“I don’t need to be made to look evil. I can do that on my own.”
There are very few actors who can always be relied on to turn in extremely watchable performances (even in unwatchable films) but Christopher Walken definitely belongs to that select list. To paraphrase one of his lines from “Batman Returns”, he’s got the magic. His charisma’s bigger than both of us. For Walken, it has been a long, strange trip en route to becoming one of the most respected actors of his generation.
Born Ronald Walken in 1943 in Queens, New York, he studied dancing originally, and his early career included such odd jobs as lion taming. He was influenced to embark on a career in show business by Jerry Lewis. The young Walken was an extra on a show where Lewis and Martin were guest hosts. His early work was almost exclusively on the small screen in TV shows such as “Naked City” (credited as Ronnie Walken), “Hawaii Five-O” and “Kojak”.
He made his big screen debut in the 1968 film “Me and My Brother”. Other roles in various minor films followed, but it was not until his role as Diane Keaton’s slightly psychotic brother in “Annie Hall” (1977) that people really began to pay attention. Although his part was little more than a cameo, his memorable speech to Woody Allen about how he sometimes feels like driving head on into the lights of an oncoming car provided the template for many of Walken’s subsequent roles – scary and humorous combined. Walken is also famous for a role he did not get that same year – he was George Lucas’s second choice for the role of Han Solo after Harrison Ford. This was memorably spoofed on a “Saturday Night Live” episode years later, where Kevin Spacey played Walken auditioning for the role with his infamous delivery style.
His next major role was as Nick in Michael Cimino’s Vietnam epic “The Deer Hunter” (1978). His moving and disturbing performance as a veteran who is tragically unable to leave the war behind (especially the Russian Roulette games he and his fellow POWs were forced to take part in by the enemy) was the heart of the film. Walken held his own in every scene alongside another great actor, Robert DeNiro, and the role won Walken his first (and to date, only) Oscar.
Two years later, Walken again appeared in a film for director Cimino, the infamous “Heaven’s Gate”. The reception for this epic western couldn’t have been more different than that for their previous collaboration. It was met with almost total indifference by both critics and audiences, and soon became synonymous with big budget flops. Its failure also helped put an end to the era of individualistic filmmaking that had been ushered in by the seventies auteurs. This disappointment was followed by a role in the Hollywood version of Dennis Potter’s “Pennies From Heaven” (1981). The musical finally allowed Walken to demonstrate his talent for dance routines in a major way.
1983 was an important year for Walken as it saw him in two leading man roles where he played somewhat against type for a change. The first of these, “Brainstorm”, was a sci-fi thriller about scientists who experiment with recording people’s thoughts and was directed by Douglas Trumbull, the special effects genius behind “2001: A Space Odyssey”. However, it is mainly notorious for being the last film to star Natalie Wood, who died before principal photography was completed in 1981. She was on a sailing trip with her husband, Robert Wagner, and Walken himself when she drowned. The mysterious nature of her death, and the need to shoot further scenes without her, delayed the release of the film by two years. When it finally did reach movie theaters, the reaction was less than ecstatic.
Walken’s other film that year, “The Dead Zone”, was far more successful. A fairly faithful adaptation of the novel by Stephen King, it featured Walken in a rare heroic role as schoolteacher Johnny Smith, who receives the gift (or curse) of foresight after awaking from a long coma. Walken’s haunted, sensitive performance was a revelation, and made the story possibly even more emotionally powerful than it had been in the novel. The heartfelt character development in the film was also a departure for director David Cronenberg after the extreme nature of his early horror films. One amusing coincidence: early on in the film Walken tells his class he’ll be reading them The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Of course, 16 years later, Walken played the legendary horseman himself.
Walken was next seen in perhaps the first of many purely villainous roles in “A View to a Kill” (1985). The James Bond movie (the last to feature Roger Moore) was not 007’s finest hour, but Walken gave an entertaining performance and held his own alongside the even scarier presence of Grace Jones. A year later Walken returned to more serious roles in “At Close Range”. The powerful drama, based on a true story, featured Walken as the violent criminal father of Sean Penn’s character. He convincingly showed the evil that can lurk in everyday life.
