AMC Follows Up 'Mad Men' With 'Breaking Bad'

Bryan Cranston is probably best-known for his Emmy-nominated work as Hal, the frazzled dad on the Fox sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle."

Even on his worst day, however, Hal never went through the problems visited on Walter White, the character Cranston plays in "Breaking Bad," a new AMC drama series premiering Sunday, Jan. 20.

Sad sack Walt is a meek high-school chemistry teacher in the throes of a midlife crisis from hell. Any passion he once felt for science -- and we're talking about a guy here who once contributed to a Nobel Prize-winning study -- has been sucked dry by the apathy of his students, for which he earns a salary that barely provides for his pregnant wife, Skylar (Anna Gunn, "Deadwood"), and their teenage son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), who is living with cerebral palsy.

Just after Walt's 50th birthday, fate delivers yet another blow: Walt has terminal lung cancer, a diagnosis that offers him, at best, two more years. Determined to earn as much money as he can in the little time left, Walter teams up with street-wise former student Jesse Dupree (Aaron Paul) to turn a battered RV into a rolling meth lab.

Comparisons to the hit Showtime dramedy "Weeds," which features a pot-dealing soccer mom (Mary-Louise Parker), are probably inevitable, and Cranston says he understands why, although he thinks Walter is playing a much more dangerous game than the characters on "Weeds."

"Crystal meth is really horrible, horrible stuff, which raises the stakes of our drama quite a bit," Cranston says. "That's good for our show, and it makes us be more responsible about what we are doing. There are stories that deal with the ramifications of what Walt is doing."

Series creator Vince Gilligan says he first got the idea for "Breaking Bad" during a phone conversation with a fellow writer about what they could do if their writing ever dried up. They jokingly hit on the idea of a rolling meth lab, and the character of Walter White pretty much sprang fully formed into Gilligan's mind.

Gilligan had first met Cranston about nine years ago during the actor's guest appearance on an episode of "The X-Files" Gilligan had written, and he created the role of Walter White with Cranston in mind.

"I started to realize all these movies and TV shows I had seen him in without realizing I was watching the same actor: the dad in 'Malcolm in the Middle,' the dentist in 'Seinfeld' who converts to Judaism for the jokes, the one-armed officer who sends Tom Hanks on his mission in 'Saving Private Ryan,'" Gilligan explains. "He is an actor's actor who can do anything. And on that episode of 'The X-Files,' he practically killed himself to make it work. We were filming outside in August, and in one scene some cops made his character lie facedown on the asphalt. We did take after take without realizing that he was getting really badly burned on the asphalt, which was, like, 200 degrees. He never complained. He just did it.

"I can buy him as a very smart man, because that's what Bryan really is. More than that, he has a great sense of humor, but he also has a depth of emotion. He just seems like a man with a lot of character, a lot of layers. He brings a sadness, a wistfulness, to this character. I don't think of Bryan as a melancholy type at all, but there's something he draws on deep down to bring that across when he plays Walter."

Cranston, who had turned down a lot of daffy dad parts in the wake of his years on "Malcolm," had been waiting for something different, and he knew he had found it as soon as he read the "Breaking Bad" pilot script.

"I really related to Walt and where he was in life, the burden he was carrying," Cranston says. "It really came together quickly. Vince championed me for the role from the outset.

"I guess it's closer to a drama than a comedy, although any drama that is very well-written has wonderful elements of comedy in there. The tone is dark and comedic, but the comedy is organic. It comes out of a real character's condition. There's nothing funny about Walter's life, but he finds himself in certain situations where humor just comes out of it."

Ironically, Walter's bleak diagnosis motivates him to shake off his depression and begin truly living again for the first time in years. That's one of the things in the script that struck Cranston most forcefully, he says.

"For the first time in 25 years, Walt is living," he says. "It's like that old saying: 'Live as if this is your very last day.' He's truly feeling that. Nobody wants to hear that you have two years to live, but he's alive and breathing now, feeling adrenaline and making passionate love to his wife.

"As the story goes on, we take that to the next step. He does tell his wife about having cancer, but he isn't sure he wants to go through the treatment. He thinks, 'Do I want to go through all the nausea and sickness and staying in bed all the time, when at the end of it I'm still going to die? I'd rather try to get maybe a year of good, healthy living and make as much money as I can for my family.'"

Gillespie says he originally planned nine episodes for this first season, but the writers strike forced him to stop after episode seven. Still, he says, that episode ends with a big enough punch to leave the audience feeling satisfied.