Christopher Walken

No one plays the kook, the psycho, the fallen angel, the bloodthirsty ghoul better than the actor who claims he's just a regular Joe.

Published October 10, 2000 6:07PM (EDT)

Imagine Christopher Walken having sex with a bobcat. Somehow, it's not so difficult picturing the pale, gaunt screen legend -- who looks part cadaver and part Muppet with those glassy, bulging eyes of his -- getting busy with a wild North American feline.

That's the reason Walken's skit with Tim Meadows was so funny during his appearance hosting "Saturday Night Live" on April 8. Meadows played a census taker who happens onto the apartment of a Mr. Leonard, played by Walken, an ex-con who works full time as a performance artist and keeps house with a bobcat for a wife and various plants and candy bars as cohabitants. (Don't ask.) Meadows is so nonplused by the absurd conversation that he just takes down what's said and calls it a day. Walken strolls back into his apartment to the growl of his bride, slams the door behind him and yells, "Again? We just did it!"

The evening marked Walken's fourth time hosting the show, and you could tell by the success of the various sketches why they keep asking the 57-year-old veteran actor back for more. Such "SNL" appearances illustrate the degree to which Walken has become a sort of Gen X pop culture deity. Sure, he's no Tom Cruise. He's not a blockbuster film star, like a Harrison Ford, a Mel Gibson or even a Bruce Willis, though he does play the lead on occasion. But in a way, Walken is larger than any of them because he has carved out a niche for himself that only he can fill -- that of Christopher Walken.

No one plays the kook, the psycho, the fallen angel, the deadly crime lord, the bloodthirsty ghoul better than Walken, and no one can utter the world's most bizarre dialogue with such panache, making it believable just because he said it. There's only one Christopher Walken, just as there was only one Sal Mineo or Tony Perkins. And when C.W. is gone, there'll never be another.

Walken has said that the way he looks has helped define his career. All actors rely on their bodies, but in the case of Walken much of his screen persona resides in his unusual appearance. Tall and lanky, with a high forehead and poofy hair, he does appear, well, otherworldly -- as if he just stepped off the mothership. But there's also his highly unusual manner of speaking, which has made him one of the most imitated stars around. You can hear his native Queens in his voice, but those weird, abrupt pauses and clipped sentences seem unique to the man.

"I have a certain way about me that's strange," Walken told Dark Side magazine in 1996. "Strangeness can translate into a kind of phobia in people's minds. It's fine by me. I work. A lot of actors don't."

He continued, "It started with 'Annie Hall.' There was a scene where I talked about driving myself into oncoming traffic, and then there was 'The Deer Hunter,' where I shot myself in the head. If you're lucky in films, you find an identity. When you become a dependable villain, the chances are that you will specialize in those roles."

Indeed, Walken's role as Annie Hall's suicidal brother, Duane, played for laughs in the 1977 Woody Allen comedy, set the precedent of Walken as freak show that would define his long career. When he won the Academy Award for best supporting actor, it was for his moving portrayal in "The Deer Hunter" (1978) of an American soldier in Vietnam who goes off the deep end and eventually terminates his life in a gambling den via Russian roulette as Saigon falls to the communists. Until that point he had not made much money as an actor, but winning the Academy Award changed everything.

Walken told Playboy in 1997, "We went to bed (following the Oscars and an after party), and I said to my wife, with the Oscar in my hand, 'This is a house.' And it was. I was holding our house in my hand -- I knew that's what it meant."

It meant a step up on the food chain, moneywise. From then on out, he would make enough money to keep a house in Connecticut and a brownstone on Manhattan's Upper West Side, both of which he shares with his wife of 31 years, casting director Georgianne Thon. (They met while both were performing in a touring rendition of "West Side Story" in 1969 and have been together ever since.)

"The Deer Hunter" was only Walken's eighth screen appearance, but in a sense, at the age of 35, he had been working toward this benchmark his entire life. Both of his parents were immigrants -- his father, Paul, from Germany; his mother, Rosalie, from Scotland. Walken himself, the second of three sons, was born on March 31, 1943, and named Ronald for British actor Ronald Colman. His name change would come years later, when a singer Walken was working with named Monique Van Vooren renamed him Christopher for reasons that are unclear, and the name stuck. Walken's old friends still call him Ronnie.

Walken's father baked bread for a living. His mother spent most of her time trying to get her kids into showbiz. Eventually, young Ronnie attended the Professional Children's School in Manhattan, where he rubbed shoulders with Marvin Hamlisch and Gypsy Rose Lee's son Eric.

