In casting an actor to play President Lyndon Johnson, Bryan Cranston — last seen as a New Mexico meth dealer in the TV hit "Breaking Bad" — seemed an unlikely choice.
But the former Walter White is taking his star turn on Broadway this spring. In his role as LBJ, Cranston is playing to large audiences and (mostly) enthusiastic reviews. "Mr. Cranston's heat-generating performance," wrote the New York Times theater critic, "galvanizes the production."
There's nothing quiet about his performance. He plays Johnson as the guy who takes up all the air in the room — crude, profane, manipulative, sometimes cruel, but also shrewd in the ways of politics and persuasive in close quarters.
When Johnson says that a rival has become more helpful "since I stepped on his (blank)," we laugh because we know he means it.
"Everybody wants power." Johnson tells us. "Everybody."
And later to the future Vice President Hubert Humphrey: "That's the trouble with you liberals. You don't know how to fight."
For all his bluster and bullying, Johnson also was the first prominent Southern Democrat to embrace two simple ideas: (1) it was time to end discrimination on the basis of race; and (2) the government ought to help people escape poverty.
"What's the point of being president," he asks, "if you don't do what's right?"
Playwright Robert Schenkkan has the president tell us about his first job out of college, teaching kids in a dirt-poor school in Cotulla, Texas. The experience made a lasting impression.