Walken in 2018
March 31, 1943
Astoria, New York, U.S.
|Other names||Chris Walken|
|Awards||List of awards and nominations|
Christopher Walken (born Ronald Walken; March 31, 1943) is an American actor, who has appeared in more than 100 films and television programs, including Annie Hall (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978), The Dogs of War (1980), The Dead Zone (1983), A View to a Kill (1985), King of New York (1990), Batman Returns (1992), True Romance (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994), Antz (1998), Vendetta (1999), Sleepy Hollow (1999), Joe Dirt (2001), Catch Me If You Can (2002), Click (2006), Hairspray (2007), Seven Psychopaths (2012), the first three Prophecy films, The Jungle Book (2016), and Irreplaceable You (2018). He has received a number of awards and nominations, including the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for The Deer Hunter. He was nominated for the same award and won BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild Awards for Catch Me If You Can. His films have grossed more than $1 billion in the United States alone.
Walken has also played the lead in the Shakespeare plays Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, and Coriolanus. He is a popular guest-host of Saturday Night Live, hosting seven times. His most notable roles on the show include record producer Bruce Dickinson in the "More Cowbell" sketch; the disgraced Confederate officer Colonel Angus; and multiple appearances in the Continental sketch. He has also appeared in Hallmark Hall of Fame's Sarah, Plain and Tall (1991), which earned him a Primetime Emmy Award nomination.
Walken was born Ronald Walken on March 31, 1943, in Astoria, Queens, New York, the son of Rosalie Russell (May 16, 1907 – March 26, 2010), a Scottish immigrant from Glasgow, and Paul Wälken (October 5, 1903 – February 23, 2001), a German immigrant from Gelsenkirchen who owned and operated Walken's Bakery in Astoria. Walken was named after actor Ronald Colman. He was raised Methodist. He and his brothers, Kenneth and Glenn, were child actors on television in the 1950s, influenced by their mother's dreams of stardom. When he was 15, a girlfriend showed him a magazine photo of Elvis Presley, and Walken later said, "This guy looked like a Greek god. Then I saw him on television. I loved everything about him." He changed his hairstyle to imitate Presley and has not changed it since. As a teenager, he worked as a lion tamer in a circus. He attended Hofstra University but dropped out after one year, having gotten the role of Clayton Dutch Miller in an off-Broadway revival of Best Foot Forward alongside Liza Minnelli. Walken initially trained as a dancer at the Washington Dance Studio before moving on to dramatic stage roles and then film.
As a child, Walken appeared on screen as an extra in numerous anthology series and variety shows during the Golden Age of Television. After appearing in a sketch with Martin and Lewis on The Colgate Comedy Hour, Walken decided to become an actor. He landed a regular role in the 1953 television show The Wonderful John Acton playing the part of Kevin Acton. During this time, he was credited as Ronnie Walken.
Over the next two years, he appeared frequently on television (landing a role in the experimental film Me and My Brother) and had a thriving career in theatre. From 1954 to 1956, Walken and his brother Glenn originated the role of Michael Bauer on the soap opera The Guiding Light. In 1963, he appeared as a character named Chris in an episode of Naked City, starring Paul Burke. In 1966, Walken played the role of King Philip of France in the Broadway premiere of The Lion in Winter. In 1968, he played Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet at the Stratford Festival in Canada. In 1969, Walken guest-starred in Hawaii Five-O as Navy SP Walt Kramer.
In 1964, he changed his first name to Christopher at the suggestion of Monique van Vooren, who had a nightclub act in which Walken was a dancer and who believed the name suited him better than Ronnie (a pet form of his given name, Ronald), which he was credited as until then. He prefers to be known informally as Chris instead of Christopher.
In 1970, Walken starred in the Off-Broadway production of Lanford Wilson's Lemon Sky opposite Charles Durning and Bonnie Bartlett. Later that year Walken received the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Performance.
Walken made his feature film debut with a small role opposite Sean Connery in Sidney Lumet's The Anderson Tapes. In 1972's The Mind Snatchers a.k.a. The Happiness Cage, Walken played his first starring role. In this science fiction film, which deals with mind control and normalization, he plays a sociopathic U.S. soldier stationed in Germany.
