Oscar Profile #358: Christopher Walken

Born March 31, 1943 in Astoria, Queens, the son of a bakery owner and his wife, Ronald Walken, named by his mother after her favorite actor, Ronald Colman, and his brothers Kenneth and Glenn were child actors on television and in the theatre in the 1950s.

Initially billed as Ronnie, the actor changed his first name in 1964 to Christopher. His breakthrough role came in the 1963 Off-Broadway revival of Best Foot Forward opposite Liza Minnelli. His Broadway credits include featured roles in 1958’s The Visit in support of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne; 1964’s High Spirits in support of Beatrice Lillie, Tammy Grimes and Edward Woodward and 1965’s Baker Street in support of Fritz Weaver and Inga Swenson. He was more prominently featured as the young King of France in 1966’s The Lion in Winter in support of Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris.

Walken’s breakthrough screen role came in 1971’s The Anderson Tapes in support of Sean Connery. He had important roles in 1966’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village and 1977’s The Sentinel, Annie Hall and Roseland. His role in 1978’s The Deer Hunter brought him an Oscar and lasting fame. He continued in major films for the next ten years, among which were The Last Embrace, Heaven’s Gate, The Dogs of War, Pennies from Heaven, Brainstorm, The Dead Zone, A View to a Kill, At Close Range, The Milago Beanfield War and Biloxi Blues. In 1991, he was nominated for an Emmy for his performance in Sarah, Plain and Tall opposite Glenn Close, a role he reprised in 1993’s Skylark and again in 1999’s Winter’s End.

The 1990s also found Walken on the big screen in such films as The Comfort of Strangers, Batman Returns, True Romance, Pulp Fiction, Things to Do in Denver When You’re DeadBasquiat, Touch, Antz, Sleepy Hollow and Blast from the Past. More recent films include A Late Quartet, Jersey Boys and Eddie the Eagle.

One of the most prolific actors around, Walken has logged in over a hundred appearances on TV shows over the years. He has hosted Saturday Night Live seven times from 1990 through 2008. He earned a Tony nomination for his performance in the 2000 musical version of James Joyce’s The Dead and received his second Oscar nomination for 2002’s Catch Me If You Can. He even tackled a live TV production of Peter Pan in 2014 in which he played Captain Hook to Allison Williams’ title character.

Although he is as apt to show up in a cameo as he is in a starring role these days, he remains one of the busiest actors in Hollywood at the age of 74. He’ll soon be seen in The War with Grandpa with Robert De Niro and Uma Thurman.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE ANDERSON TAPES (1970), directed by Sidney Lumet

Sean Connery had one of his best non-James Bond roles as an ex-convict who masterminds the robbery of a swank New York City apartment house upon his release from a ten-year prison term for a previous robbery. Among the recruits for his team is a young guy released from prison at the same time, played by Walken who is “introduced” in the film’s opening credits despite having film and TV credits going back to 1953 as well as a promising Broadway stage career. Aside from Connery, Walken and veteran character actress Margaret Hamilton as one of the Connery’s victims are the best things about this very New York film.

THE DEER HUNTER (1978), directed by Michael Cimino

On the heels of playing three years younger Diane Keaton’s suicidal younger brother in the previous year’s Oscar winner, Annie Hall, Walken not only co-starred in a second Oscar winner, but won an Oscar himself as another suicidal character in this much admired study of the intrusion of the Vietnam War on the lives of friends in a small industrial Pennsylvania town. Robert De Niro, Meryl Streep, John Savage, John Cazale and George Dzunda all turned in excellent performances, but Walken’s the one you remember best thanks to his highly controversial Russian roulette games with the Viet Cong.

THE DEAD ZONE (1983), directed by David Cronenberg

Filled with humor and heart as well as horror, The Dead Zone is one of the best films made from a Stephen King novel as well as one of the few that it is better than the book thanks to the superb screenplay by Jeffrey Boam, outstanding direction by David Cronenberg and moving performance by Walken in what remains his best leading screen role as a man who wakes from a coma with a new found psychic ability. He is supported by a superb cast in this horror-sci fi masterpiece that includes Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Herbert Lom, Anthony Zerbe, Colleen Dewhurst, Martin Sheen and Jackie Burroughs.

PULP FICTION (1994), directed by Quentin Tarentino

Despite being a marketable star in his own right, much of Walken’s career has been spent in non-starring roles of which his Captain Koons in Pulp Fiction is a prime example. While Tarantino’s mythical Oscar-nominated crime drama provided John Travolta with a major comeback, enhanced the career of Bruce Willis and made major stars of Samuel L. Jackson and Uma Thurman, it is also remembered the equally engrossing performances of Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Amanda Plummer, Ving Rhames, Rosanna Arquette and of course, Walken. Tarantino and Roger Avery’s script was the film’s only Oscar win out of seven nominations.

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN (2002), directed by Steven Spielberg

Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks are the stars of Spielberg’s true-life tale of a teenage con man and the FBI agent who pursues him, but it is Walken as DiCaprio’s father who walks away with the film, earning its only acting Oscar nomination. It’s his character’s financial woes and entanglement with the IRS that leads his son to a life of crime. Divorced by selfish wife Nathalie Baye for being a loser, Walken proves to be the film’s moral center, stealing every scene he’s in, despite having to act most of them opposite DiCaprio at his most charismatic. The true story also features Martin Sheen, Amy Adams, James Brolin and Jennifer Garner in key roles.

CHRISTOPHER WALKEN AND OSCAR

  • The Deer Hunter (1978) – Oscar – Best Supporting Actor
  • Catch Me If You Can (2002) – nominated – Best Supporting Actor

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  1. “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” was 1976.

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