With his 2010 Emmy win for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series, Bryan Cranston became the first lead actor in 40 years to win three straight Prime Time Emmy Awards for a Drama. The last actor to pull off a hat trick as a lead actor in a dramatic series was Bill Cosby, who won Emmies in 1966, ’67 and ’68 for I Spy.
Cranston plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer who has turned to drug dealing, in the basic cable TV series Breaking Bad on the AMC network. He previously had been nominated twice for a Prime Time Emmy as Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series for playing the father in Malcolm in the Middle.
In a telephone interview with David Itzkoff of the New York Times after receiving his third straight Emmy nomination for Breaking Bad, Cranston compared his now annual nod to the joy of youthful seduction.
“It’s like when you were in high school, if you were ever lucky enough to have the pretty girl say, ‘Hey, let’s go make out in the corner,’ ” Cranston told Itskoff. “Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? And after you get over that, I keep thinking, Why me?”
Becoming Walter White
Earlier in the year, Bryan Cranston discussed how he created the character of Walter White with Jeremy Egner of the New York Times. He said he based Walter on some real people he knew, some research into depression and his imagination. Walter’s depression caused his personality to collapse into itself.
“He imploded, he just went invisible and started going to seed. That was very interesting to me: someone who became invisible to society and to himself. So that informed what kind of makeup, hairstyle and clothing colors we eventually chose, because I wanted him to literally blend into the scenery.”
As an actor, Cranston used his imagination to create a back story in which Walter became a defeated human being due to opportunities in his life he either missed likely due to fear. This failure adversely affected his life.
“It just kind of wears you down, your shoulders slump over, your appearance is blah. I remember going into the makeup trailer and I said ‘I want this mustache to look impotent.’ So we were able to create that.”
In the series arc, in the first season, Walter makes his decision to become a crystal meth dealer, in the second, he learns to live with his decision, and in the third, he evolves as he deals with the consequences of that decision. Breaking Bad is an existential drama in that Walter’s cancer, and his transgressive reaction to it, allowed him to recreate himself.
“For the first time in his life he can intimidate another person,” Cranston said, explaining Walter the drug dealer. “[H]e’s never had that. He’s got money in his pocket for the first time. He’s got adrenaline pumping through his veins; sometimes feeling fear is better than feeling numbness. That’s his new outlook now. He has this ability to become a new person.”
If Bryan Cranston wins another Emmy playing Walter White, he will join elite company. The only actors to win four Prime Time Emmies playing the same role were Peter Falk for Columbo and Dennis Franz for playing Detective Andy Sipowicz on NYPD. Blue. Laurence Olivier won five Emmies in his career, but never for a role in a recurring TV show. Peter Falk also has won five acting Emmies, taking home his first in 1962 as Outstanding Single Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role for the episode “The Price of Tomatoes” that was broadcast as part of the omnibus program The Dick Powell Theatre
Bill Cosby — the first African American to win an Emmy Award — also won two Daytime Emmies for children’s programming and animated series and another Prime Time Emmy as the producer of a variety special. In 2003, Cosby was honored with the Bob Hope Humanitarian Award by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, the body that gives out the Emmies. Surprisingly, Cosby was not nominated once for an Emmy for playing Dr. Cliff Huxtable on his #1 rated The Cosby Show (1984-92). He received his sole Emmy comedy nomination for playing the high school gym teacher Chet Kincaid in The Bill Cosby Show (1969-71).
New York Times, “A ‘Breaking Bad’ Kingpin Never Tires of His Emmy Nomination (and Other Milestones)” by Dave Itzkoff; “On Character: Bryan Cranston in ‘Breaking Bad'” by Jeremy Egner