Christopher Walken was once Christopher Wlaken, or so it says in a typo in the end credits of Annie Hall. That little error, in some ways, might best define the inscrutable actor. It’s eccentric, a little off the norm, but somehow still fairly accurate. Walken has always been a cipher as an actor – unpredictable. No one is quite sure how loud or how low his oft-changing tone is going to go. He can switch from jovial to cold and calculating mid-sentence. For any other actor, a performance like that would be downright schizophrenic, but Walken’s charisma and dulcet tone aide in creating characters only he could play.
Everyone does a Chris Walken impression, for better or worse. He has replaced Ed Sullivan at cocktail parties. He’s the lampshade on the head. The most notable impressions come from those who have spent some time with him: Kevin Pollak, Jay Mohr, and Kevin Spacey. Their anecdotes suggest a man just as eccentric as his onscreen persona.
Then there are the roles he never took – how different a world would it be had he won the role of Han Solo? Even in his worst films – and he’s had his fair share of them – Walken’s magnetism manages to lift them out of at least a few layers of mud. He never phones it in and is so unconventional it leads one to wonder if he even knows he’s being filmed. There are few actors who have that ability. Here are just a handful of transcendent moments from Walken’s illustrious, 50 plus years onscreen.
15. True Romance – Vincent Coccotti
The film True Romance is concrete evidence that a movie simply won’t work if the script and director aren’t on the same page. Whereas Tony Scott seemed more interested in making every scene a gigantic, epic showdown – replete with an overbearing soundtrack – Quentin Tarantino‘s script calls for quieter moments. The clash results in a mess of a film; it plays better as a series of vignettes than it does as a whole.
The best vignette, however, finds Walken as mob heavy Vincent Coccotti squaring off with a tired Dennis Hopper. To incite Walken into killing him rather than surrender his son, Hopper begins to use a slew of racial slurs to insult Walken’s Sicilian heritage. Coccotti plays it cold, clearly not amused but laughing hysterically, right up until the moment he pulls the trigger.
Walken is no stranger to Tarantino’s dialogue, appearing again a few years later in Pulp Fiction to give the infamous “watch speech.”But his first tussle with Taratino-speak stands as a shining example in an otherwise unremarkable film.
14. Annie Hall – Annie’s Brother Duane
In one of Walken’s (or Wlaken’s) first appearances, he plays the titular romantic lead’s brother Duane, still living at home with his parents in the midwest. After Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) visits for dinner, Duane calls him into his room. What he says to Singer needs to speak for itself:
” Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you’ll understand. Sometimes when I’m driving… on the road at night… I see two headlights coming toward me. Fast. I have this sudden impulse to turn the wheel quickly, head-on into the oncoming car. I can anticipate the explosion. The sound of shattering glass. The… flames rising out of the flowing gasoline.”
13. Pennies From Heaven – Striptease
Upon release, Fred Astaire blasted Pennies From Heaven for destroying the innocence of the 1930s. The innocence, you know, with the depression and segregation and KKK lynchings, all very innocent. Heaven was adapted from an original BBC TV drama, and focuses on a down on his luck sheet music salesman (Steve Martin) and his doomed relationship with a prostitute (Bernadette Peters). Walken appears as Peters’ pimp.
It’s no secret that Walken is a talented dancer, but you’ve never seen him lay foot on the linoleum unless you’ve seen his tap dance/striptease in Heaven. He rips up the floor like a seasoned vaudevillian.
12. Reading The Raven
Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven is best read aloud. It’s a gorgeous, haunting poem – one deserving of a visit every October 31 – but the visceral thrill and powerful rhyme scheme doesn’t quite sell itself on paper as well as it does coming from a deep, dark voice. Perhaps one of the best versions of the poem comes from The Simpsons’ first Treehouse of Horror, in which the poem is amusingly re-enacted with the characters – but still read with the gravitas it deserves by James Earl Jones.
Walken’s read is dramatic, his voice a little more restrained than usual. He’s an actor who knows when emphasis is not required, when the poetry of the language speaks for itself.
