In the current Golden Age of Television, Breaking Bad is surely a crowning achievement. A Shakespeare-inspired tale of a mild-mannered chemistry teacher whose cancer diagnosis sparks a transformation into a fully-fledged kingpin of the drug underworld, Breaking Bad is never anything less than utterly compelling. It soon became the definition of “binge-watching” after debuting in 2008.
Of course, at the center of the show’s huge success is Bryan Cranston’s seminal performance as main character Walter White. Cranston, along with the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, and the rest of the exceptional cast and crew, developed a character that will live on indefinitely in the history of television. Walt will no doubt be remembered as one of the greatest antiheroes ever put to screen.
Breaking Bad is also renowned for its amazing attention to detail. Fans have pored extensively over episode numbering, hidden messages, and visual metaphors, often finding small chunks of additional meaning, covert Easter eggs, or miscellaneous trivia. Subsequently, there are plenty of facts regarding lead figure Walter White that many Breaking Bad fans may not know. From behind the scenes casting options to the character’s initial conception, Walt is almost as interesting off-screen as he is on it.
Say his name. Here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About Walter White.
15 He has much in common with the real Heisenberg
It's common knowledge that Walter White’s Heisenberg alias is inspired by real life scientist Werner Heisenberg, but like so much else in Breaking Bad, this was not a random choice, and the two figures share more than just a name.
Like Walter, the real life Heisenberg also suffered from cancer, albeit not of the lung. Both men also followed a similar career trajectory, in the sense that they started off on the straight and narrow before becoming involved in something darker. In the case of Werner Heisenberg, the scientist won a Nobel Prize in 1932 but would eventually form part of the Nazis’ Nuclear Research team.
Perhaps the main reason why Walter White was given the Heisenberg alias, however, is because of the scientist’s famous Uncertainty Principle. This theory claims that a particle’s momentum and exact position cannot both be known for certain. This acts as an metaphor for Walter White’s transformation from humble teacher to hardened criminal – as he gains momentum, his moral position becomes less clear.
14 The famous hat was added to stop sunburn
One of the most iconic images from Breaking Bad is Heisenberg’s hat and sunglasses outfit and the rough sketch poster that came as a result of this disguise. Although Vince Gilligan made a point of charting Walt’s rise in the criminal underworld with a darker and more intimidating change of wardrobe, the famous Heisenberg hat actually came about for a very different reason.
According to costume designer Kathleen Detoro, the original reason the piece was added to Cranston’s wardrobe was to help prevent the actor’s newly shaved head from getting sunburnt while filming out in the blazing New Mexico sun.
With many of the early Heisenberg moments taking place outdoors, the decision is perhaps understandable. Whether the crew had any idea how famous the hat would become is irrelevant; the addition was simply one of those happy accidents that helped contribute to the show’s success.
13 Bryan Cranston made a large contribution to the character
Bryan Cranston wasn’t just responsible for bringing the character of Walter White to life; he also made a sizeable contribution to the figure’s backstory and physical appearance.
In Breaking Bad, clothing is often used to reflect a character’s personality, and Walt’s descent into criminality can actually be charted by what he wears in each season. As such, it was important for Walt to look as bland and boring as possible in the earlier episodes, and Cranston was apparently a huge help in this regard. He even attempted to style Walt’s mustache into something that resembled a dead mouse.
Whatever method Cranston and Gilligan used to conceive the character, the results are impossible to argue with, and early-Walt undoubtedly succeeds at looking like the person you’d least expect to become a drug lord.
12 There was a real drug dealer called Walter White
Art often imitates life, but, sometimes, the reverse is also true. At the height of Breaking Bad’s popularity and with television fans the world over knowing of the Albuquerque drug lord Walter White, the last thing anyone genuinely called Walter White would want to do is be involved in the drug trade.
One man in Alabama clearly didn’t get that memo, however, and in 2013, police arrested a person by the name of Walter White for dealing banned substances. The fact that he was dealing meth (albeit not of the blue variety) only adds to the strange coincidence. This real Walter White was sentenced to twelve years behind bars, clearly lacking his namesake’s tactical and organizational intelligence.
