the Song and Dance Man
Christopher Walken Biography
Christopher Walken came into this world as Ronald Walken (named after actor Ronald Coleman) on March 31, 1943. Born the middle child in a family of three boys, he was raised along with his brothers Ken and Glenn, in Queens, New York. Walken still remains a resident of New York City to this day, and for the past couple of decades has owned a brownstone on Manhattan's upper West Side in addition to a home located in the Connecticut countryside.
Christopher's parents were both immigrants who met in the U. S. as young adults and married in 1936. Walken's father, Paul, came from Germany and spent a long career as the owner and operator of Walken's Bakery in Queens. Paul, who passed away in February 2001, was a ferocious worker who regularly made a practice of keeping his young sons busy in the bakery after school. Perhaps that work ethic, instilled so early on, is one of the reasons Walken has said that he is happiest when he is busy working.
Rosalie, Christopher Walken's mother, emigrated from Scotland and once had her own ambitions for the stage. After she was married, her acting desires were redirected toward her sons and she was quite successful at getting all three of them work starting at a very early age. For instance, one of Chris' first jobs was posing nude alongside a cat for a baby calendar layout. He was just 14 months old at the time. Walken told gossip columnist Baird Jones about his memory of the event:
"I posed naked snuggling with two cats for a series of calendar pictures which were a big success. I haven't seen those pictures in a long, long time, but I remember doing it -- and I've always wondered what kind of cats those were. Finally, I've just accepted that they were just cats and I'll never know what kind." -- Chris Walken, Salon.com, July 31, 2000.
The fifties were the golden age of television and there were plenty of employment opportunities for the Walken brothers with over 90 live TV shows being produced in New York City at the time. Walken was often an extra on those live programs, and by the time he was ten years old, Chris had already worked with such greats as Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, and Sid Caesar.
"My brother was on three shows at the same time, he used to run from place to place. There was a radio version of one of the TV things he did and when he couldn't make it I would go, because I had the same voice he did. So, it was like that, I grew up in that, my references are all there. I never played ball. As a result, my vocabulary, my references, the impression that I give has very much to do with that, and with the kind of parts I'm given. I came from another country." -- Chris Walken, Film Comment, August 1992.
Some of the early television programs Chris appeared on included the Ernie Kovacs Show, Colgate Comedy Hour, Playhouse 90, and the Armstrong Circle Theater. He was also a regular character on the television series, The Wonderful John Acton and later, Chris was seen in episodes of Naked City, Hawaii Five-O, and Kojak.
Walken received his childhood education at Professional Children's School in Manhattan, during which time he trained specifically to be a dancer. Chris eventually went on to use that training extensively by spending the beginning of his career as a dancer in musicals, and as can be seen in Fatboy Slim's Weapon of Choice video, Walken still uses his early dance training very successfully to this day.
The professional school Walken attended was unique in that it catered to children who were actively working in show business with lesson plans tailored around the children's working schedules. Though Chris was a very busy kid at that time, he still managed to have a good time at school.
"It was a great place. It was like 95 percent girls...beautiful girls. They were all models and stuff. And the other boys were usually strange -- what you might call 'scientific types.' They played the violin and the cello...and I was silly and frivolous. Those were good days. What do you call them? Halcyon days? Salad days? It was like that movie where the guy gets stranded on a planet of women." -- Chris Walken, Entertainment Weekly, March 17, 2000.
One can easily say that it was an unusual childhood compared to most, and when he was 16 years old Walken even spent a summer playing the part of a lion tamer's son in a traveling one-ring circus.
"There was this very old lioness named Sheba, and she was completely very friendly, like a dog. I had a whip and a hat, and I'd go into the cage and Sheba would jump up on this box and I'd wave the whip at her, and she'd get up and go, 'Whraaah!' Everybody would applaud and that was it." -- Chris Walken, The Washington Post, August 5, 2001.
It was also during his childhood that Walken began to develop his trademark reluctance to follow traditional punctuation. He has said that he sometimes crossed out the punctuation in his text books, just as he sometimes crosses out the punctuation in his scripts today. That avoidance of punctuation, both written and in his speaking rhythm, has since become a integral part of the Walken signature style. A style that has been regularly parodied by impressionists.
"I remember a few years ago I was sitting at home with my wife watching the Oscars. I was sitting on the couch, and suddenly I heard my voice. It's thrilling. It's interesting that a lot of guys do me. I have a friend who does me on his answering machine so when I call him I talk to myself. I don't really know what that comes from. It doesn't seem to me that I speak in a strange way. My wife says Kevin's is the best." -- Chris Walken, UK Empire magazine, March 2002.