11. Romance and Cigarettes – Delilah
John Turturro’s insane, bizarre musical appears to be cast by the actor calling friends and cashing in on favours. The cast is stupendous, the movie is just downright weird. And weird is where Walken belongs.
For his one-off scene as cousin Bo, Walken hits on a belly dancer in a diner by saying “Ouch! I’m qualified to satisfy!” Then he recounts how he caught his love cheating on him. But he doesn’t monologue it. In a movie like Romance and Cigarettes, there’s no room for dialogue. Instead, he sings and dances to Tom Jones‘ “Delilah” in its entirety.
10. Fat Boy Slim – Weapon of Choice
Fat Boy Slim’s video got a lot of press upon release. For the general public who had missed his numerous dance routines from Saturday Night Live, Pennies From Heaven, and elsewhere, it was their first introduction to Walken the dancer. It’s the rare occasion wherein the video is far better than the song.
Walken makes full use of his gangly frame, sashaying and bojangling his way through a hotel lobby. By the end, he’s literally floating around the room. But its the expression on his face that sells it. Unlike Heaven, where there was still a character to be played, he’s just dancing, and strictly choreographed though it may be, you can tell he’s having a blast.
9. Reading Three Little Pigs
There is something reassuring about an actor who knows the joke’s on him. Michael Caine does his own Michael Caine impression. Nicolas Cage has all but admitted he finds The Wicker Man remake as funny as the rest of us. Their self-seriousness deflated, they become more tangible.
Walken knows how to play up his voice. He understands there’s an underlying current of strangeness to how he sounds, and this was never more evident than his appearance on Jonathan Ross. He reads the entire storybook of The Three Little Pigs, complete with Walken commentary, with gems like “No dunsky” coming out in between sentences. It may not be for children, but its still rather adorable.
8. Nick of Time – Threatening Johnny Depp
John Badham’s Nick of Time is an underrated little thriller. It plays in real-time long before 24 capitalized on the gimmick. Walken plays a cold-blooded killer who kidnaps family man Johnny Depp‘s daughter. If Depp doesn’t assassinate a gubernatorial candidate within 90 minutes, his daughter will be killed.
Naturally, Depp tries everything to alert the politician and save his daughter. At one point, Walken foils an attempt and then delivers the following monologue:
“There was this guy… Big guy, Irish-Italian. Red-faced, black-haired, jolly son of a bitch… Wait a second, nobody could make me laugh like him. He made a science of collecting jokes. We closed more bars together than I could count. Now, he was a pal. I loved the crazy mick. I’m not ashamed to say that, but… He was a f***k-up. He had this image of himself. He thought he was a con man. Always trying to shave the edge. He was nickel and dime. I’ll always miss him. Tell me why…. I killed him. He f***ed up one too many times. So, I put a bullet in his eye. Then, I put two more into him just to make sure. Now, that was somebody I loved; I loved him! But I got the call, and I put him down like a sick animal. So… if you got doubts… about what’s going to happen if you don’t deliver, let me tell you something. I’ll make gravy out of your little girl just to season that Black Irish c***s****r’s meat. Now, you do what you’re supposed to do, young man. You do it now.”
7. King of New York – The Poker Game
Abel Ferrera’s crime saga pits Walken’s Frank White – recently released from prison – up against three corrupt cops as he rebuilds his empire. For the first third of the film, we’re uncertain just how ruthless White is. He spends his nights celebrating his release with old friends Laurence Fishburne and Steve Buscemi. That is, until he visits Little Italy one night to negotiate a cut of a kingpin’s profits.
When the kingpin, seated around a card table, refuses rudely, White suddenly pulls a pistol from his waistband and fires several shots into the mobster. Then, coolly as ever, tells the rest of the poker players they can find new employment at his hotel suite.
Walken plays White with that steel-eyed coolness he’s known for, but more interestingly, his motivations are fairly ambiguous until the climax. Through all the gunfire and violence, the money that White collects he uses like a modern day Robin Hood, building children’s hospitals and generally helping the community. That it’s cleverly couched in gangland slayings somehow doesn’t outshine the nobility at play.
