If it wasn’t for a movie network gambling on a story about a high school teacher turned meth lord, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul could be in very different situations today. In 2006, weeks before reading for the part of Jesse Pinkman, the 27-year-old Paul couldn’t pay his rent.
“It was at a point where, ‘Do I give up on this dream of mine?’” Paul recalled on Nov. 10 before an audience at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “And the answer is always, ‘No. That can’t happen.’”
It was easily the best script Paul had ever read, and he admits being “unbelievably terrified.” In fact he fumbled through most of his lines when meeting creator Vince Gilligan.
“I remember apologizing afterwards because I kept forgetting my lines,” Paul said. “And Vince said, ‘Don’t worry. It’s okay.’ And for some reason they ended up hiring me. Thank god because of course it changed my life. It changed everyone’s life involved with ‘Breaking Bad.’ Who knew meth could really bring us to the Smithsonian?”
Cranston, a Hollywood veteran known for his roles as the dentist Tim Whatley on “Seinfeld” and Hal Wilkerson on “Malcolm in the Middle,” was in a different situation. He and the rest of the “Malcolm” cast had been waiting to hear back about an eighth season in 2006.
“Had we gotten that eighth year — and we were very close — someone else would be standing here right now because I would not be able to shoot ‘Breaking Bad,’” Cranston said.
Moments before addressing the crowd — a crowd that included Gilligan, Dean Norris (Hank Schrader), R.J. Mitte (Walt Jr.) and Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmantraut) — Cranston forwent the podium, walked across the room and slipped on his famed Heisenberg lid. The iconic hat is one of ten items the show donated to the museum Tuesday night.
“Boy it feels strange putting that back on,” Cranston told the audience.
In addition to the hat, the “Breaking Bad” haul includes two yellow Tyvek suits (the kind you can expect to see every Halloween for the rest of your life); two gas masks; a Heisenberg sketch viewers might remember from the episode introducing Tuco Salamanca’s twin-brother hitmen; Schrader’s DEA ID card; Marie’s purple corkscrew; and a Los Pollos Hermanos drinking cup. The collection also features a small, plastic bag of Heisenberg’s signature blue meth, which is apparently just rock candy.
Cranston said he is asked often if he misses playing Walter White. He doesn’t. For him, Gilligan and the rest of the writing team crafted a perfectly designed beginning, middle and end — “a perfect meal,” one that was timed and portioned exactly.
“You’re satiated,” Cranston said, “but someone says, ‘Here’s more dessert.’ If you dive into that, it almost ruins the experience you had. And I don’t know that my personage could take another dessert after the sweet ride that ‘Breaking Bad’ was.”
Gilligan said it was in 2005 that he thought up “Breaking Bad,” or as he described it, “the dumbest idea ever for a TV show.” He said that if someone were to tell him the props from the Walter White concept would eventually join the “Star Spangled Banner,” Thomas Edison’s first light bulb and Abraham Lincoln’s pocket watch at the Smithsonian, “I would have thought you were using too much of Walter White’s product.”
“Yet here we are,” Gilligan said.
“I’ve collected a lot of things at the Smithsonian,” said Dwight Blocker Bowers, entertainment curator at the museum, “but it gives me great pause to think that I’m the man who brought crystal meth to the museum.”
According to Sony’s president of U.S. programming and production Zack Van Amburg, the “Breaking Bad” journey began with the search for a sci-fi concept. Knowing about his work on “X Files,” the company phoned Gilligan, who deflected the sci-fi idea and volleyed Walter White. Van Amburg said the strongest emotion you might feel for White is contempt, and you certainly don’t root for him. Despite this, Sony drove around town describing the transformation of an innocent, likeable teacher into a heinous murderer.
“Every single network said, ‘Are you nuts?’” Van Amburg said.
The show would eventually sell to FX, but when the script made its rounds, the network passed, finding Heisenberg unwatchable. So “Breaking Bad” was orphaned and it should have died there, Van Amburg said. But Sony would gain the ear of AMC, a movie network unsure how White would fit its catalog.
“Breaking Bad” would go on to win 16 Emmys and the Guinness World Record for highest rated TV series of all time. Near the end of the event Paul reflected on how the show has changed his life: Although they’ve been off air for two years, he said every single day he gets called “a bitch.”
“And it’s awesome.”