Thursday, December 01, 2005

Walken on the Wild Side with the Big Bad Wolf from the Bronx















from an article by Adam Higginbotham, originally published in Neon magazine in 1997, which can be found in full here:

Late one Saturday night in 1993, Christopher Walken made a brief appearance on British television. He came looming out of the darkness, seated in a huge cane chair, wearing an iridescent pink, yellow and green pullover, a giant book of fairy tales in his lap. “Hello, children,” he said in the monotone of a Bronx assassin. “Are you sitting comfortably?” And he started to read aloud from The Story of The Three Little Pigs. “In the village there was a wolf. A big wolf. Big bad wolf. Get the picture?” The story quickly heated up: “Exit pig one. Pig two, same story. ‘I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down.’ Arrividerci, porco numero due. Buon giorno, salami.” His performance was hilarious. Practically no-one has ever seen it.

"Practically no-one" is a select constituency, but count me amongst it. Walken's wiseguy rendition of The Three Little Pigs (performed on Jonathan Ross's Saturday Zoo) was the funniest thing I've ever seen on tv. Nothing on Walken's Saturday Night Live dvd comes close (not even the celebrated "Cowbell Sketch"). To the best of my knowledge, the routine has never been re-broadcast and no-one I know has ever seen, or heard of, it. Without Higginbotham's testimomy I may have written it off as an hallucinatory product of my fevered imagination.

Higginbotham's excellent Walken on the Wild Side follows:

In 1959, When Christopher Walken was 16 years old, he didn't quite know what he wanted to do for a living. So he joined a travelling circus and became a lion tamer. Don't ask how. Don't ask why. The important thing is: he was there, in a circus run by a man named Tarryl Jacobs, with boots, jodhpurs, red jacket and whip. Billed as Tarryl Jacobs junior by the childless impresario, the young Walken would be left in the lion's cage at the end of "dad's" act, and all the lions but one would file out. Then Chris would crack his whip and the remaining beast, a tired, toothless lioness called Sheba, would wearily rise up on her podium and emit a feeble growl. The audience always gave him and Sheba a big hand.
In 1996, splayed awkwardly across an armchair in the lounge of the Chateau Marmont hotel, Walken laughs and licks his lips, illustrating the storv with exhausted-lion and whip-raising gestures. And then he stops, considering the freakishness of the image."
I just did it for two months. It was very weird. I was a kid. But that was interesting. That's where I come from. True story. Tarryl Jacobs -"dad" - would take his shirt off; and... it was like lions had been chewing on him for 25 years. He was just shredded all over the place. And that's what he did for a living. I don't know..... I guess he wasn't a very good lion tamer." Again he trails off; staring vacantly around the room. The tale, and the past it hints at, are perhaps what leads him not to take himself too seriously."
Absolutely. And also never to take a job like that again."

Christopher Walken is a very weird person. He is spooky, monosyllabic, unfriendly.
He shares many qualities with the characters he plays on screen - and they, by and large, are killers, gangsters, psychos, freaks and straight-up loonies. Walken is the guy who blew his brains out in The Deer Hunter. He is the remorseless drug lord in King Of New York. He is the man who executed Dennis Hopper in True Romance. He has an icy, alien air of distracted menace. Being in his company is like sharing a lift with Satan. He is deeply creepy.
That, at least, is what most people believe. Including his publicist. Forty-eight hours before the interview is due to begin, the phone rings. There is a problem with travelling to the photo studio in Mr Walken's car. "What you have to understand," crackles the strained voice from LA, "is that Chris is a very strange man. You know that character you see up on the screen? Well, that isn't a character. That's what he's like in real life. You can't go in the limousine with him. I can't go in the limousine with him."
Everybody, it seems, knows that Christopher Walken is King Weird.

But the man who glides smoothly into the lobby of the Chateau Marmont hotel in Los Angeles has neither the demeanour of a contract killer nor the manners of a sociopath. He is polite. He smiles. He has a sense of humour. He tells anecdotes. He has exquisite comic timing. But there is, undeniably, something strange about him. While his personality is plainly not that of the characters you see up on the screen, his gestures and mannerisms are: the shark's eyes that slide away from your gaze at the last moment; the blank stare into space; the thin smile that twitches on his lips as he listens to what you have to say; the flat, disinterested voice that makes even the most sincere statements sound sardonic and threatening; the reptilian lip-licking; the hand semaphore. All the things that go into the creation of the callous gangster, the psychotic angel or the demented industrialist are right here in front of you.

