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"Breaking Bad's" Bryan Cranston on unexpectedly making it big

After decades in Hollywood, actor Bryan Cranston didn't find fame until his fifties -- thanks to the hit show "Breaking Bad." Now, he tells Steve Kroft he's seizing the moment

Of all the actors that have passed through Hollywood, very few -- if any -- have had a career like Bryan Cranston. He knocked around Tinseltown for decades before finally landing his first leading role at 50: Walter White on "Breaking Bad," a very tough act to follow. But since then things for Cranston have been breaking good. He won a Tony award on Broadway, an Oscar nomination in Hollywood, all while writing his memoir. As we first reported last fall, it's all testimony to his talent, patience, perseverance and luck.

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Bryan Cranston

CBS News

Bryan Cranston was born and raised in Los Angeles and had been a familiar face here for decades but never a star. That officially changed three years ago when the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce embedded his name in a sidewalk.

Bryan Cranston: I have often walked down this street before but the pavement never held my star before…all at once I'm three stories high, knowing I'm on the street where it lives.

Since then it's only gotten better. At age 60, he is on Hollywood's A-list and a red carpet regular. And no one was more surprised than Cranston.

Bryan Cranston:  I didn't feel entitled to become a star. I didn't expect it.

Steve Kroft: Did you want it?

Bryan Cranston:  Not really. The things you want professionally are opportunities. And through my good fortune that's what's happened. Opportunity has come to me.

And when it came late in his career, Cranston knocked it out of the park.

[Walter: Maybe you and I could partner up?

Jesse: You wanna cook crystal meth?

Walter: That's right.]

Bryan Cranston:  When we first started we were just telling a story and trying to do our best. And it just started to steamroll and became this juggernaut.

Steve Kroft: Did you see it coming?

Bryan Cranston: No. Not at all.

It's a familiar story now: a meek and depressed high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer cooks up a scheme to make and market a superior grade of methamphetamine to provide a nest egg for his family after he's gone. But over the course of five seasons Walter White goes from milquetoast to murderous in order to survive.

Bryan Cranston:  I was just infused with ideas and I would dream about it and wake up and go, "Oh, I have another idea about Walter White." It was so well written. And it just got into my soul.

It was Cranston's first real opportunity to show what he could do as an actor. The result was new respect and a closet full of Emmys. When the show finally ended, he saw it as a new beginning…and an opportunity to try something completely different.

It had been years since Cranston had performed on stage yet he decided to sign on with a theatre company in Boston that was doing a new play called "All the Way" about Lyndon Johnson, a very complicated character.

Steve Kroft: It had to be an amazing challenge. I mean, why did you do it?

Bryan Cranston:  He was Shakespearean in size.  And I thought, "Whoo boy, that's a big bite to take. And it scares me a little bit. So let's do it."

And there were reasons to be scared.

Bryan Cranston:  I realized, "Oh my god, this is an enormous play. And it's almost all me. Big. big chunks of speeches, speeches, speeches." And I started to panic.

But in Boston and later on Broadway, and after that a film version for HBO, his performance was so on the mark you had to remind yourself it was Cranston, and not Johnson. And after winning a Tony Award, Broadway's highest honor, he topped it off with an Oscar-nominated performance in the film "Trumbo."

Steve Kroft:  That's quite a run.

Bryan Cranston:  Surprising for an old journeyman actor.

Steve Kroft:  Got a few clips to show you here.

Bryan Cranston:  Oh yes?

Steve Kroft:  OK. Roll it.

Cranston has been a working actor since his mid 20s…

Bryan Cranston:  Oh yeaaaah.

Steve Kroft: Very sweet.

…beginning with a part on the soap opera "Loving."  And after, there has been everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. Good guys, bad guys. And sometimes, parts so small even Cranston's forgotten them.

Bryan Cranston:  What is that?

Steve Kroft:  It says here it's "Amazon Women On the Moon."