Paul Mazursky's 1976 film Next Stop, Greenwich Village had Walken, under the name "Chris Walken", playing fictional poet and ladies' man Robert Fulmer. In Woody Allen's 1977 film Annie Hall, Walken played the borderline crazy brother of Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). Also in 1977, Walken had a minor role as Eli Wallach's partner in The Sentinel. In 1978, he appeared in Shoot the Sun Down, a western filmed in 1976 that costarred Margot Kidder. Along with Nick Nolte and Burt Reynolds, Walken was considered by George Lucas for the part of Han Solo in Star Wars; the part ultimately went to Harrison Ford.
Walken won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Michael Cimino's 1978 film The Deer Hunter. He plays a young Pennsylvania steelworker who is emotionally destroyed by the Vietnam War. To help achieve his character's gaunt appearance before the third act, Walken consumed only bananas, water, and rice for a week.
Walken's first film of the 1980s was the controversial Heaven's Gate, also directed by Cimino. Walken also starred in the 1981 action adventure The Dogs of War, directed by John Irvin. He surprised many critics and filmgoers with his intricate tap-dancing striptease in Herbert Ross's musical Pennies from Heaven (1981). In 1982, he played a socially awkward but gifted theater actor in the film adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's short story Who Am I This Time? opposite Susan Sarandon. Walken then played schoolteacher-turned-psychic Johnny Smith in David Cronenberg's 1983 adaptation of Stephen King's The Dead Zone. That same year, Walken also starred in Brainstorm alongside Natalie Wood and (in a minor role) his wife, Georgianne.
In 1988, Walken played a memorable role as Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey in Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues, which was directed by Mike Nichols, and he played the role of Federal Agent Kyril Montana in The Milagro Beanfield War. He also played the leading role of Whitley Strieber in 1989's Communion, an autobiographical film written by Strieber based on his claims that he and his friends were subject to visitations by unknown, other-worldly entities variously identified as possibly "aliens" or, simply, as "visitors". That same year, Walken appeared in the film "Homeboy", which was written by and which featured Mickey Rourke in the titular role. In 1989, he played the lead role of "Puss" in the Cannon theatre group's musical version of Puss in Boots.
The Comfort of Strangers, an art house film directed by Paul Schrader, features Walken as Robert, a decadent Italian aristocrat with extreme sexual tastes and murderous tendencies who lives with his wife (Helen Mirren) in Venice.
King of New York (1990), directed by Abel Ferrara, stars Walken as ruthless New York City drug dealer Frank White, recently released from prison and set on reclaiming his criminal territory. In 1991, Walken starred in Sarah, Plain and Tall as Jacob Witting, a widowed farmer. In 1992, Walken played a villain in Batman Returns, millionaire industrialist Max Shreck. Also in 1992, Walken appeared in Madonna's controversial coffee table book SEX and the music video for her hit single, "Bad Girl" (directed by David Fincher). He also played Bobby, Cassandra's producer, in Wayne's World 2.
Walken's next major film role was opposite Dennis Hopper in True Romance, scripted by Quentin Tarantino. His so-called Sicilian scene has been hailed by critics as the best scene in the film and is the subject of four commentaries on the DVD. Walken has a supporting role in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction as a Vietnam veteran named Captain Koons. He gives his dead comrade's son the family's prized possession—a gold watch—while explaining in graphic detail how he had hidden it from the Vietcong by smuggling it in his rectum after the boy's father, in whose rectum the watch had previously been concealed, had died of dysentery.
Later in 1994, Walken starred in A Business Affair, a rare leading role for him in a romantic comedy. Walken manages to once again feature his trademark dancing scene as he performs the tango. In 1995, he appeared in Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead, Wild Side, The Prophecy and the modern vampire flick The Addiction, which was his second collaboration with director Abel Ferrara and writer Nicholas St. John. He also appeared in Nick of Time, which also stars Johnny Depp, and an art house film by David Salle, Search and Destroy. In 1995, Walken acted in "Him," a first play written by Walken about his idol Elvis in the afterlife featured in the New York Shakespeare Festival. The New York Times gave a somewhat positive review of his "most cheering and refreshingly absurd invention" of retelling Elvis' death as a disappearing act that enabled Elvis to flee to Morocco for a sex change to become "her" in a "woozily conceived, fantastical new play...in the sharpness and wit of writing and in the performances by Mr. Walken and Mr. Heyman."