After graduating from PCS in 1961, he attended Hofstra University for one year before dropping out to be in the musical "Best Foot Forward," with Liza Minnelli. But when he tried to make the transition to drama from musicals, he almost didn't succeed. Cast as the king of France in "The Lion in Winter," he suffered from horrible stage fright. When the producer threatened to let him go, as in the movies, Walken asked him for one last chance. He mastered his fear and went on to win a Clarence Derwent Award for best newcomer.

Walken did extensive stage work, including plays by Tennessee Williams, Shakespeare and Chekhov. And he is still highly regarded as a stage presence, having recently performed on Broadway as Gabriel Conroy in the musical based on James Joyce's renowned short story "The Dead." But the next transition for Walken was from the stage to the silver screen. It was time. Even though he was flourishing on the boards, he was making a measly $11,000 a year, by some accounts.

He snagged bit parts in movies like "Me and My Brother" (1968), with poet Allen Ginsberg, and "The Anderson Tapes" (1971), directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Sean Connery. There were other pictures, but it was the role of Duane, the brother with the thousand-yard stare and a death wish, in "Annie Hall" that brought him to the attention of many. In the 1997 Playboy interview, Walken suggests that he may have gotten the part of Nick Chevoteravich in "The Deer Hunter" because of his Duane shtick. It doesn't seem that far-fetched. By the end of "The Deer Hunter," Walken's Nick has the same dead-fish look that Duane has when he tells Alvie (Woody Allen) of his secret desire to be in a car crash.

Walken's self-annihilation binge as Nick in "The Deer Hunter" became one of the most memorable vicarious experiences of '70s film. Michael Cimino, the film's director, was at the same time lauded by critics and attacked by those on the political left who viewed the movie as revisionist. It won five Oscars, including Walken's, and spawned copycat instances of deadly Russian roulette games nationwide. Walken was now on the radar screen of all ciniastes for his sensitive performance of a soldier driven mad by his Vietnam War experiences.

"I don't think it had anything to do with being about a particular war," Walken told Playboy of the film. "It had more to do with young men's romantic notions of war, the idea that war's an adventure. They think they're going to go and have a good time, get out of the house. In reality, though, they get their legs blown off."

Cimino's film, and Walken's part as the story's most tragic character, seemed to sum up the nation's pessimistic view of the Vietnam experience. The wound was still raw, and Cimino was rubbing salt in it. Most people have only a vague recollection of the film. But everyone seems to remember the Russian roulette scenes and the scenes of Nick's funeral alternating with news clips of the American evacuation from a doomed Saigon.

Walken followed up "The Deer Hunter" with a string of losers. He was a gunfighter in Cimino's colossal bomb "Heaven's Gate" (1980). Afterward, he played his first lead as a mercenary in "The Dogs of War" (1980). Reviewers were not kind; nor were they enamored with Walken's portrayal of a marvelously greasy dancing pimp in the dark musical "Pennies From Heaven" (1981). But Walken's footwork caught the attention of those unaware of his skills in that department. Starring Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, "Pennies From Heaven" was the American film version of Dennis Potter's British TV series of the same title. It's a brilliant film that deserves to be rediscovered, in part for Walken's incarnation of a petty underworld tyrant.

In 1981, while he was filming the movie "Brainstorm" with costar Natalie Wood, Walken's life took a bizarre turn reminiscent of one of his characters'. Walken was a guest aboard a yacht belonging to Wood and her husband, Robert Wagner, when Wood drowned off the coast of Catalina Island on the evening of Nov. 28. According to Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi, Wood slipped and fell into the water while trying to board the yacht's dinghy. Her cries for help were not heard by Walken or Wagner, and her body was found floating one mile south of the yacht, near an isolated cove.

Though Noguchi eventually ruled out foul play, rumors have persisted to this day. There was speculation that Wagner and Walken had been fighting, and gossip mavens posited that there was a love triangle of Wagner, Walken and Wood. In that famous Playboy interview Walken rejected the proposition that he and Wagner had been fighting. He also put forth his theory that the dinghy had been knocking against the side of the boat and Wood had gone to right it when she slipped, countering the theory that Wood was attempting to escape a heated argument.

After "Brainstorm," Walken carried on in his Prince of Strange mode, playing a man plagued by migraines and an eerie ability to see into the future in David Cronenberg's film version of the Stephen King novel "The Dead Zone" (1983). Walken, Cronenberg and King, three maestros of the macabre wrapped up in one movie! Unfortunately, the film doesn't quite live up to this confluence of dark forces. But Walken is dead-on as psychic Johnny Smith, a role that could have been tailor-made for him, though the plot is hokey at times.

