A decade after Breaking Bad ended, fans still swear by Walter White, and we have Bryan Cranston to thank for it. His portrayal of a dying middle-aged chemist turned high-school teacher turned meth kingpin is unarguably his most iconic and breakthrough role and became synonymous with him, but there’s a lot more to the actor-director-producer. Even after the 16-time Emmy-winning AMC series ended, life never stopped for Cranston and the talented actor found himself expanding his horizons and exploring challenging and experimental roles, and successfully so.
Although Walter White was, is, and will always remain a landmark of his acting career, it’s hard not to remember Cranston’s prior work on television and films, like Seinfeld’s Tim Whatley, Malcolm in the Middle’s Hal, or Saving Private Ryan’s Colonel I.W. Bryce, among a host of other characters he played on screen and stage since he started his career in the 1980s. With his latest announcement that he is “pausing” his acting life, it’s perhaps a good time to take a quick walk down memory lane and revisit what, when, and how his breakthrough role impacted the life and career of the Emmy, Golden Globe, Tony Award-winner and Academy Award-nominated star of the series.
How Was Bryan Cranston Cast as Walter White in Breaking Bad?
You know what they say about life opening more doors when it closes one? The casting of Walter White was quite like that for the actor. Prior to joining Breaking Bad, he was playing a major character in the hit comedy series, Malcolm in the Middle as Hal, the family patriarch and father of the titular child prodigy. With the FOX family comedy about to end soon, it turned out to be just in time for Cranston to reinvent himself with the character of Walter White. As said by the actor in a GQ interview, “Had Malcolm in the Middle been picked up for an eighth season, someone else would’ve played Walter White, because I would not have been available.”
The AMC show’s creator Vince Gilligan had earlier worked with Cranston on an episode of The X-Files, “Drive”, where Cranston played an anti-Semite with a terminal illness who took Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) hostage. At that time Gilligan was looking for someone to portray a protagonist who turns antagonist and is “simultaneously loathsome and sympathetic”. As Gilligan stated in a 2011 New York Times interview, “Bryan alone was the only actor who could do that, who could pull off that trick. And it is a trick. I have no idea how he does it.” And he did it, despite the network’s initial reluctance of casting an actor who came fresh out of an over-the-top but popular comedy role. John Cusack and Matthew Broderick were also approached to play Walter White, but the role eventually went to Cranston. And the rest, as we know, is history and a glorious legacy of 15 years and still counting.
What Did Bryan Cranston Accomplish While on Breaking Bad?
Before Breaking Bad happened, Bryan Cranston had earned the first three Emmy nominations of his acting life from his work on Malcolm in the Middle. But his work on the AMC crime drama series turned his career into something truly phenomenal. His character of a chemistry teacher with a terminal illness who transforms himself into a drug lord became an overnight hit and made him a household name. If Breaking Bad has the reputation of being one of the best shows in television history, then Walter White is one of the most iconic television characters of all time. Needless to say, the credit for the character’s success as well of the show, largely goes to the talented actor who personified it.
His portrayal of a cancer-ridden, caring family man transforming into a fearsome meth kingpin earned him numerous accolades and critical acclaim, including four Emmy Awards, one Golden Globe Award, and three SAG Awards for his performance. His work also earned him the Satellite Award for Best Actor: Drama Series three times consecutively, for the first three seasons, and nominations for the next two seasons. However, Cranston’s involvement in this hit AMC original was not restricted to screen. He also served as a producer on the show’s fourth and fifth seasons, and directed three episodes of the series, “Seven Thirty-Seven”, “No Más”, and “Blood Money”.
During his stint with Breaking Bad, which ran for five seasons from 2008 to 2013, Cranston also appeared in several other films and television shows in supporting and guest roles. This includes three successful films—The Lincoln Lawyer, Contagion, and Drive—and two hit television shows, 30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother, among several other projects. He also starred in the Academy Award-winning historical thriller film Argo as CIA Deputy Director Jack O’Donnell. At the time, he was the only actor to be in a major role in both the Best Drama Emmy-winner and the Best Picture Oscar-winner in the same year.