TV Legends Revealed: Which '80s Teen Icons Turned Down the Lead Role on 'Breaking Bad'?

TV URBAN LEGEND: Bryan Cranston landed the role of Walter White on “Breaking Bad” only after two other actors turned it down.

Something that keeps coming up in Legends Revealed is the surprising amount of obstacles that were in the way of many famous actors getting their iconic roles. From Pierce Brosnan as Remington Steele to Harrison Ford as Han Solo to Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley, it sometimes seems like it is a minor miracle that anyone gets cast at all! Similarly, many things had to go right for Bryan Cranston to be cast as Walter White on the hit drama “Breaking Bad,” including two famous 1980s film actors both turning the role down before executives would even consider him!

The acclaimed AMC drama centers on a mild-mannered chemistry teacher named Walter White who’s diagnosed with terminal cancer, leading him to turn to a life of crime producing and selling crystallized methamphetamine in order to (initially, at least) ensure his family’s financial security. Series creator Vince Gilligan summarized the premise as watching "Mr. Chips turn into Scarface."

The problem with a show like that, where the protagonist slowly transforms into an antagonist, is that you have to cast an actor the audience will identify with, or at least like enough to accompany on this journey – so that by the time the fully "breaks bad," viewers will already be hooked. That approach definitely worked with “Breaking Bad,” but it wasn’t something anyone thought would be easy.

As you might imagine, it was a difficult pitch for Gilligan, as it was more than a little bit outside of the box, especially in 2007, when there really were no shows like “Breaking Bad.” Gilligan was willing to do what it took to get the show made, including change the setting from California to New Mexico, as Sony received substantial tax breaks by filming there. But the network that would ultimately air the show, AMC, had a major problem with the actor Gilligan envisioned for the lead role.

Before “Breaking Bad,” Gilligan was best known for his work on “The X-Files,” and he recalled the Season 6 episode "Drive" in which Bryan Cranston played a man who takes David Duchovny's Mulder hostage. Gilligan remembered the striking balance Cranston was able to keep with the character, who was at both times odious and charming. Gilligan thought he would be perfect to play Walter White.

The problem for network executives was that Cranston was just coming off of a long run on the Fox sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle,” where he played the lovable, goofy father Hal. As one AMC executive put it, "We all still had the image of Bryan shaving his body in 'Malcolm in the Middle.’ We were like, 'Really? Isn't there anybody else?'" AMC insisted on a bigger name, and offered the role to two former 1980s teen movie stars: John Cusack and Matthew Broderick. Both turned the network down. It was only then that the executives agreed to watch the “X-Files” episode, after which they quickly came around to Gilligan's way of thinking.

The decision obviously turned out to be a good one, as “Breaking Bad” was a hit, and Cranston went on to win four Emmy Awards for his performance as Walter White.

Amusingly enough, Michael J. Fox also faced resistance from network executives when it came to the role of Alex P. Keaton on "Family Ties."  He was only up for that role because the actor originally cast had backed out. His name? Matthew Broderick.

Matthew Broderick: changing TV history one turned down role at a time!

The legend is...


Thank to Lacey Rose and Stacey Wilson Hunt's article on “Breaking Bad's” origins in The Hollywood Reporter for much of the information for this piece, including that great AMC executive quote.

Be sure to check out my archive of TV Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the world of television.

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

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