In the 1996 film Last Man Standing, Walken plays a sadistic gangster named Hickey. That year, he played a prominent role in the video game Ripper, portraying Detective Vince Magnotta. Ripper made extensive use of real-time recorded scenes and a wide cast of celebrities in an interactive movie. In 1996 Walken also appeared in the Italian film Celluloide as US Officer Rod Geiger and played the role of Ray in the Abel Ferrara crime-drama film The Funeral. In 1997, Walken starred in the comedy films Touch and Excess Baggage and had a minor role in the film Mouse Hunt. He also appeared in the drama/thriller film Suicide Kings, which was also filled with suspense and humor.
In 1999, he played James Houston in Vendetta, an HBO original movie based on the March 14, 1891 New Orleans lynchings. In the same year, Walken appeared in the romantic comedy Blast from the Past portraying Calvin Webber, a brilliant but eccentric Caltech nuclear physicist whose fears of a nuclear war lead him to build an enormous fallout shelter beneath his suburban home. The same year, he appeared as the Headless Horseman in Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow, starring Johnny Depp and Christina Ricci. He also appeared in Kiss Toledo Goodbye with Michael Rapaport and Nancy Allen.
In 2000, Walken was cast as the lead, along with Blair Brown, in James Joyce's The Dead on Broadway. A "play with music", The Dead featured music by Shaun Davey, conducted by Charles Prince, with music coordination and percussion by Tom Partington. James Joyce's The Dead won a Tony Award that year for Best Book for a Musical.
Walken had a notable music video performance in 2001 with Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice". Directed by Spike Jonze, it won six MTV awards in 2001 and—in a list of the top 100 videos of all time compiled from a survey of musicians, directors, and music industry figures conducted by UK music TV channel VH1—won Best Video of All Time in April 2002. In this video, Walken dances and flies around the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles; Walken also helped choreograph the dance. Also in 2001, Walken played a gangster who was in the witness protection program in the David Spade comedy Joe Dirt and an eccentric film director in America's Sweethearts. Also in 2001, Walken played Lieutenant Macduff in Scotland, PA, a loose film adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth.
In 2002 Walken played Mike in the film Poolhall Junkies and played Frank Abagnale, Sr. in Catch Me If You Can, which is inspired by the story of Frank Abagnale, Jr., a con artist who passed himself off as several identities and forged millions of dollars' worth of checks. His portrayal earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Walken also had a part in the 2003 action comedy film The Rundown, starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Seann William Scott, in which he plays a ruthless despot. He was nominated for a Razzie (Worst Supporting Actor) in 2002's The Country Bears and in two 2003 movies, Gigli and Kangaroo Jack. Walken also starred in Barry Levinson's Envy, in which he plays J-Man, a crazy guy who helps Ben Stiller's character, and in his starring role in 2004's Around the Bend he again has a dancing scene as he portrays an absentee father who has fled prison to reunite with his father, his son, and the grandson he never knew before dying. Walken played the role of Paul Rayburn in 2004's Man on Fire, where, when speaking about the imminent destructive actions of John Creasy (Denzel Washington), his character states: "A man can be an artist... in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasy's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece."
Also in 2004, Walken played Mike in the film The Stepford Wives.
In 2006, he played Morty, a sympathetic inventor who is more than meets the eye, in the comedy/drama Click and also appeared in Man of the Year with Robin Williams and Lewis Black. He co-starred in the 2007 film adaptation Hairspray, wherein he is seen singing and dancing in a romantic duet with John Travolta, and portrayed the eccentric but cruel crime lord and Ping-Pong enthusiast Feng in the 2007 comedy action film Balls of Fury opposite Dan Fogler.
Walken was in the movie Five Dollars a Day (released in 2008), in which he plays a con man proud of living like a king on $5 a day.
The film The Maiden Heist, a comedy co-starring Morgan Freeman, William H. Macy and Walken about security guards in an art museum, debuted at the Edinburgh International Film Festival on June 25, 2009.
Walken also starred in Universal Studios Florida's "Disaster" attraction (formerly "Earthquake and the Magic of Effects" and soon to be Fast & Furious: Supercharged). Walken portrayed the owner of "Disaster Studios" Frank Kincaid and encouraged guests to be extras in his latest film, Mutha Nature. Walken was projected on a clear screen, much like a life-size hologram, and interacted with the live-action talent. Famous quote "Frankenstein never scared me".
Walken returned to Broadway in Martin McDonagh's play A Behanding in Spokane in 2010, and received a Tony Award nomination for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. He had a small voice role in NBC sitcom 30 Rock, in the "Audition Day" episode. In 2011, he played the role of Jewish-American loan shark Alex "Shondor" Birns in the film based on the life of gangster Danny Greene, Kill the Irishman. In 2012, Walken reunited with McDonagh for the British-American crime comedy film Seven Psychopaths, and also played the founder and leader of a string quartet in A Late Quartet.
