By Tom Gliatto
October 16, 2000 12:00 PM

“He has that Jim Carrey versatility,” says Jane Kaczmarek, who plays Bryan Cranston’s wife on the FOX comedy Malcolm in the Middle. “He can do just about anything.” More to the point, Cranston will let just about anything be done to him. Take a typically wacko episode that required Cranston to be coated with 25 pounds of bees. The bug wrangler “scooped thousands of bees on me until I was covered from my waist to the top of my head,” says Cranston. “I got stung twice.”

A couple of stings are nothing compared to the show’s buzz. About to start its second season, Malcolm, concerning the adventures of a whiz kid in a noisy middle-class family, is FOX’s highest-rated comedy series after The Simpsons. And it has helped fix a name to a pleasantly handsome face familiar to audiences from stints on The X-Files; Murder, She Wrote; 3rd Rock from the Sun and, especially, Seinfeld. That was Cranston, 44, who played Jerry’s converted Jewish dentist, Dr. Tim Whatley, for three seasons. He was also astronaut Buzz Aldrin in HBO’s 1998 miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, produced by Tom Hanks, and had a cameo (another astronaut) in Hanks’s 1996 directorial debut, That Thing You Do!

The two men became buddies, through their wives, actresses Robin Dearden, 46, and Rita Wilson, respectively, who are longtime friends. “I got information on Tom and I got the pictures to prove it,” jokes Cranston, a baseball nut who celebrated his 40th birthday at Dodger Stadium with Hanks and Wilson among his guests. “So he’s got to continue giving me jobs.”

For now, Cranston is gainfully employed playing dad Hal on Malcolm, with Frankie Muniz, 14, as the genius son trying to cope with two other siblings (a third is off at military school), dysfunctional parents and a 165 IQ. It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Cranston is the life of the set. When he and Muniz meet, “we do this crazy dance,” says Muniz. “It’s like a football cheer.” Cranston’s motto, says Kaczmarek, “is that we’re allowed to be unhappy but we’re not allowed to complain.”

Cranston, learned all about being a trouper growing up outside Los Angeles, himself the middle of the three kids born to acting parents. Joe Cranston, 76, now retired, was a journeyman actor with bit parts in movies like The Day the Earth Stood Still. “He died in almost everything I saw him in,” says his son. Bryan’s mother, Peggy Sell, 77, divorced from Joe in 1968, retired from acting to raise the family. While in grade school, “Bryan used to put on shows,” says sister Amy Karalius, 37, a nurse, “and invite the neighborhood and charge admission.” Yet he wasn’t truly hooked until after he finished high school in 1974 and enrolled at a community college to study police science. He forgot about being a cop when he noticed “how pretty the girls were in acting class,” he admits. “It’s not a proud thing to say.”

Cranston got his first break in 1982, with a guest spot on CHiPs, then played good guy Douglas Donovan for two years on the ABC soap Loving. It was one of his multiple appearances on Airwolf in 1986 that introduced him to Dearden. “She was the victim of the week,” he says, “and I was the bad guy of the week.” They married in 1989, setting up house in Sherman Oaks, where they live now with daughter Taylor, 7. “He’s just a fabulous dad. They love to play sports together,” says Dearden.

And, for an actress, a dream husband. For Dearden’s 44th birthday, in 1998, Cranston turned out a movie script, Last Chance, about a wife’s mulling over a potential affair. When he presented it to Dearden at dinner, “I burst into tears,” she recalls. “My parents just looked at each other like, ‘You call this a birthday present?’ ” Producing, directing and acting in it (as Dearden’s husband), Cranston shot the movie that same summer. It won the couple best director and actress awards at an independent-movie festival in Pasadena last June. “It was cool that we both won awards,” says Cranston. “Now we just have to figure out where to put them.”

And it’s anybody’s guess what he’ll be asked to do next on Malcolm. After all, he says, “on the very first day of work, I had to be naked. I walked around with just a little patch covering my privacy. There I was, my tail flapping in the wind, introducing myself to everyone.”

Tom Gliatto

Ulrica Wihiborg and Susan Christian Goulding in Los Angeles