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Bryan Cranston hasn’t fully recovered from COVID-19. But he knows how lucky he is

Bryan Cranston poses for a portrait beneath the leaves of a tree.
Bryan Cranston, star of Showtime’s “Your Honor,” at his home in Sherman Oaks.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Many people carol during the holidays about receiving a partridge in a pear tree from their true love. Bryan Cranston has taken it a step further — he puts an actual Partridge in his pear tree.

The Emmy- and Tony Award-winning actor delights at the confused looks he receives from visitors who wonder why a framed, autographed picture of David Cassidy is nestled in his backyard pear tree. It usually takes a few beats before they make the connection: The late singer starred in TV’s vintage musical comedy “The Partridge Family.”

For Cranston, it’s personal. Cassidy was a guest star many years ago on Fox’s quirky sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle,” which featured Cranston as the hapless father, Hal. “In the story, his character was a total jerk,” says Cranston, who directed the episode. “But David was a sweetheart. The picture ... was signed by David for me, and every year I bring it out, smile, and place him in our pear tree. An homage to him and a puzzlement to visitors during Christmastime.”

Cranston has more than his Cassidy tribute to give him Christmas cheer this season. He is thrilled about his starring role in Showtime’s “Your Honor,” playing an upstanding New Orleans judge, Michael Desiato, who is forced to abandon his righteous convictions after his teen son, Adam (Hunter Doohan), kills the son of top crime syndicate boss Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg) in a traffic accident. Determined to protect Adam from almost certain harm, Desiato decides not to go to the authorities, embarking on a treacherous series of deceptions and lies that put father and son in deepening peril.

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Cranston is a fine actor, but Showtime’s legal thriller feels too familiar: As in “Breaking Bad,” the viewer is simply left waiting for bad stuff to happen.

Bryan Cranston, in suit and tie, walks among headstones in a scene from "Your Honor."
Bryan Cranston plays a New Orleans judge gone rogue to protect his son in Showtime’s new limited series “Your Honor.”
(Skip Bolen / Showtime)

Debuting Sunday, the limited series marks Cranston’s first regular starring TV role since he played chemistry teacher turned vicious drug lord Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” That portrayal earned Cranston four individual Emmy Awards for lead actor in a drama series during its five-season run, which concluded in 2013.

“Breaking Bad” and “Your Honor” are bookends for a string of career highlights that have put Cranston in the top tier of actors, bouncing easily between leading man roles and more nuanced character studies. In addition to appearing in numerous films and TV series (“Trumbo,” “The Upside,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) during that stretch, Cranston scored two Tony Awards for lead actor in a play — the first in 2014 for playing President Lyndon B. Johnson in “All the Way” and the second in 2019 for his role as the volcanic newsman Howard Beale in “Network.”

Although Cranston has regularly appeared in lighter projects throughout his career, “Your Honor” presents the latest addition to his extensive gallery of complicated figures with a dark edge.

“I am attracted to damaged characters that still have some manner of humanity and decency within them, despite their flaws and shortcomings,” he says while relaxing in the large, leafy backyard of his San Fernando Valley home. “Audiences relate to people like that, saying, ‘I’m not good at that, but what would I do in this situation?’ When I tell people the elevator pitch of what ‘Your Honor’ is about, to a person, they say, ‘I would do the same thing. I would do anything to protect the life of my child.’”

Some viewers may see some similarities between Desiato and White, who first turned to a life of crime after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. His initial goal was to make enough money to provide for his survivors. Although White and Desiato, at least at first, are both dedicated family men with good intentions, Cranston says there are clear differences between the two.

“Walter White made a very methodical decision, where Michael makes a very impulsive decision,” he says. “In ‘Your Honor,’ he has no time to think of the repercussions or to really assess what the possible damage could be down the road. It’s right here, right now. For him at that moment, it was the right decision. My character wasn’t about to take a chance that this mob boss wouldn’t harm my child.”

It’s also a series that speaks to our divisive political environment, in which facts often take a back seat to twisted theories, Cranston maintains.

“Michael is using his 30 years as a lawyer and judge to re-engineer a new reality, a new reality for his son,” he says. “He has to erase what really happened to create the new reality. Audiences are certainly prepped for that because we see it in our political sphere. What is it that [former counselor to President Trump] Kellyanne Conway said? Alternative facts.”

The relationship between Bryan Cranston’s Walter White and Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman defined “Breaking Bad.” Without it, Netflix’s follow-up falls flat.

Bryan Cranston, as Walter White, gestures with both arms in front of a chalkboard. A flame burns in the foreground.
Bryan Cranston won four Emmys for playing Walter White in the series “Breaking Bad.”
(AMC)

In addition to starring, Cranston is an executive producer of “Your Honor,” which was created by Peter Moffat (HBO’s “The Night Of”). He also directed the finale. Other executive producers include Robert and Michelle King (“The Good Wife”).

His involvement with “Your Honor” has helped brighten a roller-coaster year for the actor, who was affected personally and professionally by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cranston and his wife, Robin Dearden, came down with the illness caused by the coronavirus in March. They had mild symptoms at first. Then he felt worse.