Walken then played Bond nemesis Max Zorin in "A View to a Kill" (1985) and Sean Penn's lumpen father in "At Close Range" (1986), as well as a number of smaller roles. His lead as writer Whitley Strieber in "Communion" (1989) seemed to augur Walken's emergence in the popular imagination as a cult icon. He was perfectly cast as the man whose bestselling book about his alleged abduction by aliens served as the basis for the movie. However, it was in the '90s that Walken would explode as a larger-than-life figure, going well beyond the restricted existence of a character actor to become the Peter Lorre of the pre-millennium.

Two directors have helped propel Walken to his current status: Abel Ferrara and Quentin Tarantino. Ferrara may be the most influential of the pair in this regard. His direction of Walken as mobster Frank White in "King of New York" (1990) was key to giving the actor a sort of underground cachet. White is a modern-day Robin Hood/drug lord battling the cops and rival gangsters in '80s Manhattan, and though he's as melanin-deprived as his name suggests, he also possesses the qualities of what Norman Mailer called the "white Negro": That is, he retains the menace and hip of the streets while having the savoir-faire to sip champagne with the elite.

"King of New York" introduced Walken to a generation for the most part unfamiliar with his work in "The Deer Hunter." Walken's other roles with Ferrara helped solidify his standing as a one-of-a-kind presence. In "The Addiction" (1995) Walken plays an expert, Baudelaire-spouting vampire who teaches novice Lili Taylor a thing or two about the bloodsucking game. In "The Funeral" (1996) he plays the eldest of three Mafia brothers bound to one another by honor and madness. And in the futuristic "New Rose Hotel" (1998) he's a tap-dancing con artist who likes to shout "Coleslaw for everybody" in mid-debauch.

Walken's Tarantino-inspired work further ingrained his image in the minds of a generation unfamiliar with his earlier roles. Walken had only small parts in "True Romance" (1993), directed by Tony Scott with a Tarantino screenplay, and "Pulp Fiction" (1994), directed and co-written by Tarantino, but both films were influential in the '90s, and Walken's lines in each would become the source of endless fascination.

Walken's more cartoonish collaborations with Tim Burton in "Batman Returns" (1992) and more recently in "Sleepy Hollow" (1999) took Walken's self-caricature to the nth degree, though his work with Burton hasn't had the impact on his career that the Tarantino and Ferrara films have. In "Batman Returns," he is thoroughly loathsome as the megalomaniacal scourge of Gotham, Maximillian "Max" Shreck. And he's perfectly monstrous as the pre-headless Hessian Horseman in "Sleepy Hollow." The roles are novel (which, of course, isn't novel for Walken) but dead-ends as far as challenging the actor. In fact, the Hessian Horseman never speaks in "Sleepy Hollow," he just growls. "Batman Returns" was more of a hit for Burton and required a little more from Walken, but neither part came close to the roles Walken inhabits for Ferrara or Tarantino.

Other Walken roles have added icing to the cake baked by Ferrara, Tarantino and Burton. There has been Walken as mysterious seducer in Paul Schrader's "The Comfort of Strangers" (1991), as Mike Myers' rival in "Wayne's World 2" (1993) and as archangel Gabriel in "The Prophecy" (1995). Walken seems firmly cemented in our collective moviegoing consciousness as a cooler-than-thou, outri figure who might have been plucked whole from some modernist European novel.

Of late Walken has expressed the desire to play some "normal" parts, where he doesn't blow anyone away or drink anyone's blood. And in the recently released "The Opportunists," he comes pretty close by portraying an ex-con safecracker trying to do right by his family and his girlfriend, played by Cyndi Lauper. Walken does nice work, but his role lacks the intensity of his villains and nut cases. It's not so much that he's typecast as it is that those walks on the dark side of the moon are intrinsically more interesting than anything the "nice guy" characters might do.

"What you are as an actor is a reflection of what you are in real life," Walken told Interview in 1993. "And in a way, everything you do in your life is information for your acting. But the truth is that my life is alarmingly predictable. I'm a very conservative citizen. I've been married for 25 years. I have two houses, a station wagon and cats. I pay for all my bills, and people trust me. I was here for this interview right on time."

Despite Walken's protests that he's just a regular Joe, there's a depth to him that's undeniable. In a 1998 Mr. Showbiz interview, Walken explained his meticulous process of preparation: how he covers his script in notes; how he has "six subtexts" for anything he says, even "pass the salt"; and so on. Walken's description is revealing. Because if he explores six subtexts for saying something so slight, what must he do to prepare for roles like those in "The Addiction" or "True Romance"? To plumb the darkness for the multiple layers of a vampire or a psychotic, and to do so effectively, if one's to judge by the end result, suggests a certain profundity and perhaps a predilection for journeying through mental strata most of us leave unexamined.

By Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Salon. He lives in Los Angeles.

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