After graduating from Children's Professional School and being handed his diploma from none other than Gypsy Rose Lee, Walken went on to study English Literature at Hofstra University. After less than a year, Chris made the decision to leave college when he was offered a part in a 1963 Broadway musical, Best Foot Forward, which also starred a very young Liza Minelli.
"I got a part in Best Foot Forward and I went to work. The job was more important than school. I just went to work." -- Chris Walken, Inside the Actor's Studio, 1995.
Chris continued to work mainly as a dancer in musicals for some time, and it was also at this point in his career that the decision was made to change his name to Christopher.
"I'll tell you how that happened. When I was a dancer, Monique Van Vooren had a nightclub act and she uses three guys as backup. She'd sing French and we would dance and provide vocals. She would introduce us at the end of the show and 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." -- Chris Walken, Film Comment, August 1992.
In 1963 Chris met his wife, Georgianne Thon, while he was playing Riff in West Side Story and she was a dancer playing the part of his girlfriend, Graziella. They were wed in 1969 and still remain married today. Georgianne once worked with her husband when she played the small part of Wendy Abramson in the movie Brainstorm. She has since left acting behind and went on to become a successful casting director who recently won an Emmy Award for casting the Sopranos.
When Walken was offered his first major acting role in 1966, he played the part of King Philip in The Lion in Winter. Chris has said that he was so nervous while he was on stage he almost ended up losing his job early on in the production. Not wanting to give up his chance to become a professional stage actor, Walken convinced the producer to give him just three more days to improve. Chris went on to do so well, he won that year's prestigious Clarence Derwent Award for his performance in the play. Walken would soon win many other important awards such as an Obie for Kid Champion, and a Theatre World Award for The Rose Tatto.
Chris also spent a number of years participating in The Actors Studio where he was taught by legendary drama teachers such as Lee Strasberg.
"I was once doing a scene for Lee Strasberg, and somebody dropped a big box of dishes. I kept going. After, Strasberg said 'Somebody dropped a big box of dishes in the middle of your scene and you kept going.' I said, 'Yeah, I was concentrating.' He said, 'You're the only one in the room that didn't jump -- that's not concentrating!' That was a big moment for me. I realized that concentration isn't about 'focusing.' It's about having 360-degree vision, eyes and ears open, not missing a thing." -- Chris Walken, Gentlemen's Quarterly, March 2000.
Chris continued to work in theater, both on and off Broadway, for years until he landed his first movie role. Though he screen tested for leading roles in such films as Love Story and Star Wars, he didn't win a significant part in a movie until 1971 when he was chosen to play alongside Sean Connery in The Anderson Tapes.
Walken went on from there to star in The Happiness Cage, Next Stop Greenwich Village, The Sentinel, and Roseland, and was finally seen by the masses when he played Duane Hall, Diane Keaton's very weird brother, in Woody Allen's production of Annie Hall.
Then for his next film, Walken was given the part of Nick in Michael Cimino's masterpiece,The Deer Hunter.
"I said I would take any part, I just wanted to be in the movie. And then they offered me this wonderful Nick part." -- Chris Walken, Salon.com, October 10, 2000.
For playing his part so well, Walken won the 1978 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and from that moment on, his life would never be the same.
"We went to bed (following the Oscars and an after party), and I said to my wife, with the Oscar in my hand, 'This is a house.' And it was. I was holding our house in my hand - I knew that's what it meant." -- Chris Walken, Salon.com, October 10, 2000.
A few years later tragedy struck while Walken was wrapping up work on the film Brainstorm. Natalie Wood, his co-star in the movie, had invited him along on a Thanksgiving weekend boating trip with her and husband, Robert Wagner. On the second night of the trip, while their yacht was anchored off the coast of Catalina Island, Natalie fell overboard and drowned.
"It always sounds like we were all alone out on the high seas. We were actually fifty feet off the shore of Catalina, in a harbor with many, many boats around us. The weather was shitty. Everybody was locked inside. There was a sort of cold drizzle. We were partying, there's no question about it, but very conservatively. Too much to drink. Who knows? In fact I was asleep when it all happened.
"The fact is when somebody dies it's a very serious thing. No matter who dies, death gets your attention. You can pass out all you like. You can party. You can do all kinds of things... But don't die." -- Chris Walken, The Face, February 1985.
