A Life in Parts By Bryan Cranston; Scribner 274 pages, $27
I was never much into TV series, and not wanting to be a fan-boy, perversely resisted both “Malcom in the Middle” and “Breaking Bad” when they were running, even as friends and family raved.
But I reluctantly gave “Breaking” a try, the DVD set having come my way as a gift.
I was hooked. Obsessed. Lost my binge-watching virginity in an orgy of five seasons in 10 days. It was exhilarating and exhausting.
Now comes “A Life in Parts.”
The title of Bryan Cranston’s memoir, like so many Hollywood bios, is cleverly couched in double meaning, referring not only to his life as an actor, the parts he has played, but to pieces of his life, individually titled and strung together in episodic recollections from childhood onward. It is a book in parts, some only a few pages long, culminating in a brilliant cadenza of this narrative and career, the years of “Breaking Bad.”
We often think of the best actors’ work as instinct, a channeling talent that comes mostly from others’ writing. Cranston, in his charming matter-of-fact introspection, indirectly makes a case for the total cumulative experience of the actor, the history, as the real persona of a character as it is portrayed. So the survival instinct from a hard-scrabble childhood, abandonment by his father at an early age, bitterness towards a mother who preferred the company of men to her children, and the love for his real daughter are all mixed and funneled into a moment on screen. In this case it is the harrowing scene in “Breaking Bad” where Walter is torn between his own survival and pity as he watches an unconscious junkie choke to death in her own vomit.
“It may seem odd. It may even seem ghoulish. To stand in a room packed with people and lights and cameras and pretend I’m letting a girl choke to death. And then to see my daughter’s face in lieu of that girl. And to call that work. To call that your job.
But it’s not odd to me. Actors are storytellers. And storytelling is the essential human art. It’s how we understand who we are.”
And Cranston is a storyteller here too, a good one. He has a knack for describing the ordinary in a way that makes it fascinating, without excessive verbiage. Besides the vivid accounts of a childhood upbringing that would be considered semi-rough but unexceptional and vagabond teenage years that are almost cliche’ (motorcycle adventures, a whorehouse in Europe) his perception of the events is as interesting as the stories themselves, capsulizing, framing, a sort of ongoing perspective as an observer even in a first-person narrative.
He is complicated. Also blunt and fearless in describing himself, colleagues and the industry itself in honest but unsparing terms. He speaks of relationships, good and bad - the funny-tender moment when he proposed to his wife, Robin, in a bubble bath; his homicidal feelings toward a former girlfriend who became a half-insane stalker (he used that as Walter White, too).
Cranston describes not only the highlights of his career, but struggles, self-doubt and sometimes hilarious anecdotes of the bad jobs in commercials and disastrous TV shows. He is now legendary as a character actor, having immortalized the roles of the sadistic dentist Tim Whately in “Seinfeld” and the tighty-whitey dad, Hal Wilkerson in “Malcolm in the Middle.”
And then there’s “Breaking Bad.” It is the role of a lifetime, and he knows it.
In the longest and most detailed section of the memoir, the actor describes the series’ evolution as well as the journey of Walter White, good to bad, “Mr. Chips to Scarface.” The character dissection is intense, and Cranston is as intellectually perceptive as he was emotionally complex in the role. He details a few conflicts, some push-backs, but is generous in his praise for the writers, producers and fellow actors.
The sections following “Breaking Bad” seem almost anticlimactic, describing the subsequent fame and fortune experience, and then the torturous preparation for his role as Lyndon Johnson in the bio-play “All the Way,” for which he won a Tony in 2014.
But through it all, a certain humility shines through, and Cranston’s message seems to be more about gratitude, more about the process than the person. It says simply, “Do the work!”
Kenneth Young is a Buffalo freelance critic and longtime contributor to The News.