Need a huckster, psychopath or gangster for your latest film project? Christopher Walken, 72, will likely take your call.
More than a few pretty boys wrestle for roles that yield large coin and kudos. Steve Buscemi has the market cornered in edgy screwiness, while Tom Cruise seems to have first dibs on anything science-fiction related. When Hollywood goes looking for pure, unalloyed malevolence, however, say a psychotic gangster, a bad seed or a huckster, Christopher Walken gets the call.
The ghostly complexion, the quaff brushed straight up that Walken says was famous before he was, and an unhinged demeanour, are attributes more naturally suited to villains. And it is in these parts where Walken, with his nasty looks and peerless hair, has plied his trade – and indeed flourished.
Part of Walken’s allure may be that his looks suggest an actor who doesn’t leave his character behind once bereft of costume and makeup, but rather is weird – and dangerous – all the time.
“Chris Walken could scare people just walking down the street,” director Abel Ferrara once said. “Two-year-old babies cry when he enters the room. The guy is scary. He works hard at it though.”
Born Ronald Walken, the son of German and Scottish immigrants who settled in New York and opened a bakery, Walken was encouraged by his mother towards performance from an early age. Schooled in the vaudevillian arts, he has utilised some of his soft-shoe skills in Pennies From Heaven and The Four Rules (aka Search And Destroy), while his crooning abilities and schtick get a show in Homeboy.
While his two brothers left song, dance and acting behind, Walken never seriously considered doing anything else, and made his Broadway debut at 16. It was while touring with West Side Story in 1963 that Walken met his wife of almost 50 years, casting agent Georgianne Thon.
Since then his career has been marked by output as much as excellence, and Walken hasn’t always demonstrated prudent judgement when it comes to choosing parts. Consequently he’s featured in as many low-rent, exclusive-to-video projects (All-American Murder, Prophecy II) as in features that are more worthy of his formidable talents. And judging by the number of theatre roles he’s played, (more than 50, as diverse as Iago in Othello and Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire), Walken has used his prolific film output to fund more personal, board-treading projects.
He even wrote and starred in a play about Elvis called Him, in which the King fakes his own death, undergoes a sex-change operation and ultimately works as a waitress in a diner.
Walken admits fear of unemployment plays on him more than any of the dark stuff he summons for his characters.
“I have been lucky,” he admits. “I have always been in work. Fear? That is my fear. When there is nothing left for me to do.” Judging from his recent output, he’s got very little to fret about. Since making his film debut in the mid 1960s, Walken has made more than 100 film and television appearances.
A random sampling of Walken’s work:
Suicide Kings (1998)
Avery Chasten (Henry Thomas) has a problem. Even though his family is rolling in money, he can’t pony up the ransom for the safe return of his kidnapped sister. So a plan is hatched. Avery and some of his resourceful friends decide to kidnap Charlie Barrett (Walken), a gangster kingpin, and try to force him to use his connections to raise the stake. It’s a strange premise, but then Suicide Kings is an odd melange of seemingly incongruous genres that combine to form a compelling whole. At times comedy, noir and violent crime film, it builds to an unpredictable conclusion that rivals The Usual Suspects in the, “I bet you didn’t see it coming” stakes. Walken is sublime. It matters little he’s done this sort of part before because the guy does it so very very well, and a highlight is a flashback scene depicting him as a superfly 70s ne’er-do-well. Denis Leary plays Lono Vecchio, a wise-cracking henchman with a predilection for hurting people with kitchen appliances and Jay Mohr (Go!) is excellent as Avery’s take-charge buddy Brett. Bottom line? Sure, it’s not without flaws (hey, it did go straight to video) but is nonetheless a suspenseful story revealed piece by searing piece, and a worthy addition to the Walken body of work.
The Comfort of Strangers (1990)
If there is a film that underlines the strategy best employed in the negotiation of the Walken canon, it is this one. An essentially plotless paean to the beauty of Venice and to that of its male and female leads (Rupert Everett and Miranda Richardson), it is less triumph than replacement of style over substance. Oh, the strategy? Don’t ask. DO NOT ASK. Don’t ask why Walken is cast as the Italian lead. Don’t ask about the ending or anything leading up to it. Most important: don’t ask about the use of Walken’s recurring “My father was a big man …” speech. Just embrace the whole damn creepy Walkenesque experience.
The King of New York (1990)
In the best known of director Abel Ferrara’s works, Walken plays Frank White, a gangster, who like Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone, sees himself as a public benefactor and legit businessman rather than a criminal. Of course The Don didn’t have the Asian element to dispose of, nor a posse of nubile female guards at his disposal. Also, White doesn’t pussy-foot around with a “just say no to drugs” policy. He and his entourage snort it, sell it and steal it. Ferrara has said he was never sure when, or even if, Walken was acting. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on your level of Walken devotion, but nevertheless the film remains a brutal and visceral gangster flick that is spectacular to observe, and White a singularly unsavoury personage. Warning: this film contains David Caruso.