During the years immediately afterward Walken appeared in a vast number of movies including Stephen King's, The Dead Zone, the James Bond film, A View to a Kill, and he played arch-villain Max Shreck in Batman Returns. Walken also worked with director Robert Redford on The Milagro Beanfield War, and played Sergeant Toomey in Neil Simon's Biloxi Blues. And who can forget those unforgettable Walken monologues from the movies True Romance and Pulp Fiction.
Chris remained busy with a number of additional projects, including several by his friend Abel Ferrara. Those films included King of New York, The Addiction, The Funeral and New Rose Hotel. Also during that time, another very good friend, Julian Schnabel, directed Walken in the movie Basquiat.
Throughout most of his career, Walken has tended to specialize in playing villains and unbalanced types in his film roles, though he has had the opportunity to play different kinds of parts on occasion. For instance, he once played the cat in one of his favorite projects, Puss in Boots, a movie where Chris could be seen singing, dancing, and performing cat-like movements with a feline perfection.
Chris also had a chance to show off his dancing talents in the film, Pennies from Heaven, where he stole the show with a top notch dance routine. Later, at one particularly memorable party, Walken was personally praised by both Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly for his performance in that film. A film that would also turn out to be MGM's very last musical.
"But I do consider Pennies from Heaven, the musical. I'm very happy to have done that because it was the last musical ever made by MGM. MGM made all these classic musicals and then around 1980, the studio was purchased by Sony and the name changed. But when I did Pennies from Heaven, it was still called MGM. I remember that I dubbed my taps on the same little parquet floor that Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, all those people, used." -- Chris Walken, Empire Magazine, March 2002.
Most of the world was finally made keenly aware of Walken's exceptional dancing ability when he starred in the Fatboy Slim music video, Weapon of Choice. Finally, an entirely new generation, The MTV Generation, found an opportunity to know Walken in a different light. Instead of the villain, they have been introduced to the song and dance man who has been there all along.
"'I think it's going to turn out to be the most popular thing I have ever done,' he says, adding that his hero is Fred Astaire and that he still owns a pair of tap shoes." -- Daily Telegraph, March 11, 2002.
In fact, those who pay close attention will notice that Chris often manages to work a few dance steps into most of his movies. He has said that he makes it a point to include those dance steps, scripted or not, as his own personal "Homage to Broadway."
Critics have tended to focus on Walken as the ultimate villain, and sometimes they describe him with words like 'spooky', 'creepy', or 'menacing'. Walken, on the other hand, has said that he thinks of himself as "alarmingly predictable" - a regular Joe. He told Inside the Actor's Studio host, James Lipton, that he is happily married to his long time wife, owns two homes and a station wagon, and pays his bills on time.
"One of the reasons I can play the people I do is that I have a distance from them. I'm not neurotic. I don't have any paranoias. I never imagine something is happening unless it actually is. I'm positive." -- Chris Walken, Details Magazine, December 1993.
It is clear to his fans that Walken is not only a critically acclaimed actor, he is also a versatile performer whose talents lay well beyond the bad guys he portrays so well. Chris has shown that he is a master dancer as well as a talented singer. He has had a long and impressive stage career performing in countless theater productions including his most recent plays, James Joyce's The Dead, and Anton Chekhov's The Seagull. Chris has even ventured into writing and directing, when he recently wrote and directed the Showtime short, Popcorn Shrimp.
Walken is also a playwright who wrote, produced, and starred in a play which he entitled Him, a play that has been described as a satirical account of the afterlife of Elvis. Chris has written many other plays over the years as well, and it was once mentioned that Walken supposedly has a whole suitcase of unproduced plays put away somewhere.
In addition to his other talents, Chris has also proven himself to be an entertaining comedian who enjoys showing off his song and dance skills as well as spoofing his darker characters on Saturday Night Live. A program he has hosted a total of seven times now and for which he won a 2001 American Comedy Award.
Christopher Walken is such a master at playing the villain, he will certainly continue to excel in those types of roles, though much to his satisfaction, it seems he is now freer to expand his performances to other genres like comedy and dance. In fact, Chris once said that he dreams of someday playing the part of a regular person, a man with a family - someone with a house and children and a dog...
"Do you remember Fred McMurray? He always seemed to have a pipe and slippers and his wife was making dinner. Some day, maybe, I will play that part." -- Chris Walken, The Daily Record, October 24, 2001.