Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.
TV URBAN LEGEND: Bryan Cranston only got the role of Walter White on Breaking Bad after two other movie actors turned the role down.
Something that keeps coming up in Legends Revealed is the surprising amount of obstacles that were in the way of many famous actors getting their iconic roles, from Pierce Brosnan as Remington Steele to Harrison Ford as Han Solo to Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley, it sometimes seems like it is a minor miracle that anyone gets cast at all!
Similarly, many things had to go right for Bryan Cranston to be cast as Walter White on the hit series Breaking Bad, including two famous 1980s film actors both turning the role down before executives would even consider Cranston!
The basic plot of Breaking Bad, about a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White being diagnosed with terminal cancer, sending him from making and selling crystallized methamphetamine to eventually ruling over a meth empire (using his alias “Heisenberg”), has famously been described by show creator Vince Gilligan as watching “Mr. Chips turn into Scarface.” The problem with a show like that, where the protagonist slowly turns into an antagonist as the series goes on, for it to work you have to cast an actor who the audience will identify with or at least like enough that they will be willing to go on this journey with him, and by the time that he fully “breaks bad,” the notion is that audiences will already have been hooked on the show. That approach definitely ended up working with Breaking Bad, but it was certainly not something that television executives saw as being an easy task.
As you might imagine, the show as a whole was a difficult pitch for Gilligan, as it was certainly more than a little bit outside of the box, especially back in 2007, when there really were no shows like Breaking Bad out there to compare the show to. Gilligan was definitely willing to work with the studios to get the show made, including changing the setting of the show from California to New Mexico, since the studio producing the show, Sony, got substantial tax breaks by filming in New Mexico instead. The network that would ultimately air the show, AMC, had a major problem, though, with the actor Gilligan saw for the lead in the show.
Before Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan was best known for his work on The X-Files, and he recalled an episode called “Drive” from the sixth season of the show, where Bryan Cranston played a man who takes David Duchovny’s Mulder hostage.
Gilligan recalled the striking balance Cranston was able to keep with the character, who was at both times odious (he kept saying Anti-Semitic slurs) and charming. Gilligan thought that he would be perfect for the role of Walter White. The problem for the AMC executives is that Cranston was just coming off of a long run on the Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, as the lovable father of the family, Hal. Hal was lovable but he was also really goofy. As one AMC executive put it, “We all still had the image of Bryan shaving his body in ‘Malcolm in the Middle. We were like, ‘Really? Isn’t there anybody else?'”
So AMC insisted on trying for bigger names, so they offered the role to two former 1980s teen movie stars both known for having charming approachability, John Cusack and Matthew Broderick.
Both men turned the role down. It was only then that the executives agreed to watch the The X-Files episode and they quickly came around to Gilligan’s way of thinking.
The decision obviously turned out to be a good one, as the show was a hit and Cranston went on to win four Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Drama Series for the role. Amusingly enough, another actor who had to fight against TV executives not thinking he was right for the role was Michael J. Fox for the role of Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties. Fox was only up for that role because the actor originally cast in the role had backed out. That actor? Matthew Broderick.
Matthew Broderick, changing TV history one turned down role at a time!
The legend is…
Thank to Lacey Rose and Stacey Wilson Hunt’s article on Breaking Bad‘s origins in the Hollywood Reporter for much of the information for this piece, including that great AMC executive quote.
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