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Bryan Cranston spent six months rehearsing for his role as Lyndon Johnson in HBO's "All the Way."
The "Breaking Bad" star headlined the Broadway production of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan's drama about the first year of LBJ's administration after John F. Kennedy was assassinated when he pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Cranston won rave reviews and a Tony Award, and he jumped at the chance to bring "All the Way" to HBO. (Debuts Saturday, 9 p.m.)
"We could now reach millions more and tell this important story by way of HBO," he said. "So it wasn't a difficult decision."
It is an important story. And very much at odds with "Selma," which portrayed LBJ as, at best, reluctantly favoring civil rights.
"He absolutely was down for this cause," Schenkkan said. "Let's get that right out there. But he was a very, very complicated fellow."
He pointed to former Johnson speechwriter Bill Moyers' description of LBJ as "13 of the most interesting people I've ever met. … He could be magnanimous one day and petty the next. … He could also at times be uncouth and clumsy and stubborn. And he could do the virtuous thing, and he could do the vile thing."
Cranston delivers a stunning performance as this complicated man. We see him using skill, wile and power to get the civil-rights bill through Congress. We see him speaking from the heart about his desire to right the wrongs of segregation and Jim Crow. And we see him chuckle and make crude comments while he and J. Edgar Hoover (Stephen Root) listen to a tape of Martin Luther King (Anthony Mackie) having sex.
"You like him and you're appalled by him, and then you're pulled into him," Cranston said. "Then you're repelled by him. So you're constantly doing this trombone with LBJ."
Cranston's physical transformation is astonishing.
"Fortunately, my own natural physical makeup is what every man searches for beady eyes and thin lips," he joked. "And that's what I share with LBJ."
But makeup resulted in a startling re-creation of Johnson and helped Cranston's performance, he said. "You start to feel more confident."
What "All the Way" does is re-create the appalling tenor of the battle for civil rights. The racism spouted by senators and congressmen is horrendous, and the fact that LBJ was willing to battle Southern Democrats while fighting to secure his party's nomination and win the 1964 election speaks to his moral courage.
HBO's "All the Way" is a "complete cinematic reinvention of the story that I told onstage," Schenkkan said. Scenes and characters were cut; others were added.
The result is a compelling drama that Schenkkan said he had been pondering for years "because, A, [LBJ] is such an incredible character a really Shakespearean character," he said. "And, B, because of what he did. He changed this country."
Scott D. Pierce covers TV for The Salt Lake Tribune. Email him at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @ScottDPierce.