Bryan Cranston: His Life From Childhood To Hollywood Stardom

Bryan Cranston may be best known for his portrayal of Hal, the goofy dad of a child prodigy in Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle," or that of Heisenberg aka Walter White, the chemistry teacher turned meth cooker in AMC's "Breaking Bad," but even before he earned these roles, the star had decades of experience in the industry under his belt. 

Despite working as an actor from an early age, Cranston never really got the acknowledgment he truly deserved until he secured his role in "Breaking Bad." The versatile actor has lent his voice to animated characters, performed in a range of mediums, and picked up a new role in the legal drama "Your Honor." Cranston has been successful enough to earn an Oscar nomination and win Emmy, Tony, and Golden Globe awards.

Read on for a look inside Cranston's eventful life, punctuated by good and bad experiences, memorable roles, and success accompanied by meaningful chapters.

He had a tough childhood

Born in Los Angeles in 1956, Bryan Cranston was the middle child of actors Joseph Louis Cranston and Peggy Sell. When Bryan was a pre-teen, 11 to be exact, Joseph abandoned the family. Shortly after Joseph's departure, the mortgaged home that the family was living in was seized, forcing Bryan's younger sister and mother to live with Joseph's mother as he and his older brother stayed with Peggy's parents on their farm. Speaking about Peggy, Cranston told The New Yorker in 2013, "When my father rejected her, it just destroyed her. ... She wallowed in anxiety, depression, and alcoholism, and she lived in clutter."

In the last few years of Peggy's life, the mother suffered from Alzheimer's, forgetting her trauma and finding some degree of peace. Cranston — who reconciled with both his parents before they passed away — spoke with the U.K.'s Sunday Times to promote his 2016 memoir, "A Life in Parts." He shared that a note Joseph wrote three days before his death read, "The highlight of my life was when my children forgave me."

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He almost became a cop

Believe it or not, despite having a passion for acting, Bryan Cranston originally planned on becoming a police officer and even started preparing for this path during his younger years. As Cranston told the hosts of the "SmartLess" podcast in 2021, "I kind of got attached to the idea of law enforcement." While he was still in high school, Cranston developed a fascination with The Los Angeles Police Department, and his fascination, in turn, led him to be a "police explorer" with the goal of joining the force. Cranston humbly noted, "Out of 116 16-year-olds all throughout Los Angeles, I graduated first in the class." After junior college, he planned to move to the University of California Los Angeles with a degree in Police Science.

A couple of events inspired Cranston to change his plans and pursue the career path we all know him for. At Valley Junior College, when he needed to fulfill an elective course requirement, Cranston decided to give acting a chance and hone his skills. He knew acting was in his family and thought it would be a fit. 

On a motorcycle trip with his brother, Cranston read Henrik Ibsen's "Hedda Gabler," the Times learned in their interview with him. He was so wrapped up in the story that he knew he wanted to bring such tales to life. The rest is, of course, history.

He says he never 'struggled' for fame

After his time in college, Bryan Cranston started acting in minor plays and began building a career for himself with advertisements and small roles in TV series and films. He did have a recurring role at the beginning of the ABC soap opera "Loving" and was a series regular on the short-lived CBS sitcom "Raising Miranda" in the 1980s, but he was still far from fame. During the mid-1990s, Cranston played recurring dentist Tim Whatley in the sitcom "Seinfeld." Although he appeared in several famous pieces of cinematic art — like the HBO miniseries "From the Earth to the Moon" and the Steven Spielberg film "Saving Private Ryan," he was still yet to achieve notability as an actor.

Audiences of the 2000s got to know Cranston on "Malcolm in the Middle," where he played the quirky Hal, father to Frankie Muniz's titular character. But leading up to this role, Cranston wasn't worried too much about fame and fortune. He explained during a segment of "Today," "It really wasn't a struggle because I didn't have a design on achieving stardom. I was happy as an actor. I was making a living as an actor since [I was] 25 years old." He added, "I tell that to young actors now, and it's like, 'If you love the art within you, enjoy that, embrace that, and if you can make a living somehow, some way, you're a very lucky person.'"

He gained popularity through Malcolm in the Middle

Bryan Cranston first rose to fame when he started playing Hal, the patriarch of the dysfunctional family featured in the sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle." As the show's creator, Linwood Boomer, told GQ, "I imagined [Hal] as just remote, distant," leaving the character as underdeveloped as could be. In fact, when Cranston auditioned for the role of Hal, he had no lines and was asked to act as if he was listening to his wife fight with one of the kids. Cranston delivered a hilarious performance reacting to the argument, adding his own touch to the character with a pipe in his mouth. As Boomer later recalled, "He just had this vast inner life going on. You realize, 'This guy looks like he's listening, but he's actually building a rocket ship in his head.'"

