Bryan Cranston won four Primetime Emmy Awards for playing Walter White on Breaking Bad. How did he land the life-changing part?

Think back to January 20, 2008.

A new crime drama titled Breaking Bad, set and filmed in Albuquerque, New Mexico, debuted on AMC.

It had an insane premise – a high school science teacher with terminal cancer turns to meth production to fund his family’s future after he dies.

On top of it all, actor Bryan Cranston – best known for playing the goofy father ‘Hal’ on FOX’s Malcolm In The Middle for seven seasons, had been cast as the layered, dramatic lead.

He was far from an obvious choice for Breaking Bad.

At least, on paper anyway.

No one could have predicted the level of success that both the show and its star would reach.

Cranston on The X-Files – FOX

Since Breaking Bad ended, Cranston moved on to another major TV role in Your Honor. He plays the lead character, Michael Desiato.

Meanwhile, Cranston’s big screen appearances include Trumbo, Rock of Ages, Total Recall, Godzilla and Kung Fu Panda 3.

His journey to Walter White goes back much earlier than one would think.

While many associate the actor with Breaking Bad or Malcolm In The Middle, Cranston also made memorable appearances on other shows beforehand.

Notably, a recurring role on Seinfeld as Dr. Tim Whatley, Jerry’s dentist.

As for Cranston’s route to worldwide stardom?

It all began with “Drive” – a 1998 episode of The X-Files guest-starring Cranston.

He played “Patrick Crump”, a seemingly deranged man who trapped Mulder (David Duchovny) in a moving car. Needless to say, this character was the “villain of the week.”

Television writer Vince Gilligan scripted the episode – be sure to remember that name, it’ll be important later.

Gilligan later reflected on Cranston’s ability to humanise the antagonist:

“We had this villain, and we needed the audience to feel bad for him when he died. 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.”

Vince Gilligan, New York Times (2011)

Cranston had no way of knowing at the time that this guest appearance would help change his life and career.

More on that later…

Cranston with Malcolm In The Middle co-star Frankie Muniz – FOX

About two years after “Drive” aired, Malcolm In The Middle premiered on FOX.

Teen actor Frankie Muniz played the title role, with Cranston as his father Hal and Jane Kaczmarek as his mother, Lois.

While Lois was the formidable grounding force, Hal was her exact opposite.

Over-the-top, fearful, easily rattled… a far step away from the direction Cranston later went on Breaking Bad.

In addition to playing Hal, Cranston also directed 7 episodes of Malcolm between 2003-2006.

Hal and Walter White exist on opposite ends of the acting spectrum, so to speak.

However, having established himself as a comedic force, Cranston received offers to play similar roles.

“After Malcolm, I kept getting offers to play goofy, fun-loving sitcom dads. I turned them down because it would have been boring and redundant. I wasn’t particularly eager to do another TV series.”

“After seven years on a series, if you’re smart and you save and invest well, you should be in good shape. You make your choices based on creative merit and not financial need.”

Bryan Cranston, New York Times (2008)

Cranston’s career took a much different direction once someone from his past got in touch…

Cranston as Walter White – AMC

Vince Gilligan, who wrote “Drive” (Cranston’s X-Files episode) went on to create Breaking Bad.

Gilligan remembered Cranston’s performance from almost a decade earlier, as well as the work he’d done since.

As such, the writer requested a meeting with Bryan Cranston to discuss the role of Walter White.

Of course, as television history shows, Cranston went on to secure the part.

“When I read Vince’s script, I immediately started daydreaming about the character — what he looks like, how he walks, what his core emotion is,”

Bryan Cranston, New York Times (2008)

In addition to Cranston, Breaking Bad also featured Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman, as well as Anna Gunn playing Skyler, Walter’s wife.

Other cast members included Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks, to name a few.

Breaking Bad ran for five seasons on AMC, with a total of 62 episodes.

The show itself received many awards such as 16 Primetime Emmys, 2 Golden Globes, 2 Critics’ Choice Awards, and 4 Television Critics Association Awards.

As with Malcolm, Bryan Cranston directed episodes of Breaking Bad and served as a producer.

Since Breaking Bad ended in 2013, Cranston has reprised Walter White on multiple occasions.

He made a cameo appearance in 2019’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.

In 2022, he appeared in two episodes of Better Call Saul, including the series finale.

More recently, Cranston returned to the role of Walter White for PopCorners SuperBowl commercials.

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