This Terrible Moment

'All the Way' playwright Robert Schenkkan and his LBJ, Bryan Cranston, on JFK's assassination

This Terrible Moment

Bryan Cranston had the LBJ Presidential Library and Museum all to himself. The Breaking Bad star, preparing to play Lyndon Johnson in a production of Robert Schenkkan's award-winning drama All the Way at American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Mass., had come to research the former commander-in-chief, and the staff had given him access to the building after hours. If you think the place can feel like a monumental mausoleum when it's full of visitors, imagine what it's like when you're alone. "A little ominous" was Cranston's description to a group of reporters quizzing him and Schenkkan about All the Way prior to their joint appearance at the library's 2013 Harry Middleton Lecture, Nov. 14.

Bryan Cranston (r) looks at LBJ's eyeglasses with Michael MacDonald, LBJ Museum Registrar.
Bryan Cranston (r) looks at LBJ's eyeglasses with Michael MacDonald, LBJ Museum Registrar. (Courtesy of Lauren Gerson / LBJ Library)

Asked what he found then that interested him the most, Cranston turned to a memento from the wake of John Kennedy's assassination: "A very little thing, but it meant a lot to me," he said. "There was a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy to Lyndon Johnson about four days after the assassination, and in it she thanked him and praised him for his courage to walk with Jack during the funeral procession down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. He didn't need to do that, and as she pointed out, the Secret Service probably discouraged him from doing that, and yet he made the decision to be out on foot and walk with him. Then there was an addendum to that: She profusely thanked him for writing to her small children about their father. It really touched her. And it really meant a lot to me, because here is this situation where this man just took over the presidency under tragic conditions, and in those four days he took the time – he's now the President of the United States, but he took the time to write two individual letters to his predecessor's children. That says something about the character of the man, the person."

Though only a boy in 1963, Cranston says JFK's assassination had a "profound" impact on him, "not because I understood directly the event, but I saw the effects it had on all of the adults around me. It destroyed them. These grown men and women in each other's arms, weeping, and I realized that what just happened was important, and I needed to pay attention. That was my introduction into politics and how it related to me, even as a young boy."

All the Way, which was one of the winners of the inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History and the winner of the 2013 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award and is bound for Broadway, opens with the newly sworn-in Johnson on Air Force One flying to Washington from Dallas. Sitting alone, he wakes from a nightmare in which he's in a Hill Country cabin under attack from Comanches. Schenkkan chose that scene to launch his take on LBJ, because he wanted "to thrust the audience into the meat of the dramatic attack – this terrible moment of confusion, fear, horror, and opportunity – and to see this man, who has spent his entire life to get to this point, suddenly finding himself there – not in any way that he would have chosen, but by God, he is there now – and the dramatic question is: 'Now that he's President, what does LBJ really want?' And that's what the play answers."

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