Clearly, Cranston brought Hal to life and made and retained a name for himself as a comedic actor over the seven seasons of the show. However, like all good things, "Malcolm in the Middle" came to an end, giving Cranston the opportunity to play one of the most famous characters in television history — the terminally ill chemistry teacher-turned-drug lord, Walter White. "Had 'Malcolm in the Middle' been picked up for an eighth season, someone else would've played Walter White because I would not have been available," Cranston explained in a 2023 interview with GQ.

A role he previously played helped him get the part of Walter White

Today, we may not be able to imagine anybody other than Bryan Cranston portraying Walter White, but Cranston's reputation of being a comedic actor did initially stand as an obstacle in his way to securing the role. In fact, we have the creator of "Breaking Bad," Vince Gilligan, to thank for helping Cranston get the part. Gilligan had previously cast Cranston as Patrick Crumb, a controversial character in a 1998 episode he wrote for the Fox TV series "The X-Files," and was well aware of Cranston's acting skills and capabilities. Cranston's intense performance in said episode, titled "Drive," was so powerful to him that it inspired Gilligan to cast him as the great Walter White. Although the executives of "Breaking Bad" were initially doubtful about Gilligan's choice, it's pretty safe to say they're happy with the decision now.

However, portraying a character as serious as Walter White wasn't exactly a cakewalk for Cranston, especially after playing Hal for so long. He told The Guardian, "I knew Vince wanted to go from Mr. Chips to Scarface. I knew he wanted to go from a good person to a bad person. So it was up to me to figure out, through his writing, how to make it feel plausible and justifiable." Evidently, Cranston did perfect justice to the role, and the numerous accolades he won for his portrayal are just further proof of his proficiency.

He is a director and writer, too

Bryan Cranston is a man of many talents. We're certainly familiar with his expertise in acting, but Cranston has also served as the director for episodes of multiple TV shows — including "Modern Family," "Breaking Bad," "The Office," and "Malcolm in the Middle" — as well as a couple of movies. He made his directorial debut with "Last Chance," a 1999 film he also wrote and acted in. 

When asked about the nuances in his directorial experiences, Cranston told Collider, "When you're directing film, you are the person who sets the tone, the style, the pace, and the relationship with the actors. ... In television, you are a guest of the crew. You're not even a member of the crew, really." Cranston said that on "Modern Family," he knew he was there to serve the show and follow its protocols for each episode. 

Cranston is also a television writer who co-created the Prime Video shows "The Dangerous Book for Boys" and "Sneaky Pete." However, his list of talents just would've been incomplete if he hadn't published his 2016 memoir, "A Life in Parts." GoodReads reports that the memoir is captivating, and Cranston has detailed bits of his life in a way only a few actors can. After all, Cranston told CBS News, "There's no point in writing something if you're not going to be completely transparent."

He shares a daughter with his second wife

Bryan Cranston was previously married to writer Mickey Middleton, but they divorced in 1982. On "Double Date with Marlo Thomas and Phil Donahue" in 2022, Cranston said of his first marriage: "The woman I married wasn't a bad person. She was a lovely person. It just was the wrong time, and I wasn't in love with her, and I think I took a very casual look at it. It wasn't fair to her, it wasn't fair to me."

Cranston has been married to his current wife, actor Robin Dearden, since 1989. The pair met while shooting a 1986 episode of the CBS action series "Airwolf" and immediately developed a friendship. However, despite having a strong connection, Cranston and Dearden decided to part ways after the shoot ended. At the time, they were both dating other people. When the duo met again, they kindled the flames of a new relationship together. Decades later, in 2016, Cranston told People he was glad they stayed apart for a year before they finally started dating. "I think it was serendipitous, because, as Robin says, if we had been unencumbered at the time and started dating, she doesn't think that we would have stayed together," he said.

Robin had their daughter, Taylor, in 1993, nearly four years after the couple wed. Taylor is also an actor and has recurred on "American Vandal" and "For All Mankind." 

He has made a name for himself in the world of theater

According to New York Theatre Guide, Bryan Cranston, who had performed at the San Fernando Valley's Granada Theater when he first started working as an actor, set foot in the world of Broadway in 2014. His first Broadway play, "All The Way," ran at the Neil Simon Theatre for more than four months, earning him a Tony Award for his performance as President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Then, Cranston played Howard Beale in Lee Hall's stage adaptation of the 1976 movie "Network" at London's National Theatre. The play was so successful that it soon moved to Broadway's Belasco Theatre, where it ran for nearly seven months. Cranston's role in the play earned him his first Olivier award as well as a Tony award for best performance by an actor in a leading role in a play.

During a 2019 episode of Variety's theatre podcast, "Stagecraft," Cranston revealed what it actually takes to prep for a performance and how he shapes a film, TV, or stage character. As he put it, "I just feel like almost through osmosis that the character will come in, and I will be able to feel and think and react and respond according to what that character feels. But it takes work and imagination and research, and going back to the text every single time."