Walken mostly appeared in smaller films over the next few years, such as “The Milagro Beanfield War” (1988), the Matthew Broderick bootcamp drama/comedy “Biloxi Blues” (1988) and the supposedly true story “Communion” (1989) which detailed author Whitley Strieber’s abduction by aliens. He also won acclaim in an uncharacteristic warm role in the TV movie “Sarah, Plain and Tall” (1991) opposite Glenn Close. Walken was back on more familiar ground in Abel Ferrara’s 1990 gangster epic “King of New York”. His mobster, Frank White, was a terrifying and charismatic creation.
In 1992 Walken reached a whole new audience by collaborating with director Tim Burton for the first time in “Batman Returns”. His role as Max Shreck (one letter away from the German actor who played Nosferatu) was less flamboyant than the other villains in that film, but no less integral to the plot and allowed Walken to demonstrate his talent yet again for mixing menace with humor. This was best demonstrated in the brilliant scene where he toys with Selina Kyle before pushing her out of a window, inadvertently creating Catwoman. It remains one of the most successful films Walken has appeared in.
The next year Walken played a somewhat standard comedic villain role in “Wayne’s World 2”. More notable was his cameo in the same year’s “True Romance”. Written by Quentin Tarantino and directed by Tony Scott, the film was a fast-paced, violent and hilarious modern take on the lovers on the lam genre. It was stuffed full of memorable performances, none more so than Walken’s brief but unforgettable appearance as mob head honcho Vincent Coccotti. His one scene opposite Dennis Hopper featured both actors at the top of their game, aided by Tarantino’s typically outrageous dialogue (which some criticised for liberal use of the infamous “n” word).
“Pulp Fiction” (1994) featured Walken in another role created by Tarantino with an equally memorable one-scene speech. His telling of the history of a gold watch to the young Bruce Willis has a hillarious punchline involving the exact part of the human anatomy the watch was stored in during the Vietnam war. “Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead” (1995) was one of the many Tarantinoesque movies to be released in the wake of Pulp Fiction’s success. Walken oozed his usual menacing charm in the role of The Man With the Plan. The same year Walken took the role of an angel in the supernatural thriller “The Prophecy”. The surprise success of the film led to several sequels also starring Walken as Gabriel.
1995 was a busy year for Walken as he also found time to appear as the villain in the thriller “Nick of Time”. It marked his first time starring alongside another Burton regular, Johnny Depp. And he topped the year off by starring as a vampire in another film for director Abel Ferrara, “The Addiction”. Walken has appeared frequently in movies since then, both good and bad. Two of his most successful films in the late nineties, somewhat ironically, were family movies: the comedy “Mouse Hunt” (1997) and the computer animated “Antz” (1998).
In 1999, Walken worked again with two previous collaborators – Tim Burton and Johnny Depp – on the horror film “Sleepy Hollow”. His almost silent role as the Hessian Horseman (before he became the Headless Horseman) was kept quiet before the film’s release and was a pleasant surprise for many of Walken’s fans. The film was a big hit and probably won Walken some new fans.
During the same period Walken branched out by appearing in music videos for Madonna and Fatboy Slim. His dance routine in the latter’s “Weapon of Choice” video not only allowed Walken to display his dance talent in a more obvious way than in most of his films, but won an MTV Video Music award. He has also shown his comedic range with numerous guest host appearances on “Saturday Night Live” over the years, including a sketch where he spoofed his own psychic role in “The Dead Zone”. He branched out even further into other creative areas by making his directorial debut in 2001 with the film “Popcorn Shrimp”.
His most recent role in a major film was as a sympathetic father in Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can” (2002). Walken received his second Oscar nomination for his performance, and while he didn’t win, it was a tribute to his long and rich career. It’s worth noting that it’s not just on the screen where Walken has a celebrated reputation. He has also appeared on stage in over 100 plays.
The future continues to look bright for the actor as he enters his sixth decade (his fifth in showbusiness). While his choice of films is sometimes questionable, Walken always gives every role his best shot. As Walken said in various interviews in 2002: “I don’t have hobbies, I don’t play golf, I don’t have children, I don’t like to travel. So I like to work.” It will be interesting to see how the latter stage of the career of one of the most unconventional leading men in Hollywood develops.
Arran McDermott 2003
Gabrielas Christopher Walken Seite
Half a Century in Showbusiness
Maggie’s Page of Chris Walken
The Online Christopher Walken Fan Club
Walken Works: A Christopher Walken Film Review Site