"He was bigger than life," three-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston says. "Sometimes he was friendly, sometimes he was vicious. He would cajole, he would threaten, he would pressure, he would hug. He swung so wide on the spectrum of human emotions in order to accomplish what he felt needed to be done. It doesn't take much time for an actor to look at that and go wow, how wonderful and frightening to step in those shoes."
Cranston, 57, the much lauded star of television's highly praised series "Breaking Bad," is talking about Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the United States, whom he will portray in September in All the Way, at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The playwright is Robert Schenkkan, 60, whose The Kentucky Cycle won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. Schenkkan's play deals with Johnson's first year as president, from the moment he was sworn in on the airport tarmac in Dallas on November 22, 1963, after the assassination of John F. Kennedy until his election to his own full term in November 1964.
"It was a tumultuous whirlwind of a year," Cranston says.
It's a new production of the work, which was first performed, without Cranston, in summer 2012 at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The title comes from Johnson's campaign slogan, "All the Way With LBJ."
Schenkkan says that All the Way focuses on "the whole idea of the morality of power. We want our leaders to achieve, yet to what length are we willing to see them go to achieve those goals which we regard as worthy or even necessary?" Johnson, he says, "is the quintessential political figure to wrestle with that" – and it's "not an easy question."
LBJ, he says, "had an outsized effect on American public policy and American society and culture, both in some very, very good ways and some very, very terrible ways." His "legislative record on the domestic side is astounding – Medicare, Medicaid, Aid to Dependent Children, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, aid to education, his poverty programs, the 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts: landmark pieces of legislation. The list goes on and on." But, he says, there's also the "catastrophe" and "tragedy" of Vietnam – "the lying over Vietnam started almost immediately."
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