It's not difficult to get Walken talking. He's affable enough. But you can't really have a conversation with him. The disconcerting battery of pauses, stares and off-kilter rhythms that characterise his speech make that almost impossible. He leaves sentences hanging in mid-air, delivers ideas via a halting verbal cut-up technique. and says things like "I think that's very amusing" in a way which leaves you in no doubt that what he really means is "I'll have you killed."

At first, the makers of Things To Do in Denver When You’re Dead weren't sure who to cast in the part of the malevolent, paraplegic. wheelchair-bound mafioso The Man With The Plan. He can't move. yet for whole scenes Andy Garcia's character is required to stand there and watch him - through pages and pages of dialogue. And he must feel compelled to watch.
"He's sitting there - a head," says director Gary Fleder. "How manv guys out there can do that? Nicholson can do it. Probably Pacino. And then Chris Walken's a guy who can do it time and time again. You can just sit and watch him speak." Nonetheless, they hesitated to use him because he's played the captivating bad guy countless times before. In the end, they couldn't believe what they got. "He really out-Walkens Walken," says Denver writer Scott Rosenberg. "He's just so out there."
What is it with him? The mannerisms. The look. That hair. The intensity of his evil screen presence is derived direcdy from his everydav bearing. He is pleasant, but the otherness of his delivery does occasionally verge on performance. When he orders a glass of grapefruit juice, it seems possible the waiter will return offering the drink, the keys to his car, the deeds to his house, all the money in his pockets and the plea to "Just leave the kids out of it, OK?"
"My personality," Walken suggests, "is affected by the fact that I grew up differently from most people. Strangeness equates into villainy very easily. Just as a phobic thing. If you don't know what it is, you fear it. But I don't feel strange. I really don't feel strange."

The common perception of what Walken is like in real life is simply the wrong way around. All the frightening alien qualities vou see in the movies are real. The personality that informs them is not. The fact is not that Christopher Walken is like his characters, but that his characters are like him. He doesn't mean anything by it. That's just the way he is.
And the reasons he came to be this way are not what you might expect. Walken and his contemporaries - Pacino, De Niro, Keitel - have built careers around brutal depictions of grim reality. But Walken is the only actor of his generation who would call himself "a performer“ And he's certainly the only one who describes himself as working in "show business." If he's a bit odd, it's not because he suffered years of unspoken terrors on the streets of the Bronx. It's because he's a survivor of a world long gone. Because Christopher Walken began performing at the age of three.
"I grew up in show business," he says. "And it made me different."

Back in the late-'40s New York, things were very different indeed. For a start, Christopher Walken wasn't even called Christopher. He was born in 1943 and named Ronald, after Ronald Colman. He had two brothers: Glen and Ken. They lived in Astoria, Queens, where their father ran a bakery. Their mother, a vivacious, outgoing woman who might otherwise have been a performer herself, decided her sons should be in showbiz. Catalogue models as toddlers, they quickly graduated to TV, playing bit parts in the genesis of modem television: over 90 live TV shows went out every week from Manhattan, and Ronnie was there. He was on Howdy Doody, Philco TV Playhouse and The Colgate Comedy Hour.
By the time he was seven, he'd wander around the studios and find grown women dressed as cigarette packets. Or pass monkeys riding motor scooters. By the time he was ten, he'd already appeared on screen with Dean Martin, Sid Caesar and Jerry Lewis. It was a strange place - a naive and surreal area of conformist fantasy in which America created an image of what it wanted to be."
In those days all TV was See the USA in your Chevrolet'," says Walken. 'It was so family- oriented and wholesome that they used kids like furniture. They'd have a scene and - particularly in the holidays - they'd just stick a bunch of kids in there. They just had us there because everybody loves kids. It was an unusual childhood. but it was a great one. A total education of another sort."

Fifty years in show business have made Christopher Walken peculiar in many ways. He has never learned to swim. He has never been to a ball game. He's hard pushed to think of any close friends, except for his wife, who he's been married to for 27 years. He only reads the paper on Sundays. At home, he channel-surfs on cable, looking for old black and-white movies to watch.
"I don't have any hobbies. I don't have kids.... I have cats. I'm not really interested in too many things except my work. Whatever the best thing in front of me is, I usually take it. Because it's either that or sitting around at home, and I can't stand that. There's no scheme to it, what I do. It's, Have I been sitting around at home for two weeks? If I'm in the house for two weeks, I would, you know... I would play... anything."

