While it’s fun to imagine what an old show might look like if it were made with a new cast today, it’s also interesting to consider what a popular series from this era might look like had it been made in the past. The 1990s was an interesting year for television, spanning popular series in the drama category like The Practice, NYPD Blue, The Sopranos, Law & Order, and Quantum Leap. But none were quite of the caliber of a show like Breaking Bad.
In fact, the network AMC that launched Breaking Bad was really only known for movies at that time. An acronym for American Movie Classics, it wasn’t until 2002 that the network re-branded, and not until 2007 that it was really taken seriously in television with the launch of Mad Men. But what might it have looked like had AMC launched Breaking Bad a decade or more earlier? Who would play the main characters?
Walter White: Bruce Willis
Willis was the “it” guy of Hollywood back in the ’90s. While he didn’t have his signature bald head that perfectly resembles Walter White’s alter-ego Heisenberg at that time, he could easily have pulled off the duality of the character, who began as a soft-spoken chemistry teacher and morphed into a terrifying drug kingpin.
Willis is known more for his movie roles which, during that decade, included Die Hard, Pulp Fiction, 12 Monkeys, and The Fifth Element. It’s tough to imagine anyone but Bryan Cranston in the role. But Willis would have been a shoo-in and an obvious choice at that time.
Skyler White: Jodie Foster
The double Academy Award winner, like Willis, is more known for her movie roles. But if the trend of Hollywood movie actors moving to the small screen happened in the 1990s, Foster would have been a great candidate to play Skyler, who was played by Anna Gunn.
Acting since the ’70s, she had some notable roles in the ’90s, including, of course, as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2021. Interestingly, she also played the wife of Richard Gere’s character in Sommersby, a 1993 movie whereby her character believed the man who returned home from the Civil War posing as her husband was actually an imposter. It would have been a simple shift for the versatile actor, who would have handled the character with ease.
Jesse Pinkman: Leonardo DiCaprio
DiCaprio was flying high in the ’90s as a sought-after actor with roles in movies like This Boy’s Life, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, and Titanic. But it’s easy to forget that he got his start on the small screen, on the sitcom Growing Pains, and with recurring roles on series like Parenthood.
He was no stranger to television and DiCaprio is known for being able to fully immerse and transform himself into any role. He would be at the right age and at the right point in his career to have played the high school dropout and small-time drug dealer who gets sucked into the criminal underworld. He’s slightly older than Aaron Paul, who played the role. But like Paul, DiCaprio has a signature “baby face” that makes him able to convincingly pull off younger roles.
Hank Schrader: Will Smith
Hot off the heels of the success of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, it was in the late ’90s that Smith switched to more dramatic movie roles. And he often found himself playing characters of authority and with combat training, like a police officer in Bad Boys, a marine pilot in Independence Day, and an agent in Men in Black.
The role of Hank, played by Dean Norris, perfectly combined elements of authority and law-making with a bit of quirky comedy, which would have let Smith show off both sides of his talent.
Marie Schrader: Alicia Silverstone
Silverstone is known for playing quirky characters, most notably the lead in the teen comedy movie Clueless. While Marie is more of a dramatic role, Silverstone showed her more dramatic acting chops in the short-lived 2003 series Miss Match.
Silverstone would have been in her 20s in the ’90s but she’s only a few years younger than Betsey Brandt, who played Marie.
Saul Goodman: Jim Carrey
Like Carrey, Bob Odenkirk, who brought this animated character to life, got his start in comedy. Both, in fact, were in sketch comedy series, Odenkirk in Mr. Show with Bob and David and Carrey in In Living Color.
Carrey might seem like an odd choice, but the ’90s were his decade with hit movie after hit movie, from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective to The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, and Liar Liar (where he ironically played a lawyer). Most of his roles involved slapstick and physical comedy but through the years, Carrey has proven that he can delve deep into drama as well. And he could have pulled off this character.
Mike Ehrmantraut: Sylvester Stallone
Forever known as Rocky Balboa, Stallone did a lot of acting in the ’90s beyond those movies, with roles in Cobra, Tango and Cash, Cliffhanger, Demolition Man, and The Specialist.
He would have been a perfect Ehrmantraut, playing a retired cop who wasn’t opposed to dirty dealings if it meant helping his family. He has the same unassuming manner as actor Jonathan Banks that suggests that while he might be a “nice guy,” people don’t want to mess with him.
Gus Fring: Edward Norton
One of the most talented actors of that decade, having earned three Academy Award nominations to date, Norton appeared in some of the biggest movies like Primal Fear, American History X, and Fight Club. He has the same look of innocence as the equally versatile and talented Giancarlo Esposito and could have brought something great to the role.
No stranger to playing villains, as he did in movies like American History X and The Score, he’d be totally believable as a fast-food chain entrepreneur working as a secret drug kingpin.
Ted Beneke: James Spader
Beneke, played by Christopher Cousins, only had a small role in the series as Skyler’s former boss and eventually love interest. Secretly, he had committed fraud to save his business, a fact Skyler ended up using against him.
Spader was one of the most popular actors of the ’90s, but he was known for often playing secondary roles. He made his switch in the late ’90s in series like The Practice and continued on with many TV roles since, most notably, as the lead character Raymond Reddington on The Blacklist. Nowadays, the role of Ted might seem too small for such a big personality like Spader. But in the ’90s, when he was appearing in movies like Stargate and Crash in smaller roles, it would have made sense.
Todd Alquist: Matt Damon
There have long been discussions of the resemblance between actor Jesse Plemons, who played Todd, and A-lister Matt Damon. In fact, Plemons even once played a younger version of Damon’s character in the movie All the Pretty Horses.
In the ’90s, Damon was just starting out. It was during this decade that he co-wrote and starred in Good Will Hunting and appeared in movies like Saving Private Ryan and The Talented Mr. Ripley. While Damon hasn’t historically played bad guys, the role of psychopath killer Todd could have been a pivot worth taking just as he was making a name for himself as a talented movie actor.