and I think he’s got all the talent of any movie star. He’s got the humor of Robin Williams but also the depth and humanity of Tom Hanks.”


The forces behind the series downplay their past reservations, saying they now embrace Cranston as the latest in a line of unlikely leading men on drama series, joining the ranks of performers such as Michael Chiklis, who went from the rotund “Daddio” to the murderous cop on “The Shield,” and Hugh Laurie, the British comedian who gained stardom as the gruff physician on “House.”

Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van- Amburg, co-presidents of programming and production at Sony Pictures Television, said Cranston perfectly conveys not only the seriousness of White’s dilemma but also the dark comedy. Said VanAmburg: “We knew he could be funny. But he had to become Everyman.”

Sitting in his San Fernando Valley home, where he lives with his wife, actress Robin Dearden, and their daughter, Cranston expects viewers to draw comparisons between his two roles, and he acknowledged that there were parallels even beyond their love for tighty-whiteys. For instance, they both use exaggerated body language and gestures to communicate exasperation.

“Both of these guys are sitting on a volcano of angst,” he said. “Both live with a lot of regret. They know they both have missed opportunities that may have changed how their lives have turned out. With Walter, it’s more internal, evidenced by his decision not to pursue loftier goals. That course informed the rest of his life.”


To accent his portrayal, Cranston let his usually toned physique get a bit doughy, and helped pick out wardrobe and makeup that would drain White of color. He also had to overcome his initial concerns about playing a character who is selling drugs.

“Meth is a poison, a lethal drug, and I really had to understand before taking on the role why this guy was doing this,” he said, adding he now has great affection for the character.

“I just felt I understood him,” he said. “I know people like him, who have lived their whole life with regret.”

Cranston, on the other hand, seems to have few regrets in his career or life. He has worked steadily through a career that has spanned more than three decades, guest-starring on “Seinfeld,” “Walker, Texas Ranger” and “Chicago Hope,” and in films, including “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Saving Private Ryan.”


And though he remains proud of his time on “Malcolm,” he doesn’t spend much time thinking about the past. “I catch the reruns once in a while. And Jane and I have coffee together as often as we can. But now it’s all about the present.”