First published in the Asbury Park Press, July 13, 2007
His is a face and a voice you’ll recognize from those hundreds of hours you’ve invested in front of screens big and small. Characters both silly and serious, in shows that range from “CHiPS” to “Baywatch;” “King of Queens” to “X-Files;” “Power Rangers” to the animated “Clerks.” He’s portrayed real-life astronauts in not one but two Tom Hanks projects; played Santa and helped save Private Ryan. You know him as anything from Jerry’s swinging dentist in several classic “Seinfeld” episodes, to Greg Kinnear’s less-than-helpful agent in the hit comedy “Little Miss Sunshine.” And for a while at least this summer, you just might place him as your neighbor down the block.
Before that, however, Bryan Cranston has a very welcome elephant in his living room to address — the seven seasons he spent as Hal, the beleaguered, frustrated dreamer of a dad in the Fox sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle.” It’s an experience in which the stalwart character actor tested the mach-envelope of his considerable energies weekly; regularly humiliating his own thespian dignity and going to sometime superhuman lengths in the service of a sharply-written, creatively realized belly laugh. It’s also a chapter of his life the success of which has allowed him to do his newest project, a major revival of Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two,” right here on the Jersey Shore.
Opening on Thursday, July 19 and presenting eight performances at Monmouth University’s Pollak Theatre, “Chapter Two” represents something of a “working vacation” for Bryan and his wife/co-star Robin Dearden. The Cranston family (including a daughter who will be assisting with the production) has rented a home in Avon for a good part of the summer — and for them it’s also a chance to work with their longtime friends, fellow actors and Monmouth County residents Bill and Georgette Timoney (under the direction of Jack Burke, chair of the school’s music and drama department).
Bryan and Bill (a versatile ace of voices who specializes in the English-language dubbing of Japanese anime and kid cartoons) met during Cranston’s days as a struggling Manhattan-based actor, and worked together on the West Coast stage. He and Robin, who have visited the Timoneys on the Jersey Shore in recent years, can trace their first meeting back to the time they both guested on an episode of the old “Airwolf” series (surely the only thing of lasting value to have derived from that much-maligned 1980s potboiler) — and 1999 saw the couple co-star in the award-winning indie drama “Last Chance,” a film that was also produced, directed and written (as a birthday gift for Robin) by Bryan.
The stately environs of Monmouth University are a far cry from the desert locations of “Last Chance,” but the actor expects to invest his requisite amount of “blood, sweat and tears” into “Chapter Two,” a 1977 play that surely ranks as one of the deepest and most introspective of the prolific Simon’s career. The semi-autobiographical story, in which a newly remarried widower attempts to reconcile the new chapter in his life with his ongoing feelings for his first wife, was ill served by a 1979 film that starred a miscast James Caan (along with Marsha Mason, the real-life second Mrs. Simon) — a box-office stillbirth that Cranston frankly dismisses as “syrupy, soft and plodding.”
“Jack and I had many conversations about the tone of the script, and you’ll see a totally different thing here,” Cranston says in comparison to the movie — adding that the characters played by Robin and himself “actually love each other; we want to be able to root for them.”
Whether sharing a dramatic moment or mastering the intricacies of roller-disco dancing in his role as Hal, the veteran actor freely admits that, like his vividly realized TV father figure, he’s “always looking for something to be passionate about…it’s a core thing that an audience relates to.”
As Cranston sees it, “Hal never realized what kind of person he could be” — a fact that didn’t stop the perennially broke, put-upon suburbanite from diving headlong into such single-episode pursuits as abstract painting and competitive race walking.
“We didn’t stand there and tell jokes,” the star observes of the expansive series on which he often doubled as director. “We didn’t use a laugh track, and we actually gave the audience a high level of respect.”
Having invested his TV character with a great deal of background from his early days of desperate struggle — as well as drawing upon the ups-and-downs of life with his professional actor father Joe (“One of my earliest memories is the EVICTED sign being nailed to our door”), the actor owns up to a “respectful” attitude towards money, and a pragmatic approach that demands he “never go beyond what I can afford.”
“Acting is inherently insecure, emotionally and financially,” maintains the successful actor and family man, who recently completed a pilot for a new cable series entitled “Breaking Bad.” “But I don’t have to be insecure!”