Like Walter White’s epic transformation from meek family man to unrepentant meth lord, Bryan Cranston transforms so completely into President Lyndon B. Johnson that for those who actually knew the 36th president Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre is a time machine.
The critical buzz around Cranston’s portrayal of Johnson in ‘All the Way’ is that the actor is impeccable in the role. Anyone who watched Cranston’s gripping star turn in Breaking Bad knows his talent range. Yet only those who knew Johnson can say with authority how fully Cranston embodies the often larger- than- life LBJ.
So we reached deep into our Rolodex to contact people who worked in the Johnson administration to survey how well Cranston does as the man they knew up close and personal.
Joe Califano, Johnson’s top domestic policy aide, saw the show on its opening night. So did Doris Kearns Goodwin, a historian who worked in Johnson’s administration as a White House fellow, helped the president write his memoirs and wrote her first of many books about her conservations with him.
When Cranston shouted a command on stage, that familiar formidable tone shook Califano, transporting him back nearly 50 years. “I’ll tell you there were moments when I thought I was actually looking at him or hearing him,” Califano said.
It’s hard to distinguish whether Cranston “has taken over Johnson or Johnson’s taken over him,” he said. Then added, Cranston “went from Breaking Bad to breaking good.”
For Califano, who reasons he ate more meals with Johnson than his own family in those years, Cranston perfectly captures Johnson’s intensity — his anger, his frustration, his humor, how he’d bark an order while doing five other things simultaneously, never leaving an unused moment.
“Thank God LBJ kept those tapes,” Kearns Goodwin said of the telephone conversations mined to tell the complete story of Johnson’s political process in the early years of his presidency.
“[Johnson] comes alive in this,” she said. “When he’s [Cranston] on stage it’s just magnetic.”
Cranston owns Johnson’s mannerisms, such as using physical proximity to intimidate, she said. Much of the play shows Johnson on the phone, “which is exactly the right way to capture him,” she said. “The phone was the instrument of his power.”
Lloyd Hand, who first worked for Johnson in the Senate and then in the White House, has yet to see the show, but a cadre of former Johnson officials have planned a reunion in New York to see it together in mid-May.
A Breaking Bad fan, Hand initially could not reconcile Walter White — an odious character with “no redeeming qualities” — playing someone Hand held in such esteem. Moreover, Cranston looks nothing like Johnson, Hand thought, and at under six-foot-tall lacks LBJ’s towering height. But since last week’s opening, Hand has heard from friends that Cranston has steeped himself in Johnson’s nuances, capturing his cadence with uncanny precision.
Hand hopes the Broadway history lesson, which focuses on Johnson’s domestic achievements like the Civil Rights Act in 1964, serves to revisit his boss’ legacy beyond the Vietnam War.
Larry Levinson, who worked as deputy counsel in the Johnson administration, also has yet to see it, but has heard the same feedback from Johnson alums about Cranston’s “unerringly perfect performance.”
“The buzz from Austin on this is that it is an enormously helpful portrayal … a most accurately interesting portrayal,” he said.
By all accounts, Cranston has impressed, and moved, former Johnson staffers with his reincarnation. But what would Johnson, with his well-documented ego, think of the performance?
Johnson would have loved being portrayed on Broadway, Califano said. But after the show, Johnson would likely have pulled Cranston aside, drawn him in close and offered the actor a few pointers.