In December 2012, Walken was selected as a "GQ" Man of the Year. ("Gentlemen's Quarterly." April 2018. p. 24)
In 2016, he voiced King Louie in the CGI-live action adaptation of Disney's The Jungle Book, directed by Jon Favreau. He also recorded a cover of Louie's song "I Wan'na Be like You", which he sings in the film as well as on the soundtrack. Also that year, he appeared in Dexter Fletcher's Eddie the Eagle and Barry Sonnenfeld's Nine Lives. In 2017, Walken replaced Bill Irwin in the role of Walter Tinkler in the critically panned Father Figures. The following year, he played Myron in the Netflix film Irreplaceable You.
Legacy and popularity
Described as "diverse and eccentric" and "one of the most respected actors of his generation", Walken has long established a cult following among film fans. He is known for his versatility and was named as one of Empire magazine's "Top 100 Movie Stars of All Time". Once dubbed as a "cultural phenomenon", he has portrayed several iconic movie characters including Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone, Max Shreck in Batman Returns and Max Zorin in A View to a Kill and was also considered for the role of Han Solo in Star Wars films. His Oscar-winning performance in The Deer Hunter was ranked as the 88th greatest movie performance of all time by Premiere magazine and his performance in Pennies from Heaven made it into Entertainment Weekly's list of the "100 Greatest Performances that should have won Oscars but didn't." Sometimes regarded as "one of the kings of cameos", Walken has made several notable cameo appearances or appeared in a single but popular scene of films including as Captain Koons in Pulp Fiction, Duane in Annie Hall, Hessian Horseman in Sleepy Hollow, and Don Vincenzo in True Romance. Writer and director Quentin Tarantino declared that Walken's involvement in True Romance's popular "Sicilian scene" as one of the proudest moments in his career.
Walken's work has been praised and acclaimed by many popular figures. Benicio del Toro cited Walken as an influence and stated that the best advice he had ever been given regarding acting came from him: "When you're in a scene and you don't know what you're gonna do, don't do anything." Kat Dennings called him her favorite actor and said that he was the reason that she wanted to be an actress. Johnny Depp once said one of the main reasons he starred in Nick of Time was wanting to work with Walken. Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Bradley Cooper, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mads Mikkelsen are among actors who spoke about their admiration for Walken. Prominent movie critic Roger Ebert was particularly impressed by his villain and anti-hero portrayals, once stated "when he is given the right role, there is nobody to touch him for his chilling ability to move between easy charm and pure evil" and called him "one of the few undeniably charismatic male villains."
Walken is noted for refusing movie roles only rarely, having stated in interviews that he will decline a role only if he is too busy on other projects to accept. He regards each role as a learning experience. A rare example of a role Walken turned down was that of Ray Ruby in the film Go Go Tales (2007). According to film director Abel Ferrara, the character was originally written for Walken but the latter "didn't want to do it". The role was then given to Walken's New Rose Hotel (1998) co-star Willem Dafoe.
Walken's unique voice and speaking style has been compared to other entertainment figures with voices that create "a pleasing (or at least entertaining) aural experience," such as William Shatner and Garrison Keillor. Walken inspired the stage show, All About Walken: The Impersonators of Christopher Walken, created by actor/comedian Patrick O'Sullivan in Hollywood in 2006.
Appearances on Saturday Night Live
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One of Walken's more famous SNL performances was a spoof of Behind the Music, featuring a recording session of Blue Öyster Cult's "(Don't Fear) the Reaper". In the guise of record producer Bruce Dickinson (not to be confused with the real Bruce Dickinson, lead singer for Iron Maiden), Walken makes passionate and slightly unhinged speeches to the band and is obsessed with getting "More Cowbell" into the song. The phrase "I gotta have more cowbell" has since been adapted to merchandise. The producer who suggested the cowbell on the original BÖC recording is David Lucas.
Walken is also known for his part in one of Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch's "The Luvahs" skits. His character brought a lady friend to meet The Luvahs, and she is subjected to learning the past history that Walken's character shares with The Luvahs. He also divulges private information about his sex life with his girlfriend, much to her horror ("She was willing to accept her lover's body in places no one had ever trespassed...specifically, the ear canal").
