Bear costumes are funny... Bears as well.
- Christopher Walken
Having appeared in over a hundred film and television roles in a career spanning over fifty years, Christopher Walken's pale yet memorable face and deadpan expression can be found in such a wide variety of roles as Bond villain, failed conman, Vietnam veteran, headless horseman and telepathic teacher. Fond of dancing and keen to add some form of 'jig' to whatever he's doing, Walken has also appeared in several musicals and was responsible for the award-winning music video to Fatboy Slim's 'Weapon of Choice'.
Master Ronald, The Baker's Son
Ronald Walken was born in New York in 1943, the second child of two immigrant bakers. While his German father Paul was usually busy running the bakery, his mother Rosalie was keen to involve Ronnie and his brothers Kenn and Glenn in photoshoots and auditions for television parts. His very first part came when Ronald posed with cats for a 1947 calendar, following which his career spiralled onwards and upwards towards his future role as a lion tamer's assistant twelve years later.
In the meantime, Ronnie's mother's frustrated stage ambitions ensured that he had plenty of tap-dancing lessons and television appearances and, after having appeared in a sketch with comedy duo Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Ronnie decided that he'd like to be an actor. At the age of ten he landed himself the role of narrator in The Wonderful John Acton, a summertime television series about a young boy growing up in America in the early 20th Century. While he continued to appear in a number of television shows, Ronnie also found his way into musical theatre with a role in the ex-Broadway musical JB, at the age of fifteen. Having passed through the Professional Children's School, Walken studied at Long Island's Hofstra University for a year before dropping out to appear in the 1963 Broadway musical Best Foot Forward along with a young Liza Minelli. Walken went on to spend another two and a half years in musical theatre, during which he met his future wife, Georgianne Walken (neé Thon). The pair were playing boyfriend and girlfriend parts in the musical West Side Story at the time, and went on to marry six years later in 1969.
Late for Lunch
In 1965, Walken was working as one of three back-up vocalists for nightclub dancer Monique Van Vooren. While Van Vooren would take centre stage, she would announce the names of her support at the end of the show, leading her one day to ask Ronnie if he wouldn't mind being announced as Christopher instead.
...one night she said to me, 'You know, I don't really like 'Ronnie.' I think you are more 'Christopher.' Do you mind if I call you Christopher?' I said, 'Call me anything you like, just don't call me late for lunch.'
The name stuck, though Walken later shortened it to 'Chris' on the basis that the extended form sounded too much like a sneeze. Walken took his new name with him to appear as Christopher Walken in the Broadway musical Baker Street, following which he moved to playing dramatic roles on stage. His first major stage role was that of King Philip in a 1966 production of The Lion in Winter, during which Walken was forced to master his fear of stage fright lest he be left out of a job. In fact, he became good enough at acting to win that year's Clarence Derwent Award, and in the following years went on to play Romeo, Lysander, Mark Antony and MacDuff in respective Shakespeare productions over the next three years.
Walken's first appearance on the big screen came in 1969 when he played a small part in Robert Frank's Me and My Brother, in which the portrayal of the relationship between a man and his catatonic brother is made progressively more metaphysical as an actor is brought in to replace the missing brother, following which Walken arrived to play Frank in a re-enactment of the casting of the actor to replace the brother. Needless to say the artistic nature of the film meant it was not widely released, and so it was only when he appeared as The Kid alongside Sean Connery in The Anderson Tapes that Walken finally made it into a feature film.
While Walken screen tested for leading roles during the 1970s, including that of Han Solo in Star Wars Episode IV, his early film career consisted of many minor roles, including that of the suicidal Duane Hall in the 1977 Woody Allen comedy Annie Hall. However, Walken soon moved up in the world after he played the part of Nicky Chevotarevich in Michael Cimino's rather disturbing The Deer Hunter, which looks at the effects of the Vietnam War on three friends who are captured and forced to play Russian roulette. Walken's performance earned him the 1978 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, an accolade that Walken knew very well would change his life from that point onwards.
The 1980s and 1990s
However, this success was probably dampened a little by Walken's appearance in Cimino's next film, the anti-western Heaven's Gate. With the uncut version of the film running to nearly four hours and the budget exceeding 30 million dollars, the film received much criticism for being slow and devoid of the colliding subplots that most epics contain. Fortunately, Walken's next part was much more entertaining, starring as he did in the last ever MGM musical, Pennies From Heaven, in 1981. Having performed in the same studios that had previously seen the dancing of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, Walken received glowing reviews for the role. Walken has since tried to build a 'jig' into any part he can.
Further appearances during the 1980s included the main part in the dark thriller The Dead Zone, an adaptation of a Stephen King novel in which a teacher gains psychic abilities in an accident and quickly finds himself assisting on a murder case. Walken soon followed through by dying his hair blonde to play the psychologically unhinged Bond villain Max Zorin in A View to a Kill. By the end of the decade, Walken had featured in thirteen different films including the cartoon feature Puss In Boots, adding to the eleven films from the previous eleven years. During the 1990s he added a further forty-one parts in feature films to the list, including appearances in Batman Returns, Pulp Fiction, three The Prophecy films, Mousehunt, Antz and Sleepy Hollow. Walken also appeared in True Romance, playing the part of Vincent Coccotti in the famous 'Sicilian scene' that the film's writer Quentin Tarantino claims to be one of the highlights of his career. It was clear that Walken wasn't afraid to play a variety of roles, and certainly wouldn't turn down a sensible offer.
Cowbell of Choice
However, Walken still had time to become famous through appearances on television, with his appearances on the US sketch show Saturday Night Live adding to the cult status he had obtained through his unusual portrayal of many different cinematic villains. One particular meme that Walken is responsible for spreading comes from his time on the show. In 2000, Walken played the role of the Bruce Dickinson1, a music industry producer seen advising the band Blue Oyster Cult in an SNL sketch. After the band abort a recording take due to the loudness of a cowbell, as played by the fictional Gene Frenkle, Dickinson tells the band that they need 'a little more cowbell'. Successive takes get aborted as the friction between Frenkle and the other band members grows, but Dickinson keeps insisting until Frenkle makes a waxing speech about the importance of the instrument. Once Frenkle is finished, Dickinson cuts in once more:
Guess what?! I've got a fever, and the only prescription: is more cowbell!
The sketch ends with a memoriam message for Frenkle (1950-2000). The phrase 'More cowbell' can now be found referenced in various unusual locations, and the sketch itself was rated as the fifth most popular moment in Saturday Night Live history.
Another of Walken's more notable small screen performances came the following year when he appeared in the Fatboy Slim music video 'Weapon of Choice'. The video features a bored-looking Walken sitting in the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Los Angeles, with Walken rapidly cheering up as he begins to dance and eventually fly around the premises. The video went on to win six MTV awards and be named Best Video of All Time by VH1 in 2002.
Christopher Walken continues to appear in almost any role he's offered, and has long since gained a cult following due to his unusual mannerisms and deadpan expression. His popularity has led him to make continuous appearances on Saturday Night Live and also made him a candidate for a hoax claiming that he would run for US President in the 2008 presidential elections. Walken lives with his wife Georgianne, a casting director, in rural Connecticut.