In truth, Alabama’s Walter White had actually begun his illicit enterprise before Breaking Bad’s 2008 premiere, so perhaps art does imitate life after all.
11 He had an obituary in a real newspaper
Breaking Bad is a shining example of how a phenomenally successful series can deliver a pitch-perfect finale episode, but this didn’t mean fans weren’t utterly devastated by both the show’s conclusion and Walt’s demise.
Some hardcore viewers responded to this by taking out an obituary in a local Albuquerque newspaper complete with a headshot photograph of the deceased drug lord. Highlights from the passage included “White was a research chemist who taught high school chemistry, and later founded a meth manufacturing empire” and “donations can be made to a drug prevention charity of your choice.”
Best of all, anyone who wasn’t familiar with the show (and hasn’t seen Malcolm In The Middle) could’ve easily believed the obituary was for a genuine person. A brilliant way to mark the end of an extraordinary series.
10 Cranston’s role in The X-Files helped him get the part
Although Bryan Cranston was always Vince Gilligan’s first choice for the role of Walter White, AMC had some serious reservations. Because the actor was best known at that point for his comedic role as Hal in Malcolm In The Middle, the network felt Cranston wouldn’t be taken seriously as a criminal.
Thankfully, AMC’s other candidates proved unavailable, giving Gilligan another opportunity to once again put Cranston forward for the role. He did this by showing them an episode of The X-Files he had written called “Drive” in which Cranston had played a crazed anti-Semitic villain.
The episode had already convinced Gilligan of Cranston’s dramatic chops and did the same for AMC, who finally agreed to cast the actor. Needless to say, this decision panned out pretty well for all involved.
9 John Cusack and Matthew Broderick were considered for the part
Before AMC was sold on Bryan Cranston’s suitability for the role of Walter White, several other actors were strongly considered, including big names such as John Cusack (High Fidelity, Being John Malkovich) and Matthew Broderick (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).
Although AMC’s apparent determination to cast an eighties coming-of-age movie icon is certainly odd, both actors would’ve likely been talented enough to portray White’s everyman-turned-criminal character. Cusack in particular has proven himself to be equally effective as both a protagonist and an antagonist.
With hindsight, however, it’s impossible to imagine anyone other than Cranston in the role, and Vince Gilligan has previously stated that he was actively against casting big-name actors, as he felt this would be detrimental to the show. Breaking Bad’s major success proved he knew exactly what he was doing.
8 Walt was originally supposed to be younger
Although Walter White’s cancer diagnosis is what triggers his transformation into a criminal mastermind, there’s also a bit of a midlife crisis element at play, especially when it comes to Walt continuing to build his empire even after securing his family’s financial future.
However, in earlier drafts of the Breaking Bad script, Vince Gilligan had envisioned Walter White as a forty year old, rather than a fifty year old. This was eventually dropped in order to make the aforementioned midlife crisis theme more believable and for it to be natural that Walt would start questioning his legacy in life.
For some younger fans, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference whether Walt was forty or fifty (anyone over thirty is old, right?), but the decision certainly aided in helping audiences relate to Walt, even after he had begun his transformation into Heisenberg.
7 His lottery coordinates lead to the studio where the show was filmed
In season five episode “Buried,” Walter White is forced to find a hiding place for the riches he has amassed thanks to the success of his meth empire. He chooses to bury the money in the middle of the New Mexico desert and, in order to remember the exact location, buys a lottery ticket using the site’s coordinates as numbers.
Although following the coordinates on the ticket won’t lead you to barrels full of cash, unfortunately, they will take you directly to the Albuquerque studio where the series was filmed. Interestingly, the same studio also played host to the first The Avengers movie, and Samuel L. Jackson reportedly once turned up on the Breaking Bad set in full Nick Fury gear asking for a cameo.
6 The dispute over his birth year
No one is in any doubt about Walt’s age over the course of Breaking Bad because, in a pleasing bit of circular symmetry, the show’s opening episode takes place on the chemistry teacher’s fiftieth birthday, and the finale takes place on his fifty-second. While his actual age is made clear, the year of his birth – and therefore the exact period in which the series takes place – is a little muddier.
