Malcolm's dad to Walter White -- who knew?

Posted: September 4, 2014 at 2:07 a.m.

Bryan Cranston played the title character’s father, Hal, on Malcolm in the Middle in 2005. In the background are Frankie Muniz (left), Erik Per Sullivan and Justin Berfield, who played three of his sons.

Bryan Cranston played the title character’s father, Hal, on Malcolm in the Middle in 2005. In the background are Frankie Muniz (left), Erik Per Sullivan and Justin Berfield, who played three of his sons.

Let's be honest. You never saw Bryan Cranston coming, did you?

Back when you were watching Malcolm in the Middle 13 or 14 years ago, you never considered that the fellow playing Malcolm's hapless dad would emerge as one of the most gifted and honored actors of our generation.

Malcolm in the Middle was mainly a showcase for young Frankie Muniz in the title role, and Jane Kaczmarek as his mother, Lois. The series ran from 2000 to 2006 on Fox and ended up winning a Peabody Award and seven Emmys (two of them going to Cloris Leachman as guest actress in a comedy).

(Trivia: Malcolm's family surname was Wilkerson, but it was never mentioned and only seen once in the pilot on a military school uniform name tag.)

Cranston's dysfunctional Hal was used most frequently as a foil, but the role showcased his comedic timing and acting chops. He earned three Emmy nominations as best supporting actor in a comedy, never winning.

(More trivia: Cranston lost in 2001 and 2002 to Brad Garrett from Everybody Loves Raymond, and in 2005 to Jeremy Piven of Entourage.)

Flash forward to a week and a half ago and Cranston is standing on the stage accepting his fourth -- fourth -- best lead actor in a drama Emmy for playing Walter White in AMC's Breaking Bad. Cranston won the statuette three years running (2008-2010) and shared another Emmy as a co-executive producer along the way.

Breaking Bad, which wrapped last fall after five seasons, cleaned up at this year's Emmys, winning its second consecutive best drama trophy.

Not only was it Cranston's fourth best actor Emmy, it was Aaron Paul's (full name Aaron Paul Sturtevant) third best supporting actor Emmy for his role of Jesse Pinkman, and Anna Gunn's second consecutive supporting actress Emmy as Skylar White.

All the accolades for Breaking Bad came as no surprise. It was a remarkable series, one of the best in years.

Then again, nothing much else came as a surprise at the Emmys. The winners in every major category had won before.

Jim Parsons won his fourth best comedy actor Emmy for the role of Sheldon Cooper on CBS' The Big Bang Theory, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus won her third consecutive as best comedy actress playing Vice President Selina Meyer in HBO's Veep.

ABC's Modern Family won best comedy series for its fifth consecutive year in a row, tying NBC's Frasier for most best comedy Emmy wins.

Positive viewpoint: TV has a wealth of beloved characters and series that are rightfully being honored year after year.

Cynical viewpoint: Emmy is in a rut and a brilliant series or role has the odds stacked against it if the competition includes a previous winner.

Case in point -- poor Jon Hamm has been nominated (and lost) seven times for the role of Don Draper in Mad Men. He's like the Susan Lucci of prime time. Lucci, playing Erica Kane on All My Children, was nominated for a Daytime Emmy 18 times as lead actress in a drama before winning on try No. 19 in 1999.

Emmy voters, creatures of habit and routine, tend to love the familiar choices. As one critic put it, "Too often, Emmy celebrates not excellence, but an excellently maintained status quo."

I well recall 1996 when an altruistic Candice Bergen decided to give some other actress a shot by declining to be nominated after having already won five Emmys playing Murphy Brown.

And then there was John Lithgow's obvious embarrassment at the 1999 Emmys (he rolled his eyes in disbelief) when he won his third Emmy playing Dick Solomon on Third Rock From the Sun. Lithgow knew the past season was not his or the show's best and the honor should have gone to one of the other nominees -- Michael J. Fox, Kelsey Grammer, Paul Reiser or Ray Romano.

But there have to be winners and losers. This year there was an embarrassing excess of quality.

One winner was NBC. With Seth Meyers hosting, the Emmys won the ratings night with 15.6 million viewers. NBC reported its biggest total viewer count for a Monday, excluding the Olympics, in more than two years.

Which brings us back to Cranston and my one memorable anecdote from when I met him in 2005.

Cranston and his Malcolm castmates were at a Fox meet 'n' greet during a TV critics summer press tour in Pasadena, Calif., when I told him that I had the chance to chat with the legendary Dick Van Dyke a couple of days before at a similar event.

I asked if he watched any current TV shows and without hesitation, Van Dyke answered, "I just love Malcolm in the Middle. Never miss it. I think Bryan Cranston is so talented."

Cranston's jaw dropped. He blushed and was at a loss for words. It turns out Van Dyke was right.

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Weekend on 09/04/2014