The Master Of Menace

Walken’s Career, From Child Actor To Arch Villain

He’s a dancer, an amateur writer, a chef and painter. But what Christopher Walken does best is act – and act like a villain.

“I have all these things that I would love to be able to do. And I can't,” Walken tells Correspondent Charlie Rose in an interview that first aired Dec. 4, 2002. “Acting is the only thing I can do.”


Ironically, it’s not something he set out to do. But Walken thinks it unlikely he would have chosen such a career for himself, had his mother not chosen it for him.

His story begins more than 50 years ago at the Walken Bakery in the Queens section of New York. That's where little Ronnie - his real name – Walken was groomed by his mother for a life in show business.

This future master of menace made countless on-screen appearances during the early days of live television in New York.

He says he did it to please his mother, who wanted him to succeed because she wanted to be in show business herself.

“Her name's Rosa Lee Russell, her maiden name,” Walken says. “And Rosalind Russell was a big star. She liked to be called Roz.”

In the end, he is grateful to his stage mother: “It was the best thing that could have happened,” he said.

After a decade of stage roles, Walken made the transition to movies in the 1970s, with supporting roles in films like "Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” usually playing the dashing but mysterious young man.

Woody Allen also hired him to play a peculiar character named Dwayne in “Annie Hall.” Walken remembers the audition well. “I think he sort of walked in. And he stayed. I never spoke to him. I mean, he stayed for a minute. And he sort of looked at me. And then he left. We didn't speak, just looked at me. And I got that job.”

In “The Deer Hunter,” Walken played another odd character - a gentle soul tortured by his tour in Vietnam, who eventually shoots himself in the head.

At the time, Walken was 35, and had never earned more than $11,000 a year. But the performance earned him an Oscar as best supporting actor, made him a major star, and set the tone for his career as one of movies' major misfits.

Just this winter, Walken got another supporting-actor Oscar nomination for his role as Leonardo DiCaprio's grifter-father in Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can." (The Oscar went to Chris Cooper for "Adaptation.")

"As I get older,” Walken jokes, “I would love to start getting the Fred McMurray parts.” He is referring to the “everyman” film actor of the ‘40s and ’50s who starred in TV’s ”My Three Sons.”

Walken has no children, but he does have a wife of 33 years. He met his mate, Georgianne, a casting director, when both were dancers in the musical “West Side Story.”

“When you met him, you knew he had this future. He was good and was gonna be better,” says Georgianne of her husband, who always had a clear idea of where he wanted to go in life. "It was a very compelling idea. And I had never met anybody like that in my life.”

She gave up dancing to marry him, but says, “I think a dancer's career is fairly limited anyway. You can't do that your whole life.”

In “Pennies from Heaven,” Walken got a rare opportunity to return to his dancing roots. He says dancing – rhythm - had a big effect on him. “I think even now, when I study a script, I hear language really in terms of rhythm as much as anything else."

“I stand in my kitchen with the script. Sometimes I read it backwards or I start in the middle. And sometimes I read it with different accents," adds Walken. "Sometimes I pretend I do a sort of Woody Allen imitation, or I do my Elvis or I do, I read it like a cowboy. It goes on and on, and in doing that, I find different rhythms.”

Those oddball rhythms have made Walken a mark for some hilarious mimics, something Georgianne sees as praise. “I think that people who do that are praising him in some way."

While others may see him as a villain, Georgianne thinks of his “great sense of humor. And I think that twinkle in his eye is always there, however scary the guy he's playing.”

That, says Walken, is the key.

“I think there's a big connection between what's funny and what's scary,” he says. “There's something about humor that strikes something like the same notes, and that both require a kind of distance. I think that when people see me doing horrible things in movies they also know that I know it's a movie.”
  • Mary-Jayne McKay

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