Walken spoofed his starring role from The Dead Zone (1983) in a sketch titled "Ed Glosser: Trivial Psychic" (1992). In the film, Walken's character can predict deaths and catastrophes, while Glosser can accurately predict meaningless, trivial future but with the same emotional intensity as in the film: "You're going to get an ice cream headache. It's going to hurt real bad, right here, [touches forehead] for eight, nine seconds.").
His character in A View to a Kill was parodied in a sketch titled "Lease with an Option to Kill", in which he reprised his role as Max Zorin. Zorin, who had taken on some qualities of other notable Bond villains (Blofeld's cat and suit, Emilio Largo's eye patch), was upset that everything was going wrong for him. His lair was still under construction; his henchmen had jump suits that didn't fit; and his shark tank lacked sharks, having a giant sea sponge instead. A captive James Bond, portrayed by Phil Hartman, offered to get Zorin "a good deal" on the abandoned Blofeld volcanic lair if Zorin let him go, to which he reluctantly agreed.
He performed a song and dance rendition of the Irving Berlin standard, "Let's Face the Music and Dance". Finally, there was the "Colonel Angus" sketch, laden with ribald double entendres, in which Walken played a dishonored Confederate officer.
Until 2003, Walken had a recurring SNL sketch called "The Continental", in which Walken played a "suave ladies' man" who in reality cannot do anything to keep a woman (a neighbor in his apartment building) from giving him the cold shoulder. Though he is outwardly chivalrous, his more perverted tendencies inevitably drive away his date over his pleading objections. For instance, he invites the woman to wash up in his bathroom; once she is inside, it becomes obvious that the bathroom mirror is a two-way mirror when he is seen lighting up a cigarette. In "The Continental", only the hand of his neighbor is ever seen; the camera always shows her point of view.
The April 5, 2008 Saturday Night Live show was the first time an episode hosted by Walken did not have a "Continental" sketch or a monologue in which he sang and danced. This episode, however, did include one sketch titled "Walken Family Reunion", which spoofs many of Walken's idiosyncrasies. The sketch depicts a fictional Walken family reunion, where all of Christopher's relatives have his mannerisms and speech patterns, and sport his trademark pompadour hairstyle. In order of appearance, the other Walkens are Christopher's cousin Stanley (Bill Hader); Stanley's brother John (Jason Sudeikis); John's son Scott (Andy Samberg) and daughter Maxine (Amy Poehler) (who carries a doll that also has a pompadour); Nathan (Fred Armisen), a gay relative for whom "flamboyance" means dressing all in black and running his finger around the rim of a cosmo glass; Uncle Richard (Darrell Hammond) and Aunt Martha (Kristen Wiig), who think that The Deer Hunter was hilarious, and who are hosts of a Nigerian foreign exchange student named Oleki (Kenan Thompson). When he came to live with them, Oleki—who has absorbed all of the Walken Family traits—could not speak any English. But now (he says) he "talks like a normal teenaged American boy". The biggest laugh of the sketch occurs when Christopher expresses his sympathies for Scott's teenaged attitude: "I appreciate your situation. For a Walken, adolescence is a difficult time. You feel like you're the only normal person in a school full of nutjobs." Scott's response: "Wow! It's like you're lookin' right into my noggin!" (Will Forte also appears as a waiter at the beginning of the sketch, but does not do a Walken impression.)
Presidential candidacy hoax
Walken became the subject of a hoax controversy in 2006, when a fake website started in August of that year by members of Internet forum Genmay.com announced that he was running for President of the United States. Some believed it was authentic, until Walken's publicist dismissed the claims. When asked about the hoax in a September 2006 interview with Conan O'Brien, Walken said he was amused; and when asked to come up with a campaign slogan, he replied, "What the Heck" and "No More Zoos!"
In 1963, Walken met Georgianne Thon during a tour of West Side Story. They married in January 1969. The couple have no children, and Walken has stated in interviews that being childless is one of the reasons he has had such a prolific career. The couple have a cat named Bowtie, and their previous cat was named Flapjack.
Walken was one of the last people to see actress Natalie Wood alive before her drowning on November 29, 1981, while on a Thanksgiving weekend boating trip near Santa Catalina Island, California. In 2011, Walken hired a lawyer when authorities reopened the Wood case, while the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said, "Walken is not a suspect." The case was closed and termed an accidental death until June 2012, when the investigation was reopened and the cause of death was changed to "undetermined".
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