Ronald Walken (born March 31, 1943), known professionally as Christopher Walken, is an American actor. He has appeared in more than 100 films and television shows, including Annie Hall (1977), The Deer Hunter (1978), The Dogs of War (1980), The Dead Zone (1983), A View to a Kill (1985), Batman Returns (1992), True Romance (1993), Pulp Fiction (1994), Sleepy Hollow (1998), Catch Me If You Can (2002), Hairspray, Seven Psychopaths (2012) and the first three Prophecy films, as well as music videos by many popular recording artists. Walken has received a number of awards and nominations during his career, including winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Nikanor “Nick” Chebotarevich in The Deer Hunter. He was nominated for the same, and won BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild Awards, for his performance as Frank Abagnale, Sr. in Catch Me If You Can.
Walken’s films have grossed more than $1 billion in the United States. He 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, having hosted seven times as of April 2008. His most notable roles on the show include record producer Bruce Dickinson in the “More Cowbell” sketch, as the double-entendre-named disgraced Confederate officer, Colonel Angus, and his multiple appearances as The Continental.
Walken debuted as a film director and scriptwriter with the short film Popcorn Shrimp in 2001. He also wrote and acted the main role in a play about his idol Elvis Presley titled Him, in 1995.
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Named for actor Ronald Colman, Walken was born Ronald Walken on March 31, 1943, in Astoria, Queens. His mother, Rosalie (née Russell; May 16, 1907 – March 26, 2010), was a British emigrant from Glasgow, Scotland, and his father, Paul Wälken (October 5, 1903 – February 23, 2001), moved from Germany in 1928 with his brothers. His father owned and operated Walken’s Bakery in Astoria. Walken was raised a Methodist.
Influenced by their mother’s own dreams of stardom, he and his brothers, Kenneth and Glenn, were child actors on television in the 1950s. At age 15, when a girl friend showed him a magazine photo of Elvis, Walken 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 Elvis and hasn’t changed it since. (Robert Schnakenberg, “Christopher Walken A to Z”, 2008) As a teenager, he worked as a lion tamer in a circus. Walken went to Hofstra University but dropped out after one year, having gotten the role of Clayton Dutch Miller on an Off-Broadway revival of Best Foot Forward, co-starring with Liza Minnelli, who played Ethel Hofflinger. Walken initially trained as a dancer in music theatre at the Washington Dance Studio, before moving on to dramatic roles in theatre 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 as the show’s narrator. 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 “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 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 a friend who believed the name suited him better than his given name, Ronald. He prefers to be known informally as “Chris” instead of “Christopher”.
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 homicidal and 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.
In (1977) Walken also starred in an episode of Kojak as Ben Wiley, a robber.
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.
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Walken’s first film of the 1980s was the controversial Heaven’s Gate, directed by Cimino of Deer Hunter fame. 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 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. Walken was one of the last persons to see Wood alive before her drowning near Santa Catalina Island, California, while on a Thanksgiving weekend boating trip. In 2011, Walken hired a lawyer when authorities re-opened the Wood case, while the LAPD said “Walken is not a suspect.” The case was closed and termed an accidental death until June 2012, when the investigation was re-opened and the cause of death was changed to “undetermined”. Authorities stated that Walken is not a suspect.
In 1985, Walken played a James Bond villain, Max Zorin, in A View to a Kill, Roger Moore’s last appearance as Bond. Walken dyed his hair blond to befit Zorin’s origins as a Nazi experiment.
At Close Range (1986) starred Walken as Brad Whitewood, a rural Pennsylvania crime boss who tries to bring his two sons into his empire; his character mostly based on criminal Bruce Johnston.
In 1988, Christopher Walken played a memorable role as Sgt. Merwin J. Toomey in Neil Simon’s “Biloxi Blues” which was directed by Mike Nichols and the role of Federal Agent Kyril Montana in 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 friends were subject to visitations by unknown, other worldly entities variously identified as possibly “aliens” or, simply, as “visitors”. In 1989, he played the lead role of “Puss” in the Cannon theatre group’s musical version of “Puss in Boots”.
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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 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 he 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 giving 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. (R. Tantich, “Plays and Players,” New York, 1995)
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, Excess Baggage and had a minor role in the film Mousehunt. He also appeared in the drama/thriller film Suicide Kings which also filled with suspense and humor.
In 1998, Walken played an influential gay New York theater critic in John Turturro’s film Illuminata. The same year he voiced Colonel Cutter in the computer animated film Antz.
In 1999, Walken played Calvin Webber in the romantic comedy Blast from the Past. Webber is 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.
