Walter White and LBJ? Tony-winner Bryan Cranston sees the likeness.


Left: Bryan Cranston as Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” (Frank Ockenfels/AMC) Right: President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1963. (Henry Burroughs/AP)

What do Walter White of “Breaking Bad” and President Lyndon B. Johnson have in common, besides being played by actor Bryan Cranston?

“A nasty look,” Cranston said in a recent interview with Katie Couric — a ferocious look that Cranston found came naturally despite the friendly neighborhood dad persona that made him popular in  “Malcolm in the Middle.”

What do LBJ and Walter White have in common? Cranston has been asked that question a lot ever since he transitioned from his Emmy-winning role as chemistry teacher turned meth manufacturer in “Breaking Bad” to his portrayal of the president on Broadway in “All the Way,” for which he won a Tony Award last night.

Cranston told Couric he tested out and perfected the look over the years, occasionally scaring people in grocery stories.

“It’s a nasty look. Mothers are grabbing children’s hands and pulling them away, you know,” the actor recalled. “And I’m just pleasant, but the look itself is nasty.”

“My face, in repose, is mean,” he told a photographer for the Guardian during a photo shoot last year. “I scare people. You know how some people have a built-in smile? I look like I’m going to eat children.”

But the similarities run deeper.

 


Left: Cranston as Walter White. (Ursula Coyote/AMC/AP) Right: LBJ at the Democratic National Convention on July 12, 1960, in Los Angeles. (AP)

“They’re both very powerful, strong-willed, smart and damaged. In both cases, ego had a large part of what downfall they had,” Cranston told Princeton historian Julian Zelizer.

Elaborating in a Time magazine interview, he added: “They’re very smart, in that they both know what someone else needs or wants, they can read people very well … And so they know that if they give that person what they want, then I can get what I need. That’s the common denominator between them.”

“LBJ and Walter White are actually very good manipulators,” he told Time. “They can use their wiles to get out of problems that they find themselves in or get something that they want.”

LBJ and Walter White. A real man, larger than life, once compared with King Lear,  and a fictional man, living large, sometimes compared with Othello, Hamlet and King Lear. Others have taken it further.

Writing in the New Yorker, Ian Crouch found these similarities between White and LBJ:

Both are ill and haunted by death.

Both exercise power as a bulwark against an essential insecurity.

But both think of this will to power as arising from a desire to be loved.

Both are skillful and flexible manipulators.

In fact, “All the Way” focuses on the better years of the Johnson presidency as LBJ, in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, pushed through civil rights legislation using the guile gained during his years in the U.S. Senate to bring around friend and foe alike and worked to secure the presidency in 1964.

The “downfall” would come later, as he prosecuted the increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam, retreating into the isolation of the White House and ultimately withdrawing, defeated, as a candidate for re-election in 1968, emerging in the years that followed as an essentially tragic figure.

“Breaking Bad,” on the other hand, is a long, continuous downfall, that begins with White’s desperate effort to get money to pay for his cancer treatment, a drive that seems at first to be motivated by love for his family but ultimately becomes an end in itself that tears his family apart.

The stories of both men, Cranston has observed, are, like most good stories, about people “who had very specific ideas of what they wanted to accomplish” but had deep “character flaws.”

What flaws?

They both had “ego issues,” Cranston said. And both “got warped and damaged to a degree — for what they were after.”

 

Fred Barbash, the editor of Morning Mix, is a former National Editor and London Bureau Chief for the Washington Post.
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