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The Malcolm In The Middle Connection You Missed On Breaking Bad

The shadow cast over popular culture by AMC's classic series Breaking Bad, which ran for five seasons between 2008 and 2013, just seems to be getting longer as time goes on. The story of how squeaky clean high school chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) becomes the infamous meth cook known as Heisenberg was never afraid to wear its influences — from spaghetti westerns to Scarface — on its sleeve, and likewise, references from the series have popped up in all kinds of media, from the video game Watch Dogs to the Disney animated film Zootopia.

Breaking Bad has become such a cultural touchstone — and is so loaded with Easter eggs and references — that some of its more eyebrow-raising connections can escape the average fan, even upon repeat viewings. And it turns out that, improbably, there happens to be a fairly obvious link between Breaking Bad and the series that made Cranston a star, the long-running Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle.

Famously, it was because of his role as Malcolm Wilkinson's (Frankie Muniz) goofy dad Hal that Cranston almost didn't land the part of Walter. The show's producers felt that he might lack the necessary dramatic chops to pull it off — and they initially had their hearts set on Matthew Broderick or John Cusack (although why they felt Ferris Bueller would be a better choice than Malcolm's dad remains unclear). But Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, having worked with Cranston during his time as a writer on The X-Files, was able to convince them — and at this point, Cranston's performance as Walter has completely eclipsed his stint as Hal. He is not, however, the only actor to appear on both shows. 

The other? Veteran character actor Larry Hankin, who appeared on two Breaking Bad episodes (and in the sequel movie El Camino) as criminally savvy junkyard proprietor Old Joe.

Larry Hankin's guest spot on Malcolm in the Middle was a bit different from his Breaking Bad appearance

Old Joe had occasion to save Walter's skin on two memorable occasions. In the season 3 episode "Sunset," he was able to delay Walter's DEA agent brother-in-law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) from searching the former's RV-slash-mobile meth lab by deploying a shockingly effective legal argument, giving Walter and his partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) — who were holed up in the RV at the time — some breathing room to devise an escape plan. Then, in the season 5 episode "Live Free or Die," he furnished the powerful electromagnet which was key to Walter's plan to destroy the egregiously incriminating laptop of his recently deceased former employer Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), which was being held in a police evidence locker.

The first time the two actors worked together, though, Hankin's character — a homeless guy named Luther — was throwing a king-sized monkey wrench into one of Hal's schemes. In the season 5 Malcolm in the Middle episode "Christmas Trees," Hal — having been forced into an unpaid vacation just weeks before Christmas — devises a plan to make some extra cash by opening a Christmas tree lot. Everything is going well until he and his boys are strong-armed by the surprisingly threatening priests from the church around the corner, whose own lot is losing customers due to Hal's undercutting of their prices.

When Hal refuses to pack it in, the priests send a phalanx of homeless men to invade his lot and scare off his customers. Luther's brief exchange with Hal results in one of the episode's funniest lines: when Hal offers to double whatever the priests are paying him, Luther asks incredulously if Hal can "double eternal salvation." Hal thinks about it for all of two seconds before confidently replying, "Yes I can!"

Larry Hankin has made a long career out of memorable bit parts

If Hankin looks familiar, it just might be because his career in TV and film stretches back over five decades, according to IMDb; his first credited role was in a 1966 episode of the Marlo Thomas sitcom That Girl. You probably recognize him, though, from two of the most popular sitcoms of the nineties. Between 1994 and 1996, he appeared on six episodes of Friends as Mr. Heckles, the downstairs neighbor of Monica (Courteney Cox) and Rachel (Jennifer Aniston). As a running gag, Heckles regularly chastised the pair for making noise and disrupting an increasingly implausible litany of his activities. Eventually, the character croaks and leaves the duo all of his possessions, in the aptly-titled season 2 episode "The One Where Heckles Dies."

Hankin also guest-starred on the season 4 Seinfeld episode "The Pilot," a two-parter, in which his character Tom Pepper is cast in the pilot episode of the show-within-a-show, Jerry. Pepper portrays the fictional counterpart of Jerry's "real life" neighbor Cosmo Kramer (Michael Richards), having landed the part due to his uncanny ability to mimic Kramer's tics and mannerisms. Trouble arises, though, when Jerry's best friend and Jerry's co-creator George Costanza (Jason Alexander) suspects Pepper of stealing a box of raisins during his audition — and George's inability to let the petty theft go causes Pepper to become increasingly threatening and hostile.

There's a reason why Hankin was such a great choice to play Pepper — he had actually auditioned for the part of Kramer when Seinfeld was being cast (via A.V. Club), but lost out to Richards. Thankfully, though, the actor rolled with that punch — and he continues to pop into TV shows, to steal scenes from heavy hitters like Cranston, to this day.