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Bryan Cranston goes 'All the Way' from meth lab to Oval Office

Emmy-winning 'Breaking Bad' actor Bryan Cranston plays another expert manipulator, Lyndon Johnson, in a play on Broadway.

March 07, 2014|By Meredith Blake
  • Bryan Cranston (sitting) playing President Lyndon B. Johnson in the play "All the Way" on Broadway. With him are John McMartin as Sen. Richard Russell and Betsy Aidem as Lady Bird Johnson.
Bryan Cranston (sitting) playing President Lyndon B. Johnson in the play… (Evgenia Eliseeva / Neil…)

NEW YORK — In the new Broadway play "All the Way," President Lyndon B. Johnson, played by Bryan Cranston, takes a break from wrangling votes for what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to reflect on the trying nature of politics.

Facing mounting pressure from the Southern faction of his party and civil rights leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Johnson vents his frustrations to the audience.

"Everybody wants power; everybody," he says. "And if they say they don't, they're lyin'. But everybody thinks it ought to be given out free of charge. ... Nothin' comes free. Nothin'. Not even 'good.' Especially not 'good.'"

It's a monologue one could easily imagine being delivered by Walter White, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher-cum-ruthless drug lord who Cranston played to thunderous acclaim on "Breaking Bad," which ended its five-season run on AMC in September.

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It is tempting to draw parallels between the men, both expert manipulators with a thirst for power that to differing degrees led them astray: Johnson, the sharp-elbowed politician who engineered some of the most sweeping social and civil rights legislation in American history while driving the country deeper into the war in Vietnam, and Walter White, the sad-sack everyman whose impulsive money-raising scheme spiraled into a full-blown meth empire.

"Their egos got in the way, and it drove them to do things that were detrimental to themselves and, in LBJ's case, extremely detrimental to society and America. And in a smaller way, so did Walter White," says Cranston, 58, at the airy Manhattan apartment serving as his temporary home while he makes his Broadway debut in "All the Way," which opened March 6 at the Neil Simon Theatre.

The native Angeleno, shaking off his fourth cold in a punishing winter on the East Coast, graciously offers tea in a white mug, taking a black one for himself.

"I'll let you be the good guy, I'll be the bad guy," he jokes.

His views on kitchenware notwithstanding, Cranston is an artist drawn to characters who defy such easy moral categorization. He likens Johnson, a politician who continues to captivate historians, to King Lear. "What made him so strong and effective domestically was his political acumen, which was stronger than anyone since Roosevelt and not matched by anyone to date. And his downfall was his political hubris. He didn't want to appear weak."

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"All the Way" began its journey to Broadway in 2008 as part of "American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle," a commissioning program at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival created with the goal of dramatizing pivotal moments in the nation's past.

When the OSF's artistic director, Bill Rauch (also director of "All the Way" on Broadway), approached Robert Schenkkan about participating, the playwright, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "The Kentucky Cycle," an epic six-hour play tracing the 200-year saga of a family in Appalachia, immediately knew the subject he wanted to tackle.

Schenkkan, a Texas native, says he has had a long-held interest in the 36th president who as a U.S. senator granted his father permission to establish the first public radio and television station in the Southwest.

After deliberation, Schenkkan decided to focus on Johnson's first year in office — his so-called accidental presidency.

"All the Way" dramatizes the tumultuous 12-month period that began in November 1963 with John F. Kennedy's assassination and ended with Johnson's electoral victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater. Though it concentrates on the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the '64 presidential campaign, it touches on the many pivotal events along the way, including the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the infamous murders of activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner in Mississippi and the challenge by the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party to seat an integrated delegation at the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, N.J.

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In addition to Johnson, who appears in nearly every scene of the three-hour play, a dizzying number of historical figures are portrayed, such as King, J. Edgar Hoover, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey, Stokely Carmichael and Alabama Gov. George Wallace. Most of the actors in the large supporting cast, which includes Michael McKean and John McMartin, perform multiple roles.

"In this one amazing year," Schenkkan says, "the Civil Rights Act transformed America and transformed our political system. It brought an end to Jim Crow and marked the end of the Democratic hold on the South. It is a high-water mark for the civil rights movement, and at the same time you can see the fractures that would lead to the rise of Black Power."

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