When They Trod the Boards: Giancarlo Esposito, Breaking Bad-Ass on Broadway

By Jeremy Megraw, Librarian
August 1, 2013
The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Being an actor doesn't shield you from having a conscience.

—Giancarlo Esposito

Giancarlo Esposito, as Gus Fring, stares down a sniper in the TV series Breaking Bad, 2011.

Giancarlo, as Julio, sings in the Broadway musical Seesaw, 1973.

A true NYC moment: Giancarlo and brother Vincent take a sidewalk hotdog break during the musical The Me Nobody Knows, 1971. Photo: Newsday

I don't know how the final season of the TV series Breaking Bad will end, but it is pretty clear that Walter White is on a one-way trip to hell. As the well-intentioned chemistry teacher turned drug dealer spirals deeper into darkness, he will find Gus Fring waiting for him at the end.

However the series finale ends, one of the most enduring icons of Breaking Bad is the character Gustavo 'Gus' Fring, the suave and ruthless drug kingpin portrayed by Giancarlo Esposito. If you're unfortunate enough to be transfixed by Fring's dead, implacable stare, now forever engrained in the collective memory of millions of viewers, you know he is displeased. You also know that he may have already calculated your violent removal from this world.

We decided to dig into the archives of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts' Billy Rose Theatre Division to find out more about this charismatic actor. It was surprising to find out that before becoming one of the greatest villains in TV history, Giancarlo Esposito first emerged on Broadway as a child star with a notably clear singing voice. Ironically, as he grew up in the stage, screen and TV industry during the 1970s and '80s, Esposito fought hard to avoid being typecast as a street thug, a difficult task for minorities even today. Moreover, he has devoted much of his personal time to countering the problem of racial stereotyping and enjoys roles that explore minority and immigrant issues.

Giancarlo Esposito, who considers himself "an Italian black" that can also pass for Latino, encountered racism early on in his life and more subtler shades of prejudice while auditioning. Many a casting director were taken aback when Giancarlo, with his Italian name, natty dressing style, and intellectual bearing, showed up at a casting call.

Giancarlo performs with Ken Howard and Michelle Lee in the musical Seesaw, 1973.

Vincent and Giancarlo Esposito during their debut on Broadway in the musical Maggie Flynn, 1968.

Giancarlo Giuseppe Alessandro Esposito was born 1958 in Denmark. His father, an Italian stage carpenter, and his mother, an African American opera singer, met while working in Italy. His mother played an active role in Giancarlo's dramatic training. He spent his childhood in Copenhagen and various cities in Europe before his family finally settled in the Big Apple.

Giancarlo and his older brother Vincent debuted on Broadway in 1968 in the musical Maggie Flynn with Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy. Throughout the 1970s he starred mostly in musicals, including The Me Nobody Knows, Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, and Michael Bennett's Seesaw. Although he made a name for himself early on with his voice (Clive Barnes described his singing voice as "big, round, and clean as a freshly scoured skillet"), he is chiefly known today for his dramatic intensity. He gives himself so fully to a role that spectators believe he must be playing himself. By the time Giancarlo won the Obie Award and Theatre World Award in 1980 for his role as a predatory criminal in the Negro Ensemble Company production Zooman and the Sign, he had already been in five major musicals. During this period, he met Spike Lee who wanted to cast him in the unrealized film Messenger. In later years, he would star in Lee's School Daze and became a household name for the character Buggin' Out in Do The Right Thing.

Giancarlo's award-winning performance in Zooman and the Sign, 1980. Photo: Bert Andrews

During the 1980s, Giancarlo spent less time singing and dancing and doing more dramatic roles. He won the Drama Desk Award for the play Balm in Gilead (1985). He continued to audition for good roles in theater, rather than specifically black roles. He was also more selective for film jobs, instead of going for the easy money of pimp and drug dealer roles routinely offered minorities in Hollywood. In 1991, Giancarlo won his second Obie for Distant Fires for the Off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company and began a long-lasting relationship with that company. During the 1990s Giancarlo, when not starring in films such as The Usual Suspects and Bob Roberts, went around college campuses and prisons as part of a motivational speaking circuit talking about racism, color-blind casting, and human empowerment.

Giancarlo, Jeff Perry, and Brian Tarantina in the Off-Broadway show Balm in Gilead, 1984. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Now a regular in the TV show Revolution, Giancarlo Esposito continues to be a versatile and in-demand actor, and despite his attempt to avoid bad guy roles, he's just too good at it.

Want to catch up? NYPL has Breaking Bad seasons 1-5 in their entirety and all the bonus material goodness that entails.

The Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT), the Broadway and Off-Broadway archive of live theater on video situated in the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, has the original stage productions of Balm in Gilead (1984) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (2008), starring Giancarlo Esposito.

See also: Breaking Bad: If Only They Had a New York Public Library Card