Christopher Walken is in a very special group of beloved actors…. really, only Bill Murray is in the same category in terms of having an almost spooky ability to touch and delight us, sometimes without doing anything at all. What those two actors share, it occurs to me, is a knack for complete and utter freedom; they don’t seem tethered at all by the normal constraints.
A couple of years ago, Stephen Collins, who acted on stage with Walken in two productions, was interviewed on Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, and he made a fascinating comment about Walken’s utter lack of the usual actor’s vanity (quote starts at 42:30):
I did Three Sisters with Walken at Williamstown [in 1987]. ... He was playing Vershinin, and he got a lot of laughs. ... He would get a laugh—I mean a big, huge laugh—and the next night, I’d think, oh hey, this’ll be fun, I can’t wait for him to go for that again, because it’s fun when anybody on stage gets a laugh. And he wouldn’t do anything even remotely like what he did the night before. He would give up the laugh completely. It was like, it had never happened. And you’d think, God, how amazing. And then I swear, three seconds later, he’d do something else and get a huge laugh—that he would never go for again.
I never, ever have known an actor less possessive of his laughs. Because actors are usually really possessive. ... When you get a big laugh in a play, you kinda want to get it eight times a week. And you sort of want everybody to help you get it. ... He has none of that attachment. ...
When he was a chorus boy he worked with Beatrice Lillie, ... in a musical called High Spirits, the musical version of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, and he said she did that. He said, “Beatrice Lillie never got the same laugh twice. ... I always thought that was so brave, and so I guess it affected me, you know.” I guess it did! He’s like the bravest guy on stage I’ve ever, ever seen.
One of the secrets of Walken’s success and utterly distinctive persona may be an application of Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hour rule”—in order to become a master at something, you have to put in ten thousand hours and then you have a chance to be really great. Walken has been Walken his entire life!
I didn’t know before a couple of days ago that Walken has been acting since he was a child. Here are some amusing publicity stills from those early days, years before he would achieve such stellar results in movies like The Deer Hunter, True Romance, King of New York, The Dead Zone, Seven Psychopaths, a Fatboy Slim video and countless episodes of Saturday Night Live.
Here’s Walken’s portrait from his high school yearbook from “PCS”—Professional Children’s School in New York. (Clarification: Walken’s given name is Ronald; he adopted the name “Christopher” in 1964.) Walken was born in 1943, so I suppose this would have been about 1960. After a Shakespeare quotation, we encounter the following, which is somehow hilariously apt: “This tall blue-eyed cavalier” is “a watchful dreamer, he will speak up quite suddenly with some witticism, and then lapse back into silence.”
Here’s Walken in his first acting role, at least according to IMDb.com. It’s from 1953, and it’s called “Wonderful John Acton,” and it’s about “an Irish-American family in Ludlow, Kentucky in 1919.” It looks heavily influenced by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, but what do I know. Only the first three minutes are here, you’ll see Walken walk across the stage around the 2:20 mark.
Previously on Dangerous Minds:
‘Three Little Pigs’ read by Christopher Walken