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Book Review: Bryan Cranston's Memoir, "A Life in Parts"

After winning her first Emmy at age 41 this year for her stunning performance as prosecutor Marcia Clark in “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story,” Sarah Paulson said this about the benefits of being a late-bloomer in the world of showbiz: “I found a success that is so much bigger and deeper and better, and it’s because it happened later.”

Fellow actor Bryan Cranston, who finally rose to leading-man status in his early 50s as meek chemistry teacher turned ruthless drug kingpin Walter White for five seasons on AMC’s “Breaking Bad”—claiming three Emmys for his performance in the bargain—could similarly make such a claim, judging by his new memoir, A Life in Parts. The title applies equally to the roles he has taken on in everyday life and those he has chosen to portray in what has matured into a highly fruitful career. He became a devoted husband and father in his 30s after a short failed first marriage and found stardom after paying his dues and then some with guest-starring spots on countless TV series in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

As a result, many of the chapters are about subjects beyond the pursuit of fame and fortune. One can imagine that middle child Cranston found it especially cathartic to delve into his difficult youth growing up with two dysfunctional parents. Dad Joe was a womanizer with a penchant for cooking up doomed business schemes and the type of movie actor who did B-grade thrillers opposite giant grasshoppers. Mom Peggy began to hit the bottle hard after Joe left her for another woman when Cranston was 11. While his father remained distant until they reunited years later, his mother tried to provide for her three kids, including an older son and a younger daughter, by selling items at swap meets but it wasn’t enough to keep them from losing their house to foreclosure. 

Cranston might have spent seven seasons as a hapless goof of a father figure on Fox’s hit sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle,” but he is no fool. He instinctively knows to throw his rabid “Breaking Bad” followers a quick bone by kicking off his book with a discussion of one of the show’s more shocking episodes that arrived late into the second season. That was when Walter found his business partner and ex-student, Aaron Paul’s Jesse, passed out on heroin next to girlfriend Jane, who got him hooked on the drug and had threatened to blackmail Walter. When she begins to choke on her own vomit, Walter thinks about rolling her over but then stops and allows her to die as his character crosses the line into the next realm of evil. During filming, Cranston suddenly imagined his own daughter’s face instead of that of the actress before him and his sob-filled reaction was appropriately devastating to observe. 

But the meat of his book is how he came to realize that he was born to be an actor and the numerous rungs he had to climb before becoming a household name. I have read many a celebrity-penned autobiography. But I don’t recall anyone else having quite as many jobs, odd or otherwise, before committing to their calling as a performer. The Southern California native’s motley array of employment opportunities includes working on a chicken farm as a kid, paperboy, house painter, security guard (his account of an awkward encounter with Alfred Hitchcock at the Century Plaza Hotel is a keeper), baggage carrier for vacationers on Catalina Island, an ordained minister who officiated at wedding ceremonies, waiter, clerk at an organic food co-op, carnival barker, souvenir hawker at a ballpark and lifeguard.

An unfortunate experience involving a verbal flub in an elementary-school stage production of “The Time Machine” convinced him that maybe his dream of becoming an actor was not meant to be. It might surprise fans of “Breaking Bad” that Cranston instead planned on joining the LAPD after he graduated from high school and even earned an associate’s degree in police science at a junior college. Perhaps knowing both sides of the law wasn’t a bad thing when playing a meth-lab version of Scarface. But the bug began to bite again when he signed up for two electives—intro to acting and stagecraft.

The scars from Cranston’s youthful embarrassment on stage began to heal during a cross-country trip that he and his brother (who went by the names Kim and Ed, but is now called Kyle) took in their early 20s. They decided to head out on the highway on their motorcycles, camping gear in tow, for nearly a year. When rain kept them trapped in their tents, Cranston would pour through a collection of classic plays. Becoming enthralled by “Hedda Gabler” sparked an epiphany and it didn’t take long for him to find himself on stage at a Daytona, Fla., playhouse. The rest—a Mars bar commercial, being a regular on the ‘80s daytime soap “Loving,” a recurring role as dentist Tim Whatley on “Seinfeld,” his fateful run-in with “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan as a guest star on “The X-Files,” a Tony Award for his LBJ in the play “All the Way,” an Oscar nomination for “Trumbo”—is destiny-achieved history.

As you might guess, Cranston’s recollections aren’t filled with accounts of bedding starlets, stints in rehab or nights spent drinking champagne at the Polo Lounge. That said, between marriages, there was one dark and nasty “Fatal Attraction”-like sexual entanglement with a less-than-stable actress who ended up stalking him and almost drove him to violence. But this is a guy who would rather share insights about how he shaped Walter White and fought to maintain the character’s integrity. Or proudly reveal how he was able to memorize page after page of dialogue for “All the Way” in just four weeks before a Boston tryout. If you would rather read about a very human and caring star who is serious about his craft with nary a blemish in his past than the usual crash-and-burn tale, this is your book.

Bryan Cranston's "A Life in Parts" is now available. To order your copy, click here

Susan Wloszczyna

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

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