Fifteen years ago today, Malcolm in the Middle debuted on Fox and introduced many viewers to the man who, before he wandered through the deserts of New Mexico in his underpants, happily and without a shred of inhibition danced in his tighty-whiteys in a suburban kitchen.
Bryan Cranston, as Malcolm papa Hal, not only reveled in the freedom of maneuvering about the family home in his drawers — on multiple occasions — but spent dozens of hours learning to, acted as a human paintbrush, and allowed thousands of live bees to be slathered on his body to form a suit of stingers. There was little — actually, nothing — the future Emmy-winning actor wouldn’t do as Hal, Malcolm creator Linwood Boomer tells Yahoo TV.
“The bee suit came out of a conversation with the writers: ‘I wonder if there’s anything Bryan won’t do?’” Boomer says. “Because he also was willing to run down a crowded street in his underpants — in a very unflattering way. It wasn’t like we put him in some kind of designer briefs or something. He was just wearing this pair of floppy tighty-whiteys, and he was fine with that.”
Here, a look back at Cranston’s most delightfully over-the-top Malcolm performances, and what he was willing to do to make us laugh.
“Rollerskates,” Season 1
When son Malcolm (Frankie Muniz) asks Hal to teach him to skate, Hal is only too happy to help Malcolm join “the brotherhood of the wheel.” Hal, we soon learn, is a roller disco champion, having once performed a routine that “won me a gold medal, a macrame plant hanger, and your mother’s heart all in the same afternoon,” he tells his son. And while an experienced stunt double performed the complicated jumps in Hal’s routine, Boomer says the actor learned a new skill to pull off a large chunk of Hal’s routine.
“We said, ‘Listen, we’re going to do this thing where you do roller disco,’ and Bryan said, ‘How much time do I have?’ I said, ‘A couple weeks.’ He said, ‘OK,’ and he just basically practiced roller skating every free second that he had off the show and became an incredibly proficient roller skater very quickly and in time for the shoot,” says Boomer, who won an Emmy for the Malcolm pilot. “I asked him, ‘How many hours did you spend?’ and he said, ‘Hundreds.’”
“The Bots and the Bees,” Season 1
What evolved into one of the series’ most memorable episodes began with the idea of the stunt — getting Cranston to cover his body in live bees. “Somebody said, ‘I wonder if he’d wear a suit of live bees?’ It was just pitched like that,” Boomer says. “We called him and he said, ‘Absolutely.’ Then we had to figure out how to write a script that has that in it. It isn’t the way we usually wrote anything, and it isn’t the way I recommend writing something, where you’re basically writing an entire script to get to one sight gag. [But] it really worked. We worked very hard on that, because we also felt like it had to have some kind of emotional core to it. Bryan just inspired that. He was really an inspiring co-worker. We got a lot of stories just based on what we could do with that character, the freedom he gave us as a performer.”
Ten thousand bees, a bee handler, and a smoke machine later, the actor was covered in the buzzing buggers head to waist for a scene in which the bee-filled robot Hal obsessively builds while missing wife Lois (Jane Kaczmarek) is used against him. “Bryan was very brave,” says “The Bots and the Bees” director Chris Koch. “I remember him standing there in his underwear, and they put bee pheromones on him… It’s like perfume that attracts the bees. Then they smoked the bees with the smoker so they’d get kind of docile. The handler got a bucket full of thousands of bees — it looked like a big grain barrel — then he took a big scooper, and he just started to scoop them onto Bryan, who is standing there with his arms out at his sides.
“My favorite part, though… We’re done — it was a very quick shot — and now we’ve got to get the bees off Bryan. ‘How do you do this?’ I said to the handler. "He goes, ‘Oh, Bryan, just jump up and down.’ Bryan jumps up and down, and all the bees fall off, onto the ground.” Koch, now a producer and director on ABC’s Galavant, jokes that “not one bee was harmed in the making of Malcolm in the Middle,” and neither, for the most part, was Cranston. “After the bees were off of him, he’s walking around in his underwear, and they’re spraying him with smoke. I’m like, ‘Bryan, did you get stung?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I got stung once.’ But he didn’t even flinch.”
“Hal Quits,” Season 2
When even the children in Dewey’s (Erik Per Sullivan) class are bummed out by Hal’s job on Career Day, the impulsive daddy decides to ditch his nine-to-five and pursue his dream of being a painter. But when the pressure to create a masterpiece on the giant canvas he’s hung in the garage becomes too much, Hal drowns himself in a bucket of paint — he “blue himself” long before Tobias did it on Arrested Development — and runs at the canvas.
“And he didn’t think twice about it,” says Ken Kwapis, the “Hal Quits” director who also helped launch The Office and The Bernie Mac Show, and is the producer and director of Showtime’s upcoming drama Happyish. “Another actor might’ve been worried that he was going to get some sort of toxic reaction to the paint. But Brian just took the plunge and threw himself against the wall.”
“Reese’s Job,” Season 3
The good people of Fruit of the Loom and Hanes continue to miss out on the perfect spokesman for their white men’s briefs, because if there’s anyone who has managed to make tighty-whitey underwear even the slightest bit cool, it’s Bryan Cranston. And it all began with Hal’s fondness for that particular style of undergarment, which he wore so proudly and memorably in episodes like “Reese’s Job,” where Hal dances and preens in his undies, while singing a little ditty about his love of bacon and its effects on his body: “I’m so full of bacon, my body’s meant for shakin’, and when I start to wiggle, my nipples, they will jiggle.”
Cranston, who made tighty-whiteys a Hal trademark, has extended the goof throughout his other projects, donning the generic briefs for Breaking Bad, Saturday Night Live, and on the big screen in Rock of Ages. “It was in both scripts, ironically, that Hal wore tighty-whiteys, and so did Walter White, and I didn’t know why, until I figured out,” Cranston said during an interview on The Colbert Report. “[Hal’s] still a boy, and [Walter’ doesn’t care anymore.” Adds director Kwapis, “When I saw the first season advertisement for Breaking Bad, I was comforted to see Bryan standing in the desert, clad in his underwear. I thought, ‘That’s just what Hal would do.’”
“Malcolm Holds His Tongue,” Season 4
When Hal happens upon a group of racewalkers in the park, he declares it’s “like watching the gods return to Olympus,” and, of course, throws himself completely into the sport. That means the purchase of a flame-themed spandex onesie and aerodynamic helmet — necessary so he can compete against his nemesis, Wheeler — and a morning protein beverage that consists of raw eggs, raw ground meat, soy powder, and juice. And yes — of course — Cranston actually drank the gross, chunky mix.
“Yes. It’s proven because there was no edit. It was all played in one shot,” episode director Jeff Melman, who won two Emmys for directing Malcolm, tells Yahoo TV. “We just let it play, and we were all squeamish about it as he was doing it. No one could believe that he would actually drink it, but he was game for everything.” Boomer, who says Cranston is among the cast and crew who talk about the idea of a Malcolm reunion someday, adds, “[These kinds of performances] require an actor of enormous courage and talent. There are a lot of dumb actors that are pretty brave, and there are a lot of smart actors who are sophisticated, and Bryan is one of the few that manages to combine both of those things. I think that’s what makes him so exciting to watch.”
Malcolm in the Middle, the complete series, is available to stream on Netflix.