["Amazon Women" film: Five minutes with the widow do you mind? Yea. I'll take care of you later.]

Steve Kroft:  You ended up on the cutting room floor, that's why you've never seen it.

Bryan Cranston:  Amazon Women On the Moon.  Who could forget?  Who wants to remember, is the better question, actually.

Airwolf: I promised myself…

In all there have been nearly 150 roles, not counting the early commercials that helped pay the bills.

[Commercial: Now you can relieve inflamed hemorrhoidal tissue with the oxygen action of Preparation H.]

Bryan Cranston: Oxygen action.

Steve Kroft:  Do you think you've grown as an actor since then?

Bryan Cranston:  No, but my hemorrhoid has grown.

There were guest spots on just about every show on television including five appearances on Seinfeld as Jerry's smarmy dentist, Dr. Tim Whatley.

[Seinfeld: Cheryl, would you ready the nitrous oxide, please?] 

Bryan Cranston:  It was like going to comedy boot camp for me, being on that show.

And comedy proved to be something that Bryan Cranston was very good at. It led to his breakout role in the widely acclaimed series "Malcolm in the Middle" as Hal the hapless father overwhelmed by the chaos of a dysfunctional family.

"Malcolm in the Middle": Wait, wait, wait, wait, there's something we have to talk about.

Bryan Cranston: He was insecure. You know not in charge. He took brain vacations often.

"Malcolm" earned Cranston a modicum of fame, three Emmy nominations and a reputation as an actor who was willing to do anything.

Steve Kroft:  Are those real bees?

Bryan Cranston:  Yeah, those are real bees. And there was 75,000 of them.

"Malcolm in the Middle": Call animal control.

And yes, he got stung.

Steve Kroft: Where were you stung?

Bryan Cranston: In the lower region in one of the boys down below.

Steve Kroft: Sensitive spot.

Bryan Cranston:  Very sensitive. The beekeeper went "Sorry." "I'll-- I'll help ya anywhere else, but I'm n-- sorry."

"Malcolm in the Middle": Now you are gonna get up and apologize.

He did seven seasons on Malcolm, and hated to see it go. But the show's cancellation turned out to be a very lucky moment.

Bryan Cranston:  Had "Malcolm in the Middle" been picked up I would not have been available for the pilot of "Breaking Bad." And right now someone else would be sitting in this chair talking to you. Not me.

Luck – both good and bad – figures a lot in Cranston's life and in the memoir he's just written. It is published by Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS.

He grew up in a family that knew firsthand the uncertainty of a life in show business. His parents were both actors. His mother gave it up to raise Bryan, his brother, and his sister. While his father struggled to make a name for himself in Hollywood.

Bryan Cranston:  He really wanted to be a star. He-- he really wanted to hit big.

[Joe Cranston in film: Observation post number three to emergency lab.]

But mostly, Joe Cranston got small parts in films like "The Beginning of the End."  Getting eaten by giant grasshoppers.

[Joe Cranston in film: Ahhh!]

Eventually his father realized that playing bit parts was about as far as he was going to go. There would be no stardom.

Bryan Cranston: He had a massive middle-age breakdown. And left the family. And then it just completely fell apart. And my mother was heartbroken, just completely devastated. To make ends meet we started selling off all our possessions.

Steve Kroft: You were poor.

Bryan Cranston:  Yeah. We had our house foreclosed on. We were kicked out.

It was the 1960s and Bryan was 11 years old.

Bryan Cranston: Being from a divorced family almost felt like a scarlet letter at times. And I denied it for a long time. In fact, I told our dear friends, the Burrell boys, five boys lived next door to us. "Why, we don't see your dad anymore?" "Oh, yeah. Yeah. He" - I lied. I said, "He comes home at night when you guys are in bed. He gets us up and we play." I said it so much that I started to believe it myself, you know?

The abandonment by his father created anger and resentment, but also a deep reservoir of life lessons and emotions that he would draw upon as he grew older and decided to become an actor: the perils of stardom and the importance of family.

