Vince Gilligan on How ‘Breaking Bad’ Almost Didn't Happen

Vince Gilligan
Gilligan with his antihero, played by Bryan Cranston. Robert Yager

My favorite mistake was not ordering Showtime.

I suppose that requires further explanation. Back in 2005, a crazy idea for a television series popped nearly full-blown into my head. It was the story of a suburban dad who, upon being diagnosed with terminal cancer, decides to throw his law-abiding life of propriety to the wind. Needing quick cash for his family, he tries his hand at drug dealing. Hilarity ensues.

Feeling good about the bold originality of my concept, I spent a week or two honing it into a 15-minute pitch. Then I booked a meeting with Zack Van Amburg and Jamie Erlicht, the co-heads of Sony Television. I knew these guys from a previous project and figured they might be receptive. Thankfully, they were.

Now that I had a studio behind me, it was time to try to garner interest from a network. To that end, I spent several more weeks expanding my 15-minute thumbnail into a full-fledged, 30-minute rundown of the first episode. This is called a “pilot pitch,” and it’s something you do verbally, acting it out for various stone-faced executives. There’s an art to it: Maintain eye contact, exude boundless enthusiasm, and never, ever refer to your notes. Have the entire thing memorized backward and forward so that you can toss it off with the aplomb of David Niven on The Dick Cavett Show. For me, that’s one tall order. But I gave it the old college try.

Which is how I found myself in the offices of a prestigious cable network, pitching away to its president. I was about five minutes into my story, which I had titled Breaking Bad, when he idly offered, “This sounds a lot like Weeds.”

“What’s Weeds?” At which point it was explained to me that Weeds was a Showtime show, new that season. In it, a suburban mom decides to throw her law-abiding life of propriety to the wind and make quick cash for her family by trying her hand at drug dealing.

Hearing this, I could feel the blood drain from my face. I turned to Zack and Jamie. “Did you know about Weeds?” “Oh, yeah,” they said. “Great show. But your thing is completely different. She deals pot and your guy deals crystal meth. Apples and oranges.”

Not my happiest moment in the business. All those weeks of hard work down the drain! Or so I thought. But Zack and Jamie were right. Breaking Bad and Weeds turned out to be different enough, if not on paper, then in execution. It seems—for a writer, at least—marijuana and meth are the psychopharmaceutical equivalents of Greek comedy and tragedy masks. One leads its characters to laughter, the other to tears. As such, the TV dial is big enough to contain both shows.

For that, I’m eternally grateful. If I had known of Weeds weeks or even days prior to that meeting, it’s likely I wouldn’t have had the will to go on. I would have said to myself (and I’ve said this a lot), “Damn! All the good ideas are already taken!”

Career Arc

1989

Receives Virginia Governor's Screenwriting Award for Home Fries.

1996

Shares in Best Dramatic Series Golden Globe for his work on The X-Files.

2005

Pitches pilot for Breaking Bad but doesn't know about his competition.

2008

Accepts Writers Guild and Peabody awards for the show's debut season.

2012

Premieres Breaking Bad's fifth and final season, airing on AMC.