Bryan Cranston has role of his life in 'Breaking Bad'

LOS ANGELES — It's a tough job, and Bryan Cranston is more than glad to do it — playing Walter H. White, the frazzled antihero at the center of AMC's Breaking Bad.

Playing White, a meek chemistry teacher who gradually transforms into a hardcore drug dealer after he finds out he has life-threatening cancer, is "a dream come true," but Cranston said that the character and the series' increasingly dark tones have taken an emotional and physical toll on him.

"At the end of the day, I take two moist towels, put them on my head and wash all of Walt's energy off of me, and leave him at work," Cranston said, sighing heavily.

After decades of being relegated mostly to guest shots and supporting roles in TV and film, the actor has found a breakout role in Breaking Bad. Cranston was previously best known as the buffoonish father on Malcolm in the Middle, but Breaking has scored him two consecutive Emmys for best actor, an achievement that has propelled him to the top tier of TV dramatic actors.

And the character of White, whose initial rationale for getting into the drug trade was to give his family a financial foundation after he died, now joins a gallery of prominent antiheroes including gangster Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), corrupt detective Vic Mackey (The Shield) and advertising hotshot Don Draper (Mad Men) at the center of complex dramas.

Additionally, the show has established AMC, which also airs Mad Men, as a venue for high-quality original programming.

In the premiere of its third season last month, the series drew its largest audience ever, more than 3 million viewers.

Breaking Bad has grown consistently darker as creator Vince Gilligan maps out what he calls White's journey from "Mr. Chips to Scarface." Cranston, who directed the season opener, says he is particularly excited about the upcoming episodes: Even though when Breaking Bad started, he had his doubts that it would work, he now has total confidence in its direction.

"What made me want to do this in the beginning was the notion of taking a character and completely changing him from one kind of person to another," he said last week while relaxing in the San Fernando Valley home he shares with his wife, actress Robin Dearden, and their young daughter.

"That's never happened on TV before," he said. "I knew we would have to find a way to make this man sympathetic. If we didn't make him relatable or identifiable to the majority of the audience, we wouldn't have a show. His actions are indefensible. All we were hoping for was to get an understanding of why he's doing this, not to condone his actions."

Still, despite the critical acclaim surrounding Breaking Bad, Cranston and its cast, including Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn and Dean Norris, catching the cultural zeitgeist has been more elusive than it has been for other A-list dramas, including The Sopranos, Mad Men and The West Wing. Entertainment-oriented magazines have passed him by for covers. Mad Men's Jon Hamm and January Jones, who have not won Emmys, have hosted Saturday Night Live, but Cranston has not gotten the call.

Gilligan, who praised Cranston as a solid and "courageous" actor, said he is mystified: "Bryan truly deserves to be more noticed. He is much more a chameleon than most actors, and he truly disappears into his role.

"Perhaps it's that quality that has kept him from getting more covers or things like that. Hopefully that will change, because he can absolutely do anything. If he hosted Saturday Night Live, he would hit it out of the park."