All presidents have secrets, this we know. But Lyndon Baines Johnson ... a meth dealer?
As absurd as that sounds, it's an image that may sneak into one's mind when first contemplating the notion of Bryan Cranston -- the Emmy-Award winner who sunk to deliciously depraved lows as chem-teacher-turned-meth-dealer Walter White on TV's "Breaking Bad" -- playing LBJ.
But that's Cranston's new gig in "All the Way," a new play by Robert Schenkkan opening Thursday at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Perhaps it's not such a stretch. There are some odd similarities between the two roles. Both men are fueled by enormous stores of inner resolve. Both forge unexpected paths abiding inner compasses all their own. And their jobs? Messy, requiring a poker face, strong stomach and the willingness "to get your hands wet," as Johnson says onstage.
They're also masters at hiding their true personalities.
"He was a gregarious, backslapping good-ole-boy," says Cranston of our 36th president, "not the buttoned-down, measured person he presented to the public. He did that because he thought it was more presidential."
The play looks at one seminal year, from November 1963 (when veep Johnson ascended to the presidency after John F. Kennedy's assassination), to November 1964 (the date of the presidential election). Fearing he might not win, Johnson realizes he has only one year guaranteed in the Oval Office, and chooses to make the most of it, pushing Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act, one of the most significant -- and controversial -- pieces of legislation in U.S. history.
Getting this play produced seems as improbable as that legislation's chances of passing at the time. Just try floating this idea to theater producers -- OK, it's a new play, no one's heard of it, it's historical and requires 24 actors. Mmm, good luck with that.
Such is the weight and revving power of Cranston's name right now that this production got anywhere near Broadway.
"I got cast before I knew the Lyndon," says Betsy Aidem, who plays first lady Lady Bird Johnson. When she heard it was Cranston, she thought, "Oh, this is a game-changer."
"Cranston's got the stuff, he's got the juice," agrees Michael McKean, who plays J. Edgar Hoover.
Cranston, Aidem and McKean were kids when the play takes place, but each recalls the period as one that shocked and politicized the adults around them. McKean, a Newsday paperboy in Sea Cliff around then, recalls the infamous '60s assassinations; Aidem, who was born in a Quonset hut in an East Meadow air force base -- no lie -- and went on to live in the South, remembers seeing "Whites Only" signs; and Cranston, raised in Canoga Park, Calif., can still picture his 8-year-old self noticing that "something was up and that I should start paying attention," he says. For him, Johnson was "the first president I became interested in."
Talk to any of the actors in the play (most of whom play multiple roles) and you'll hear that the chance to play real-life figures from such a tumultuous period is what attracted them to this production. This is especially true for Cranston, who must embody the immense contradictions of Johnson -- a man who fought for civil rights in one breath, then tossed around the "N" word in the next.
But that's what makes him fascinating, says Cranston, who knows a thing or two about complicated characters.
"He had tremendous goals -- he wanted to accomplish something," says Cranston. "He said" -- and here Cranston slips into his twangier, gruffer LBJ voice -- "'What the hell's the point of being president if you can't do what's right?'"
LBJ and civil rights
Historians love Lyndon Johnson's contradictions -- from biographers Michael Beschloss and Doris Kearns Goodwin to Robert Caro, whose LBJ books span 3,388 pages (and he's not done).
But they don't all agree on why, in the face of incredible odds -- and during an election year -- Johnson chose to push the Civil Rights Act through Congress.
For playwright Robert Schenkkan, the answer lies in one of Johnson's earliest jobs -- as a first-grade teacher to dirt-poor Mexican-American kids from a border town in Texas. (Just imagine him, all 6-foot-4, looming over them.)
Johnson loved his students and their eagerness to learn, he says.
"Yet there would be this moment when he'd see the light in their eyes die because they realized the world hated them because of the color of their skin," says Schenkkan. "It's the moment they realized they were other, and less than, because of racism. That clearly resonated with him in a profound way."
Some historians suggest Johnson's support of civil rights was political expediency, but Schenkkan thinks otherwise.
"He'd experienced poverty, and he'd seen how wasteful, how crushing, how ugly racism could be," says Schenkkan. "No, this is a man who walked his talk. He lived it. It mattered.