Personal detailsName: Christopher Walken
Born: 31 March 1943 (Age: 71)
Where: New York, New York, USA
Awards: Won 1 Oscar and 1 BAFTA, Nominated for 1 Golden Globe and 1 Emmy
All about this star
Most people believe Christopher Walken to be an absolute wacko. It's a reputation he's endured for a quarter of a century, one that was sealed by his two breakthrough roles. First, in 1977's Annie Hall, he weirded the world out as Annie's crazy brother Duane, disturbing Woody Allen with his fantasies of slamming his car into oncoming traffic. Then, one year later, he was Nick in The Deer Hunter, wasted inside and out as he plays Russian Roulette in a Vietnamese hell-hole. Unforgettable appearances, both of them.
The reputation has been enhanced by many other extraordinarily wild performances. There was Pulp Fiction, where he presents a young boy with a watch he's been hiding in his arse: True Romance, where he enjoys Dennis Hopper's insults then empties a chamber into him: that mad little dance with Laurence Fishburne and his gang in King Of New York: Batman Returns, where he buddies up to Michelle Pfeiffer then shoves her through a window: The Comfort Of Strangers, where he suddenly drops his sophisticated front and decks Rupert Everett: his sharp-toothed Headless Horseman in Sleepy Hollow. He's so weird, so DANGEROUS.
But then there's the other parts, the ones that prove him to be so much more than just a rent-a-psycho. How about Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, when he's DiCaprio's con-man dad, crushed by wife Nathalie Baye's faithlessness? His hilarious exterminator in Mouse Hunt? His show-stealing bar-room dance in Pennies From Heaven? His brilliant cat-man in Puss In Boots? His bewildered alien abductee in Communion? His tortured psychic in The Dead Zone? Walken is certainly one of the best screen villains in history, but he's done it all, and done it fabulously well. After all, reaching 60 is 2003, he'd been working for over 58 years.
He was born Ronald Walken on March 31st, 1943, in Queens, New York City. That's right - Ronald. Nothing sinister or intimidating about that. Unless, of course, you fear clowns, or remorseless multinational conglomerates. His parents were both immigrants. His father, Paul, came from Germany and met and, in 1936, married Rosalie, who'd arrived from Scotland. Ronald was the second of three sons, sandwiched between Ken and Glenn.
Rosalie had had stage ambitions, thwarted by motherhood. But her children gave her another in, and she began by finding them modelling work. Ronald's first major success came with his first job. As a 14-month-old baby, he was photographed naked with 2 cats, appearing in a hugely popular calendar.
The Fifties were a wonderful time to be an actor in New York, even a very young one. This was the Golden Age of television and over 90 shows were being made every week, including the filming of many serious plays. Any number of soon-to-be film stars made their bones here, including Paul Newman. Young Ronald spent much of his time at the studios, constantly appearing as an extra. Brother Glenn (who'd later show up in Apocalypse Now) was in 3 shows at once, always shuttling between them. When he couldn't make a radio appointment, Ronald would step in, the pair having indistinguishable voices.
This was how young Ronald began to be "different". At home, as the child of recent immigrants, he ate different food and heard different accents, his view of the world was wider and more complex (remember, Paul was German and Ronald was born during WW2). In his "spare" time, he wasn't out playing ball or swapping bubblegum cards with his mates, he was hanging around at the big studios, fraternising with women dressed up as massive cigarette packets and watching monkey-star J. Fred Muggs whizz past on his motor scooter. Even his education was different. Attending the Professional Children's School, his lessons were squeezed in around his work. Walken has a good point when he says of himself: "I came from another country".
By the age of 10, his future path was set. He'd appeared on many, many shows, including The Ernie Kovacs Show, Playhouse 90 and the Armstrong Circle Theatre, sharing the screen with the likes of Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. But the decisive moment came when, as an extra on The Colgate Comedy Hour, he played in a skit with Jerry Lewis, along with Dean Martin a guest host. Inspired by Lewis's antics and abilities, he decided a life in showbiz was for him. And it started well. That same year he won a plum role in TV series The Wonderful John Acton, concerning the family of a Kentucky county clerk in 1919, Ronnie playing the titular lead's grandson, Kevin.