“I had five days of abject lethargy,” he says. “I couldn’t take enough naps. Then after that, it was gone. But my wife and I started noticing that food didn’t taste as good. We could taste salt and sugar, but nothing refined, nothing subtle. The senses of taste and smell went away. It’s since come back, but not 100%. I would say only 70%.”

The pandemic also shut down the production of “Your Honor” for seven months, forcing Cranston to slow down after 20 years of constant work. There were some upsides to that.

“We were very lucky,” he says. “I learned how to bake bread, I had an art project which I completed. My wife and I walked and walked and walked everywhere. We’d go for long ones, twice a day, three to four miles each. And my family and I have never been this close. Because of COVID, we started a family Zoom, twice a month. We’re so much more in tune with each other, which is a good thing.”

Still, he worries about others who have not been as fortunate: “I know so many people suffered greatly and ultimately. My heart goes out to those people who really suffered.”

‘Breaking Bad’ actor Bryan Cranston posted a video documenting his COVID-19 journey and his experience donating his plasma to UCLA.

Cranston, in suit, narrow tie and horn rims, speaks from behind a podium that says "President of the United States."
Bryan Cranston as LBJ in “All the Way” at American Repertory Theatre.
(Evgenia Eliseeva)

He’s particularly distraught about the pandemic’s affect on Broadway.

“I’m in such pain over it. I really am,” says Cranston, who hopes to organize a coalition of celebrity actors who perform in the theater to help “pay some bills, somehow, someway.” “The Broadway community on stage and off — including the house managers, the ushers, facilities managers, the publicity people and everyone who makes Broadway work — is out of business, at least for now. They’re thinking of returning in spring, but it may be summer or fall before enough people get inoculated and feel comfortable about sitting shoulder to shoulder in a Broadway theater to watch a play.”

His concerns have brought even more focus and intensity to his continuing criticism of Trump. During his Tony acceptance speech for “Network,” Cranston saluted journalists around the world while denouncing Trump’s assertion that the media were “the enemy of the people.” “Demagoguery is the enemy,” Cranston said.

“History will look back on these four years of turmoil as a runaway train in many cases,” he says now as he reflects on that moment. “It will not be kind to Trump from a presidential historical standpoint. It brings me no joy. None. Hopefully we’re realizing that change for change’s sake isn’t necessarily good. We still need people who are qualified and have a level of ... curiosity that helps the country move forward, not backward.”

Cranston has floated the idea in previous interviews about one day playing Trump. He smiles slightly when reminded of his statements.

“I think it should take some time,” he says. “In five or 10 years, let’s see what that feels like. I look at Donald Trump as this Shakespearean tragic character. What I said before about playing characters that are flawed? They have some measure of goodness. I believe everyone does. I know Donald Trump does. I believe he loved the country. He was trying to accomplish certain things. The only problem is, I don’t believe he loved the country more than himself. Unfortunately, it’s been very damaging, and there’s a lot of healing to be done. But I’m an optimistic person. With every challenge, you try and find the opportunities, the good news and silver lining within those challenges.”

Although clearly excited about “Your Honor,” the series that made him a major star is never far from his mind. The affection surrounding “Breaking Bad” has been bolstered by last year’s sequel, “El Camino,” and the spinoff “Better Call Saul,” which will launch its final season next year.

Rhea Seehorn understands that attorney Kim Wexler could meet a bad end on the “Breaking Bad” prequel “Better Call Saul.” She’s relishing the “great mystery.”

Bryan Cranston lies in a hammock in his backyard.
Actor Bryan Cranston at his home in Sherman Oaks.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m just so proud of ‘Breaking Bad’ and recognize it changed my life,” says Cranston. “It gave me opportunities professionally that I may never have had otherwise. It was a huge stroke of luck in many ways, and a daring, bold, audacious attempt at storytelling. [Creator] Vince Gilligan pulled it off, and we were along for the ride. We contributed, but the template was there in the writing.”

And he is aware that the anticipation is growing for the next installment of “Better Call Saul” to merge with “Breaking Bad,” bringing the saga of Walter White full circle.

“‘Breaking Bad’ had such a satisfying beginning, middle and end, and I’m hoping that Vince and [‘Better Call Saul’ co-creator] Peter Gould have the same experience wrapping up ‘Better Call Saul,’” Cranston says. “There’s been a lot of questions and speculation, and the truth is, I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if Walter White will make an appearance. I don’t think Vince or Peter would try to stunt it. If it’s organic and can fit and they decide to do it, I’m game. I will absolutely do it.”

As for other work — which includes creating a mezcal called Dos Hombres with “Breaking Bad” costar Aaron Paul — Cranston is staying loose: “Nothing is set. I’m trying to go through life and stay in the moment as much as possible. Not too much of my eye in the past, not too much of my eye in the future.”

In the meantime, Cranston has a project closer to home: As he escorted a visitor out of his yard, his eye caught a surprising sight. Cassidy’s picture had fallen out of the pear tree, and the glass was broken badly.

“It will be repaired,” he says. “As it is only fitting for a Partridge.”


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