Bryan Cranston: "Breaking Bad" actor on his past and future

(CBS News) Bryan Cranston played a goofy dentist on the "Seinfeld" TV series. He plays a far more sinister role on the cable series "Breaking Bad", which begins its final five-episode run this evening. Our Lee Cowan caught up with him for some questions and answers.

It looked pathetic: a middle age man in his tighty whities walking out in the road holding a gun, resolved, it would seem, to face a rather embarrassing last stand. But for actor Bryan Cranston, this was no last stand; it was just the beginning.

AMC's "Breaking Bad" has become a cable TV addiction. If you watch it, you know what we're talking about it. If you don't watch it, you've probably heard about it. Pretty good buzz for a show that almost never got made.

"'Breaking Bad' on paper, is one of the worst ideas for a television show, ever," Cranston explained with a laugh.

During a visit to his beach house north of Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, actress Robin Dearden, Cranston laid out the difficulty in describing the plot of "Breaking Bad" and his unsavory, yet still somehow likeable character, Walter White.

"This depressed middle aged man who's a high school chemistry teacher, and he finds out he's got terminal lung cancer. So he's got a wife and a special needs son with cerebral palsy and his wife is pregnant ... and he decides to cook crystal meth amphetamine, make as much money as he can for his family before he dies," Cranston explained.

"That's the pitch?" Cowan asked.

"That's the pitch. Ta da!" Cranston replied.

A drug dealing dad-turned-monster was indeed a tough sell. But now, as "Breaking Bad" heads into its fifth and final season, it's widely considered one of the best-written shows on television.

Actor Bryan Cranston gets up close with his newly unveiled star at the star presentation ceremony on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, July 16, 2013.
Bryan Cranston gets up close with his newly unveiled star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Cranston's performance has earned him three Emmys in a row for outstanding lead actor and last month, it even helped get him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

"There has never been a television show where we're first introduced to someone and he is one specific character -- you get him, you know who he is, and over the course of the series he adjusts and changes and becomes someone else ... This evil, ego driven, maniacal, murderous man," said Cranston.

The show is the creation of former "X-Files" writer Vince Gilligan, who despite keeping a tightly guarded set, allowed us behind the scenes in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the whole series is shot.

Although his character is dark, on set, Cranston is anything but. Perhaps it's a loopy side effect from the 12-hour days and intense preparation, which included having to learn his character's complex chemical craft.

"We were taught ... how to make crystal meth," said Cranston.

"Really?" a surprised Cowan asked. ""Like, you could make it, in theory?"

"Can we go off the record now?" Cranston replied with a laugh.

It's all a long way from Cranston's youth, where instead of hoping to play a drug kingpin, Cranston actually envisioned being a cop. He even joined the LAPD's Police Explorer program.

"And low and behold, I come out and I graduate first in my class," he said. "First in my class - 111 16-year-olds and I'm number one. And it was like, 'Oh, I guess that's what I'm gonna be doing is police work.'"

Until, that is, he took an acting class on a whim. From then on, the only badge he wanted was to be a working actor.

"I used to load trucks downtown Los Angeles, graveyard shift," Cranston recalled. "...And the only thing that really got me through was just daydreaming, at some point, somewhere along my path, I'm going to be able to say, I make a living as an actor."

He knew from experience the road would be tough. Both his parents were actors -- a difficult life. By the time he was 12, they had divorced and he was left to be raised by his grandparents.

"My dad had, you know, an up and down career as an actor," Cranston told Cowan. "But as a child, you don't really have anything to relate it to, so you just assume that everybody goes through this life. And it wasn't until much later that I realized, oooh, those were trying times."

A lesson learned.

"You never set your sights on being a star. You set your expectations on just being a working actor," Cowan noted.

"I think, I mean to reach for some kind of plateau or position at the end of a rainbow so to speak, I think is setting yourself up for failure," Cranston said. "I always smile when I hear, 'I'm gonna give it a year. I'm gonna go out to Hollywood or I'm gonna to New York, and I'm gonna give it a solid year.' ...And I say, 'I can save you a lot of time! Go back to where you came from and look for something that can make you happy."

For 20 years, Cranston was happy -- mostly. He built an astonishingly long resume, usually in the background, everything from "Airwolf" to "Murder She Wrote". But it was as Jerry Seinfeld's dentist, Tim Whatley, that really got Cranston noticed.

It turns out he had a knack for comedy, and soon he was staring in his first lead role as the quirky dad in Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle".

"There were a lot of roles that came along after 'Malcolm in the Middle' ended that you turned down, right? Because you'd done that," Cowan asked Cranston.

"Yeah ... I loved that character of Hal and always will. But it was time to move on and I didn't wanna be in a safe place. I needed and wanted to go into a different area," he replied.

He's still not content with being safe. Despite acclaimed appearances in "Drive", "Contagion", and last year's Oscar winner, "Argo", Cranston is now turning from the screen to the stage.

His new challenge? Playing President Lyndon B. Johnson.

"He has a way of talking that was good ol' boy and comforting. But when he got angry, you knew it!" the actor said.

From presidents to thugs, Bryan Cranston has found his place in the world and at age 57, says he still feels like a kid.

"To this day, when I drive onto a studio lot, I just, I just smile because, 'Look at this! Look what I get to do!'" he said.

"Even now?" Cowan asked.

"Oh yeah! Oh yeah," Cranston replied. "You gotta love to do it. And I love it. It's my mistress. I will have an affair with acting for as long as I can. ... It's the only mistress my wife will let me have."

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