Yet his thoughts then were not of a career in drama. Ronald saw himself as a dancer and this was the main thrust of his training. As a boy he's described himself as a "frivolous" fellow, enjoying a situation where 95% of his classmates were beautiful girls, unlike the other guys, most of them student musicians and serious geeks (Walken himself was a big fan of jazz).
As he grew older, there were other extra curricular activities. When he was 16, he spent the summer with a travelling one-ring circus, as a lion-tamer. When circus chief and head tamer Tarryl Jacobs Jr had finished his performance, Ronald, posing as Jacobs' son, would enter the cage with Sheba the lion and, cracking his whip, demand "Up, Sheba, up!" And Sheba - old, toothless and friendly as a dog, but a consummate professional - would deliver a suitably hair-raising roar.
There would also be work in the bakery. Paul was a hardcore trooper, toiling 7 days a week. He loved it, and it showed, Walken's Bakery becoming a legend in Queens. Ronald and the other boys would help him out often, and his influence is still felt today. Christopher has been criticised many times for his choice of roles, it's thought he agrees to too many bad movies. But the fact is he's used to working, like a shark he dies when he stops. And he loves it, as with his dad his work is his joy. Beyond this, Walken still drives very slowly, the memory of delivering birthday cakes that must not be damaged still very fresh in his mind.
Having graduated from The Children's Professional School (he received his diploma from Gypsy Rose Lee), Ronald moved on to Hofstra University to study English Literature. But this didn't last long - how could it for a boy who'd been performing all his life. After less than a year, he won the part of Dutch Miller in the 1963 musical Best Foot Forward, and thus left college to share a stage with the young Liza Minnelli. As said, dancing was always Walken's bag. In many of his later movies, he'd sneak in a little jig or spin, as if constantly reminding himself what he really is.
It was now that he took a new name. He scored a job as one of 3 guys dancing and singing with Monique Van Vooren in her sultry, Francophile nightclub act. Monique was a real showbiz character and would later turn up in Andy Warhol's Frankenstein. At the end of her act, she'd introduce the guys and, one night, in true diva style, decided she didn't like the name Ronald. He was, she thought, more of a Christopher. And Ronald, in true Walken style, didn't give a rat's ass. So Christopher it was.
Remaining in stellar company, by 1964 he was in the chorus of High Spirits, a musical update of Noel Coward's Blithe Spirit. Coward himself was involved in the production and, during rehearsals, approached pretty boy Walken, then clad in a flaming crimson top, with the words "Interesting shirt". Walken, pertified in the presence of the great man, could only blurt out a distinctly unimpressive "Why... yes... it's red". "Well," retorted the famous wit "it's been an exciting day for us all".
The same year, Christopher (it doesn't seem right to call him Chris, does it? It's not, er, WEIRD enough) took off on a couple of tours with West Side Story, playing young thug-dancer Riff. It was here that he met his wife, Georgianne Thon, who was playing Riff's girlfriend Graziella. They'd marry in 1969 and remain so today. British actor Max Beesley tells a funny story about her. Over in Hollywood trying to break into the big time, he tried to win over a casting director with his favourite impression - Christopher Walken in The Deer Hunter. She wasn't taken by his accuracy. After all, she'd been married to Walken for over 25 years. Georgianne has since risen to the top of her profession, winning an Emmy for her work on The Sopranos.
1965 saw a change in Walken's fortunes. Now acting as The Killer (and a member of the chorus) in an ill-fated Sherlock Holmes musical called Baker Street, he was spotted and asked to play his first ever dramatic role, as King Philip of France in a production of The Lion In Winter at the Ambassador Theatre. He was an immediate success, winning a Clarence Derwent Award. He moved on to play Claudio in Measure For Measure, then Jack Hunter in Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo, for which he was named Theatre World's Most Promising Personality. There was a prime TV spot, too, in the Showcase Theatre's Barefoot In Athens, appearing alongside Peter Ustinov, Geraldine Page and Anthony Quayle.
Everything seemed to be coming young Christopher's way. But his lack of experience in serious drama now caused problems. Called to Stratford (the North American version) to play Romeo, he was not as impressive as expected. "I never knew why I got the job," he said later "but I always suspected it was because I'd done a job where I wore tights". Thankfully, imbued with his father's work ethic, the setback would just make him work harder. He would study extensively throughout his early career, with Wynn Handman and at the Actors' Studio, under Lee Strasberg.