6. Video Game Appearances
In film, Walken doesn’t get hammier than the aforementioned Turturro film. However, for those who played early PC games, you’ve seen him even more off the wall. In Ripper, a 1996 point-and-click adventure, he appears in cutscenes as Det. Vincent Magnotta.
If ever there was a role he took for money, his appearance in Ripper was it. He delivers lines so uncaringly it makes the entire game surreal. Since it’s a point and click, if you don’t immediately ask him questions, a loop of Walken staring at you, awaiting you to ask him something so he can blurt out nonsense cop talk plays. It’s eerie, and highly recommended to leave that loop on at parties.
5. The Jungle Book – King Louie
In Jon Favreau‘s adaptation of The Jungle Book last year, Walken voices the Kong-sized orangutan King Louie. He’s far more menacing than any other incarnation of the character, who was always portrayed as a lot more playful. He voices the role of the giant ape with the same solemnity he brings to the many mafiosos he has played. And when it comes time to break into song (something the film shoehorns in more than once), he doesn’t disappoint. His “Ooh Be Doos” are laboured, exhausting breaths that somehow make the character even more threatening. His Louie is the Godfather of the jungle. And you’ll never hear the word “Gigantopithecus” the same again. If you ever do, that is.
4. Saturday Night Live
Few hosts of Saturday Night Live return more than once and even fewer have Best of DVDs released as though they were cast members. Walken has that honour. Perhaps one of his funniest sketches was a spoof of his role in The Dead Zone in which he plays a “trivial psychic” – an office worker who has visions of minor inconveniences the person he touches will experience.
But of course, you want me to talk about the cowbell, right? While playing Blue Oyster Cult’s producer, he insists on every take for more cowbell.
“I got a fever,” he says, “and the only prescription is more cowbell.”
3. The Dead Zone – “The Ice. Is Gonna Break!”
In one of his more restrained performances, Walken plays an English teacher so plain his name is John Smith. After a car accident that lands him in a five year coma, he awakens with a psychic ability that activates whenever he touches someone. Usually, his second sight lends itself to warn of future danger, but in some cases it reveals past trauma. His gift, or curse, leaves Smith a tortured soul, bereft of a lover or friend. He grows more and more reclusive until a student he’s tutoring touches him, revealing he will die when the ice breaks during a hockey game, sending him plunging into the lake.
Desperately, Smith tries to warn the father, but to no avail. This leads to one damn-near career-defining outburst in which Smith shatters a vase and says:
David Cronenberg never again touched Stephen King‘s material, but a reunion between the three would be a joy to watch.
2. Sleepy Hollow – The Horseman
Very few actors can make a role engrossing when the only line is, “Raaaawarrr.” That’s exactly what Christopher Walken did when he appeared uncredited in Tim Burton‘s loose adaptation of Washington Irving’s short story. It’s his second onscreen appearance with Johnny Depp, only this time both are playing over the top figures. As the Hessian horseman who is decapitated during the revolutionary war, Walken rides a mighty steed, chopping off heads willy nilly, all the while screaming like a banshee through teeth filed into sharp points.
1. Catch Me If You Can – “Where Are You Going Tonight?”
Usually when discussing Steven Spielberg‘s excellent biopic of Frank Abagnale Jr., Walken only comes up regarding his rotary club speech about the two mice in a bowl of cream. While that’s a lovely moment, there is another, much more heartrending scene in the film that showcases the actor at his finest.
After learning how his son makes a living – conning his way through the airlines and forging cheques – Frank Sr. sits down to one final dinner with him. A question that he previously asked of his son, “Where are you going tonight? Some place exotic?” transforms into the nadir of their relationship. It’s unspoken, but he knows he’ll never see his son again. So that question is the last one he asks of his con man son, slightly choking up as it leaves his mouth.
The scene, and performance, earned the actor his most recent Academy Award nomination.