The Prophecy (1995)
To quote director Abel Ferrara, you only have to look at Walken to see he’s been through some heavy-duty shit. Whether he draws upon those experiences to get in character we don’t know (even Walken says he doesn’t understand some of what he does), suffice to say Walken does sinister very well. In The Prophecy (aka God’s Army), Walken plays the archangel Gabriel gone bad. So bad in fact, he’s instigated a war in heaven between factions of angels. You really have to see it to understand it. Four vastly inferior sequels were made.
The Dead Zone (1983)
As Johnny Smith, Walken is a man who recovers from a serious accident to find he possesses extraordinary powers. In his syndicated column for The Onion, the actor explained his motivation for the role thus: “When we filmed The Dead Zone, I ate over 800 hot dogs a day. It was necessary. My character needed to come across as intense as possible, and I found the inspiration for that intensity in my intense love for hot dogs. The director, David Cronenberg, said that he would never work with me again. I kept eating hotdogs when the cameras were rolling, and that seemed to bother him. I say f* him. He doesn’t even like hotdogs. I would like to end by emphasising once again that I really like to eat hot dogs. If any of you people disagree, I loathe you. I despise you. Not only that, but I also despise all of your loved ones. I want to see them torn to pieces by wild dogs. If I ever meet you in person, I’ll smash your brains in with a f*g bat. Then we’ll see who doesn’t like hot dogs.” As Ferrara says, the guy is a treasure.
The Milagro Beanfield War (1988)
Despite the presence of interfering ghosts, this is not really a Walken project per se, rather an excellent film than features Walken in one of the supporting roles that has characterised his working life. As Kyril Montana (Whitely Streiber, Vanni Corso, Sgt Toomey, Caesar – who comes up with these names?) Walken is the menacing sheriff brought to bear on a farmer stealing water. In what is a lovely film about a community coming together, Walken is – typically – the only character not to lighten up.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Long before Walken earned a reputation for being “out there”, he proved in this Oscar-winning performance he has no trouble playing damaged, tortured souls. Featuring a stellar cast that also includes Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep, The Deer Hunter is a superb film simply to look at if nothing else. It tells of the lives of a group of young adults who belong to the same immigrant European community in Pennsylvania. A traditional wedding and hunting scene establishes the closeness of a group of men who are sent to a brutal war in Vietnam that alters their lives irrevocably for the worse. The film earned five Oscars, including Walken’s for Best Supporting Actor.
If not exactly rogue, neither is Walken’s Bill Hill a swell guy. Let’s just say he’s a salesman, an impresario, and whether it’s God via his drive-in church, or campervans from his lot, Hill can close a deal. So when he encounters a bona fide latter-day miracle worker in the person of Skeet Ulrich’s former monk, he recognises an opportunity when he sees it. Again, this is not Walken’s film, but he leaves enough trademark flourishes to mark his presence in what is an engaging treatise on the cult of personality.
Things To Do In Denver When You’re Dead (1995)
Just because The Man With The Plan (Walken) tools around in a wheelchair doesn’t mean he isn’t to be feared, which is something Andy Garcia and his array of strange friends find out to their misfortune. Walken (“I’m a criminal. My word’s not worth dick.”) is a thoroughly immoral felon who employs henchman Mr Shhh (Buscemi) to exact revenge for a botched job. Apart from Walken, for whom this part was seemingly written, it’s worth checking out the film for Treat Williams, far removed from his straightlaced typecast, as Critical Bill, a whacko who beats up cadavers to stay in shape. Give it a name.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
He might only be in the film a mere five minutes or so of screen time, and Pulp Fiction is a movie crammed to the gills with dialogue, but Captain Koons is the role many best associate with Walken. To say more than the scene involves the concealment of a watch in a strange hiding place and a speech delivered with characteristic brio reveals too much. It gets the edge over Tony Scott’s True Romance for best cameo by Walken in a Quentin Tarrantino-associated film.
In a film set in the scungy world of Palookaville boxing, Walken plays Wesley Pendergass, a singer-dancer, pugilistic hanger-on, schemer, small timer and general miscreant. Although the best line of the film (“Scrote? What is that, French?”) is not his own, Pendergass gets to say, “Ladies and germs … I wrote that myself,” used in the introduction to his nightclub gig as lead singer of Bernie Beamer and the Busted Hymens. Though action centres on Mickey Rourke as tomato can Johnny Walker, there remain plenty of Walken moments. We’re talking egregious monologues (“I want a dozen silk shirts the colour of the rainbow …”), shiftiness, ill-advised criminal activity, the Walken twitchiness and the hair. Always the hair. Downbeat as all getout, Homeboy has a real feel for the sport lacking in boxing films with far more cachet, and a great soundtrack by Eric Clapton.
Honourable mentions to: Biloxi Blues, Videodrome, At Close Range, Wayne’s World 2, Annie Hall, Seven Psychopaths.
This article first appeared over at The Urban Cinefile.