Walken also starred in two music videos in the 1990s. His first video role was as the Angel of Death in Madonna’s 1993 “Bad Girl”. The second appearance was in Skid Row’s “Breakin’ Down” video.
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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, Billy Morissette’s loose film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
In 2002 Walken played Frank Abagnale, Sr. in Catch Me If You Can and played the role of Mike in the film Poolhall Junkies. It 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, 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.”
In 2005, he played Mark Heiss in the film Domino and played the role of Secretary Cleary in the film Wedding Crashers.
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 costarred in the 2007 film adaptation Hairspray–where he is seen singing and dancing in a romantic duet with John Travolta–and he 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 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.
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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. Walken reunited with McDonagh for the British crime comedy film Seven Psychopaths which had its world premiere on 7 September 2012. Walken also played the founder and leader of a string quartet in A Late Quartet (late in 2012).
Walken costarred with Al Pacino and Alan Arkin in the film Stand Up Guys, a story about aging gangsters out on the town for one last hoorah. He also appeared in The Power of Few.
In 2013, Walken became the protagonist in the campaign “Made From Cool” by Jack & Jones. In 2014, he appeared in Turks & Caicos. Walken appears as Gyp DeCarlo in the 2014 film Jersey Boys.
In 2014, Walken played Captain Hook in the NBC production Peter Pan Live!
In 2015, Walken starred in the film When I Live My Life Over Again and played the role of Clem for the second time in the David Spade comedy Joe Dirt 2: Beautiful Loser.
In 2016, he voiced King Louie in the CGI-live action remake of Disney’s The Jungle Book. 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.
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’s known for his versatility and 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 ranked as 88th greatest movie performance of all time by Premiere magazine and his performance in Pennies from Heaven was made 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 Captain Koons in Pulp Fiction, Duane in Annie Hall, Hessian Horseman in Sleepy Hollow, and Don Vincenzo in True Romance’s popular “Sicilian scene” which was described by Quentin Tarantino as one of his most proud moments in his career.
As an influential actor, Walken’s work has been praised and acclaimed by many popular figures, including Hollywood celebrities. Kat Dennings called him as her favorite actor and the reason of why she wanted to be an actress. 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.” Johnny Depp once said one of main reasons of why he starred in Nick of Time was him wanting to work with Walken. Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Colin Farrell, Bradley Cooper, Leonardo DiCaprio 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 imitated for his deadpan affect, sudden off-beat pauses, and unusual speech rhythm and emphasis, which was subject to parody in a Robot Chicken episode, The Big Bang Theory and the fantasy sketch series Doraleous & Associates. He is revered for his quality of danger and menace, but his unpredictable deliveries and expressions make him invaluable in comedy as well. Walken’s style has also sometimes been compared to similar cult actors such as William Shatner and Jeff Goldblum.
Walken inspired the stage show, All About Walken: The Impersonators of Christopher Walken, created by actor/comedian Patrick O’Sullivan in Hollywood in 2006. Walken is noted for refusing movie roles only rarely, having stated in interviews that he will decline a role only if he is simply too busy on other projects to take it. 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.
Appearances on Saturday Night Live
Walken has hosted the comedy sketch and satire TV series Saturday Night Live seven times. He is one of only two actors to have a standing offer from Lorne Michaels to host the show whenever his schedule permits (the other being Alec Baldwin). 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, such as T-shirts and bumper stickers. The producer who actually did suggest the cowbell on the original BÖC recording is producer/composer David Lucas.
Walken is also known for his part in one of Will Ferrell and Rachel Dratch’s “The Lovers” skits. His character brought a lady friend to meet The Lovers, and she is subjected to learning the past history that Walken’s character shares with The Lovers. 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 role from The Dead Zone in a sketch titled “Ed Glosser: Trivial Psychic”, in which the title character had the ability to accurately predict meaningless, trivial future events (“You’re going to get an ice cream headache. It’s going to hurt real bad–right here–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. Walken’s SNL appearances have proved so popular that he is one of the few SNL hosts for whom a Best of… SNL DVD is available (other celebrity hosts who have a Best of… SNL DVD are Tom Hanks, Steve Martin, and Alec Baldwin), an honor usually reserved only for SNL cast members.
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 women 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 a 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. What distinguishes “The Continental” is that various ladies are never seen; the camera represents their 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 “Meet the Family”, 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!”
Walken married Georgianne Walken (née Thon) in 1969: she is a casting director, notably for The Sopranos. They live in Wilton, Connecticut, and have no children. Walken has stated in interviews that having no children is one of the reasons he has had such a prolific film career. Walken has a cat named Bowtie; his previous cat was named Flapjack. Walken and his wife also have a vacation home on Block Island, Rhode Island.