Thirty years ago on a forgettable show called "Airwolf," he met another young actor – who was unforgettable.

Bryan Cranston:  There's Robin.

Robin from "Airwolf": You are nothing but a spoiled rich kid who never had to pay for anything…

He was the bad guy and Robin Dearden was one of his hostages.

Robin Dearden: He was an amazing actor and one of the funniest people I had ever met. You were.

Steve Kroft: It took a while for you to get together, right? 

Robin Dearden: Oh, yeah.  We ran into each other like eight months later. And we kissed for like a second too long.

Bryan Cranston:  Let me demonstrate. When you greet a friend this is the duration of the kiss that's acceptable. "Hi, good to see you-- yeah." When you make a mistake and stay too long at the lips, this is how long it is. "Hi, how are you? Good to see you." And that's what happened. It was like, "Uh-oh, what was that? Oh."

Robin Dearden: It was like "Whoops."

The kiss sealed the deal and they were married in 1989. Among the well-wishers were Cranston's mother and father – keeping their distance from each other.

Bryan and Robin have been married for 27 years now. They still live in the same house where they raised their daughter and Bryan still goes to work most every day.

[Steve Kroft on "Sneaky Pete" set: Oh this is where you're shooting the scene…this is where we are shooting the scene.]

We are in Brooklyn on the set of "Sneaky Pete," a 10-part crime drama Cranston is doing for Amazon Prime on the new frontier of original streaming video. He has shoehorned it into his schedule between writing the book and making a couple of new movies. This is his baby and he is running the show doing four jobs at once.

Steve Kroft:  So you're a co-creator.

Bryan Cranston:  Yeah.

Steve Kroft:  You're directing.

Bryan Cranston:  Yeah.

Steve Kroft:  Executive producer.

Bryan Cranston:  Right.

Steve Kroft:  Actor.

Bryan Cranston:  Yes. I do force myself to sleep with myself to get the job.  But that's always a disappointment.

This day he's wearing his director's hat. Checking camera angles and answering questions from the cast which includes Margo Martindale.

Bryan Cranston:  Margo, why don't you take the blouse off and try this on now?  We'll just see if -

Margo Martindale: OK.

It's a busy time but Cranston wants to take advantage of every opportunity his good fortune has brought him, while his career is still hot.

Steve Kroft: Do you really believe that there's gonna be a time when people said, "No, no, thank you-- not-- not him anymore. I don't-- I don't--"

Bryan Cranston:  Oh, yeah.

Steve Kroft:  You do?

Bryan Cranston:  Oh, it's cyclical. I'm riding a wave right now, and I recognize that. I wanna do as much work as I can, do the best I can.  And when it's all said and done and they say, "Get outta the water, you're done," I wanna be so exhausted that I look forward to it. It's, like, "Oh, you're right." I don't wanna have anything left in the tank.

We thought we would be remiss if we ended this story without revealing to Cranston's many fans some very personal information he shared while discussing his two favorite characters. Hal on "Malcolm in the Middle" and Walter White from "Breaking Bad."

Steve Kroft: Big difference between Hal and Walter White.

Bryan Cranston:  There's quite a bit of difference between. Although tighty-whities were—

Steve Kroft:  Running theme?

Bryan Cranston:  --were-- were in common. That was a thing I thought about that. For Hal it was that he was just a big boy. So the tighty-whities seemed to make sense. For Walt, the tighty-whities also made sense because they were pathetic.

Steve Kroft: Pathetic.

Bryan Cranston: Yeah.

Steve Kroft: Does that mean you wear boxers?

Bryan Cranston: I do. I do wear boxers. Or nothing at all.

  • Steve Kroft

    Few journalists have achieved the impact and recognition that Steve Kroft's 60 Minutes work has generated for over two decades. Kroft delivered his first report for 60 Minutes in 1989.