1969 saw Walken really embrace life as a travelling player. He played Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz in Florida, and Mark Antony and Macduff in San Diego, before returning east for Chronicles Of Hell in Ann Arbor. 1970 saw him in Chicago in Lemon Sky, and the next year he was back in the windy city, winning a Joseph Jefferson award for the lead in The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail. Back in New York, there would be Cymbeline and, in the first foreshadowing of what was to come, he played Caligula for the Yale Repertory Company.
Up until 1975, Christopher worked almost exclusively in the theatre, in a wild variety of roles. There would be Metamorphosis, Enemies, The Plough And The Star, The Merchant Of Venice and The Dance Of Death. By 1973, he was a bona fide leading man, playing Harry Houdini in Houdini, Achilles in Troilus And Cressida and both Hamlet and Macbeth. In 1975 he won a Best Actor Obie for Kid Champion, then wowed Brooklyn and Chicago as Chance Wayne in Sweet Bird Of Youth, opposite Irene Worth.
This success came about due to his wits and hard work, but no real ambition. Walken was never one for logical progression - as was proved early when he failed an adding and subtracting test for a holiday job at Macy's. He liked to bounce from job to job, never starring in a Broadway hit because he refused to sign the year-long contract that would entail. His mind was hungry for novelty and new truth. He later admitted to being a changeable religious fanatic, at one point worshipping the moon.
His film success kind of slowly crept up on him. Having lost out to Ryan O'Neal for the lead in Love Story (really!) he'd made his debut proper in 1971, in Sidney Lumet's superior heist movie, The Anderson Tapes, as one of the gang Sean Connery takes on to hold up an entire apartment block (he died violently, of course). 1972 had brought a lead in Mind Snatchers, a forerunner of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, where he was an apparently psychotic soldier whose brain is experimented upon by doctor Joss Ackland.
Come 1976, with a decade of theatre success behind him, he was ready for the movies. First he appeared in Paul Mazursky's comedy memoir of Fifties New York, Next Stop, Greenwich Village, then he popped up as a cop in Michael Winner's controversially horrible The Sentinel, a film so bizarre it demanded Walken's presence. Next came his breakthrough with Annie Hall, and that classic sequence with Woody Allen. "I can anticipate the explosion, the sound of shattering glass, the flames rising out of the flowing gasoline", he says, enjoying the vision of his own death. "Right," replies Allen "Well, I have to go now, Duane, because I'm due back on Planet Earth". It was superb stuff and, with Annie Hall being an Oscar-winning triumph, it raised Walken's profile mightily.
After this came Roseland, a 3-story drama, directed by James Ivory, where Walken at last got to dance onscreen. Here, in the famous ballroom of the title, inhabited by the lost and the lonely, he played a charming gigolo who's given up hope of a career in dance and gone for easy money instead.
What a far cry from his next picture, Michael Cimino's Vietnam epic The Deer Hunter. As Nick, the vet so traumatised by war he remains after his tour of duty to play Russian Roulette, he was scintillating. The final scenes where his friend Robert De Niro, trying to save him, is forced to play with him are nerve-shredding. It's incredible how Walken has the "old" Nick hovering behind his dead eyes, almost making a redemptive appearance then being buried under "new" Nick's death wish once more. His Best Supporting Actor Oscar was one of the most deserved in Academy history. Also, being paid $14,000 for his performance, for the first time he earned more than $11,000 in a year. He might have made it one year earlier, too. Along with Nick Nolte he was George Lucas's short-list for Han Solo in Star Wars.
Throughout the Eighties, he combined film and theatre work. 1980 saw 3 major projects. There was The Seagull onstage, and two big movies. The first was the notorious Heaven's Gate, Cimino's follow-up to The Deer Hunter. This massively expensive western epic, where cattle barons warred with immigrant farmers, saw Walken as a nutty gunslinger hired to run the farmers off. Clashing with sheriff Kris Kristofferson over his methods and love interest Isabelle Huppert, he comes to re-consider his role in the bloody conflict.