Bryan Cranston Met Charles Manson on Spahn Ranch

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Tony Awards Productions/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Raised by struggling actors, Bryan Cranston was your typical LA kid. He grew up in Canoga Park, a neighborhood in the western part of the San Fernando Valley, and spent his teenage years hanging out around the area… adventures that led him face-to-face with Charles Manson. The cult leader lived nearby with his “Family” at the infamous Spahn Ranch.

Bryan Cranston Growing Up

Bryan Cranston and his family via GQ

Bryan Cranston was born in Los Angeles in 1956, the second of three children. His mother, Annalisa Cranston, was a radio actress, and his father, Joseph Cranston, was a failed actor and amateur boxer. When Bryan was just 11, Joseph walked out on the family — and it was tough. Annalisa struggled to bring in money and began to drink. For a while, the kids lived with her parents, deeper in the valley on a farm, where they sold eggs to tourists.

Videos by Rare

Videos by Rare

Through it all, though, Bryan kept his sense of humor. According to, he was a goofy teenager, a prankster with the nickname “Sneaky Pete.” One of his most famous stunts was sneaking into the yearbook photos for clubs he wasn’t a part of. This made for a viral moment when fans discovered the future Walter White in a vintage chemistry club photo.

Bryan Cranston’s chemistry club photo via via TMZ

But Cranston was no nerd. Outside of school, he worked odd jobs to help support the family and, between those ventures, exploring the city with his friends. One of those excursions led the boys to Spahn Ranch: the out-of-use movie lot just a few miles from Canoga Park. The year is 1968. And the ranch was full of suspicious hippies…

Spahn Ranch

Spahn Ranch was a 55-acre space on the outskirts of Los Angeles which operated for decades as a movie ranch. Movie ranches were popular for shooting locations for movies, mostly Westerns, throughout the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. By the time dairy farmer George Spahn took over the property in the early ’50s, the practice was dying out and Spahn added a stable for renting horses. That brought in some additional money, but pretty quickly the Spahn Movie Ranch fell into disrepair.

It was essentially deserted by the late 1960s, though Spahn continued to live there. He was 80 years old and blind when he was first approached there by the Manson Family in August of 1968. Charles Manson and his hoard of hippie followers offered to do chores and take care of the horses in exchange for free rent. The women cared for Spahn and it was the old man who gave Lynette Fromme her famous nickname, “Squeaky,” for the sounds she made when he pinched her thigh.

The Family stayed at Spahn Ranch for a full year. It’s where they were living when Manson devotees Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel carried out the gruesome murders on Cielo Drive, killing the actress Sharon Tate and her friends on August 8, 1969.

Meeting Charles Manson

Spahn Ranch became world-famous after the fallout of the Manson murders. But long before those crimes, the young Bryan Cranston had his own run-in with the Family on the ranch.

When Cranston was 12 years old, he and his cousin arrived at the ranch to go horseback riding. He recounted the experience to The Daily Beast in 2017:

“So we were checking out our horses at Spahn Ranch, which is very close to where I was raised. We noticed that the people around there were all strange in their own kind of interesting way. There was an old guy [Spahn] checking us in and some guy in his twenties came in yelling, ‘Charlie’s on the hill! Charlie’s on the hill!’ Everybody looked around and there was this frantic nervous energy going on, and they all jumped on horses and away they went. We asked the old guy what was going on, and he said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing. It’s happened before.’ We thought, well, Charlie must be someone important.

“So we get our horses and go along the trail, and about, oh, 20 minutes after we left the barn area where the horses were gathered, we see this trail of horses coming back… There were about eight or so people, and there was a man in the middle on a horse but he wasn’t holding his own reins — there was someone on the horse in front holding the reins — and Charlie, I guessed, was this comatose, bearded, long-haired guy with big eyes riding as if he’s just stuck to the back of a horse. Totally zoned out. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. My cousin turned back to me and said, ‘Wow, that guy’s weird.’ When we passed him and their whole group, she turned around again and said, ‘That must be Charlie,’ and I said, ‘Yeah… and Charlie’s freaky!’ We didn’t think anything of it.

“It wasn’t until a year later that the murders happened, and then it was six months or so after that when he was arrested. I saw his face on the news and my jaw dropped. My cousin called me first and said, ‘Can you believe this?’ The picture of Charlie Manson was the guy on the back of this horse. And we thought for a second, oh my god, what if? It was very freaky, to say the least. Oh, man…”

— Bryan Cranston in The Daily Beast

That shock stuck with Cranston for the rest of his life. When Manson died in 2017 at age 83, the actor tweeted that he “shuddered” upon hearing the news. He still feels lucky to be alive. “Luck was with me when a cousin and I went horseback riding at the Span Ranch and saw the little man with crazy eyes whom the other hippies called Charlie,” Cranston said.

READ MORE: Bryan Cranston and Robin Dearden: Their Hostage Love Story

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