In the show, Jane Margolis’ father claims that his daughter would’ve been “twenty-seven next month.” Since Jane was born in April of 1982, this means that the show’s pilot – and Walt’s fiftieth birthday – takes place in 2009.
However, while the promoting spinoff project Better Call Saul, series creator Vince Gilligan stated that the new show took place in 2002, “six years before Saul meets Walter White.” If true, this would put the pilot of Breaking Bad a year earlier, in 2008.
5 Walt’s middle name, Hartwell, is a nod to Vince Gilligan’s girlfriend
Although not often mentioned on screen, many Breaking Bad fans may already know that Walter White’s middle name is, in fact, Hartwell. However, it is not as widely known that this part of Walt’s moniker comes from creator Vince Gilligan’s own girlfriend, Lucy "Holly" Hartwell Rice. Walt’s baby daughter Holly is allegedly also named after Lucy.
This isn’t the first time the writer has squeezed a tribute to his girlfriend into a television show, of course. While working on The X-Files, Gilligan named an educational institute in season nine’s “Jump The Shark” Hartwell College. The references are an incredibly sweet gesture and one that only the couple – or anyone who watches DVD commentary...or reads this article – will know about. Bit awkward if they ever decide to call it a day, though.
4 Walt was originally going to directly kill Jane
One of the most despicable acts Walter White commits during Breaking Bad is allowing Jesse’s girlfriend Jane to die of a drug overdose during the season two offering “Phoenix," especially since he could have at least made some attempt to save her. As uncomfortable as this scene is, however, the original draft was far, far darker.
Vince Gilligan’s original intention was for Walt to kill Jane in a more direct way, either by injecting her with drugs himself or by actually moving her into a position that would make her choke. Other members of the writers’ room disagreed with this idea and felt that it would make viewers hate Walt more than was necessary at that point in the show.
Eventually, Gilligan came to the same conclusion, and Walt stood by and watched Jane die, rather than killing her directly. As if that’s any better.
3 George R. R. Martin thinks Walt’s worse than anyone in Game of Thrones
Breaking Bad has a burgeoning celebrity fan base, and Sir Anthony Hopkins famously sent Bryan Cranston a fan letter upon the conclusion of the series. Another keen viewer is A Song of Ice and Fire author George R. R. Martin, and the writer firmly believes that Walt is far more evil than any figure that Game of Thrones has to offer.
Although Walter White is certainly dastardly, it’s perhaps somewhat of a stretch to put him on the same level as the likes of Joffrey Baratheon – who murdered others for fun – and Ramsay Bolton, who tortured poor Theon Greyjoy restlessly.
It is good news for readers looking forward to the long-promised The Winds of Winter, though, as Martin has promised in his Livejournal blog to “do something about” the lack of characters as evil as Walt in Westeros.
2 Walt’s pizza on the roof shot was a one-take wonder
One of the most iconic, yet hilarious, scenes in Breaking Bad is when an angry and frustrated Walt throws a pizza in the air and it ends up on his garage roof. Although the production crew initially expected to have to go through a few takes before pulling off the trick, Bryan Cranston revealed on Jimmy Kimmel Live! that he surprised even himself by landing the shot on the first take. The actor’s shock is actually partially visible in the scene.
Dim-witted fans of the show have since attempted to recreate the moment at the same house used for filming, which in real life belongs to a retired couple, and Vince Gilligan has been forced to make a public plea for viewers to stop harassing the poor residents.
1 The reactions to Walt’s bald head are genuine
Walt’s cancer treatment is the main reason he shaves his head on screen, but the new style also serves to make the character look much more intimidating as his drug business begins to take off. Either way, the moment is a defining change in Walt’s character, and the scene where Walt first reveals his new freshly-shorn head to his family is both tense and emotional.
Part of what makes this scene work so well is that Anna Gunn and R.J. Mitt - who played Walt’s wife Skylar and his son Walt Jr. - hadn’t actually seen the actor’s new ‘do prior to filming. This means that their reactions are completely genuine, making the scene feel like a realistic family scenario. Of course, all that Walt Jr. was worried about was finishing his breakfast.
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