On location, Walken always shops for his own food. He puts on a baseball cap and goes down to the supermarket. He hardly ever eats in restaurants. He doesn't want anyone else touching his food. He wants to know where it's been.
"I can't believe the things people eat. Particulary in this country'. The way we eat is just unbelievable. I wish this whole country would eat better. I figure a lot of diseases would diminish, don't you?" He sighs and looks away. "Americans with fast food it's. . . too bad." But if he does go to the supermarket, he has to get someone else to take him. He has a black Cadillac from which he's had all the chrome and markings removed. It looks just like a hearse. But he doesn't like to drive it much. When he does, he drives so slowly that other motorists blow their horns at him.
"And they scream as they go by. I drive very carefully. Listen, you know, I'd rather take chances in my work. I don't need to take any other chances. You would never get me on a motorcycle. I seriously doubt if I will ever get on a horse in a movie again. They're dangerous. There are things that are dangerous; you shouldn't do them. I mean, I look at someone bungee jumping, and I think, There goes another ass-hole. Or parachute jumping, for that matter. Unless you're dropping behind enemy lines, I really don't see the need for it."
He gazes around the room, and his stare comes to rest on the back of my hand, where there is an address written in black ballpoint."That's not permanent is it?" he asks, with concern. "People really do that to themselves, don't they?"

When he was old enough, Ronnie's mum sent him off on the subway to the Professional Children's School in Manhattan. Most of the pupils were girls ("it was like I had 40 sisters") and those that weren't were not your average brattish stage-school wannabes. Little Ronnie went to school with Sal Mineo, Frankie Lymon, Brandon De Wilde and Marvin Hamlisch. Marvin wrote an opera at ten and went on to become a phenomenally successful songwriter. Walken still knows him today. Frankie was 14 when he and his group The Teenagers had a huge international hit with "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" But he was a heroin addict by 15; at 26, he was dead. Brandon played the kid in Shaize at ten and, one day in the men's room, taught Ronnie how to knot a tie. But his career tailed off and he died in a car crash at 30. Sal was in Rebel Without A Cause and Giant, but hardly worked after that. He drifted into darkness and obscurity and was stabbed to death at 37."It is," says Walken flatly, "a tough business."

After school, and on the weekends, Ronnie would go to the movies with his friends in Queens. He'd spend all day Saturday - from ten in the morning till four in the afternoon at the pictures. There would be 20 or 30 cartoons, three features and a serial Charlie Chan, The Molemen or, a particular favourite, the western The Laughing Man. A Lone Ranger clone, the Laughing Man would walk into a saloon where the bad guys were playing poker. His knife had a picture of him on the handle, and when he threw it into the table, it would quiver, animating the picture into a laugh. "And then he would, of course, destroy them all."
The features themselves were almost always war movies The Bridges Of Toko-Ri, Battle Cry or Pork Chop Hill. Anything with Aldo Ray was always good. Afterwards, the kids would adjourn to a nearby vacant lot and re-enact the story, crawling around in the dirt. Ronnie usually took the Aldo Ray part: "I was sort of heroic, sure," Walken says, somewhat defensivelv. "I was never the bad guy. I was always gonna take that hill!"
When he was 14, Ronnie saw Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show. He loved everything about him - especially his haircut. As soon as he could, Ronnie changed his hair to be more like The King's. It's stayed the same ever since.

Of all the tics, expressions and signifiers that make Walken's characters so mesmerisingly dark, the one at the heart of the black hole of menace is The Look. In all his most outstandingly grim moments - Frank White in King of New York watching his treacherous lieutenant plead pathetically for his life; Vincenzo Coccotti in True Romance torturing Dennis Hopper; The Man With The Plan making his deep displeasure felt - he will half smile and glance away. Mid-sentence, his eyes slide sideways and amusement plays on his lips. It's as if when he looks at you he already sees a dead man and is daydreaming about what spectacularly unpleasant things he's going to do his next victim. There's a supercomputer of evil in there behind the eyes, calculations and machinations beyond anyone's understanding. It's this cold-hearted, inhuman superiority that makes him so compelling. Mention this to Walken and he laughs. Mid-sentence, his eyes slide sideways and amusement plays on his lips. "I'm thinking about something else. What that could be is that I get suddenly fixated on something and it will interrupt my conversation. Something will happen and I'll get distracted. But that's what actors are supposed to be like - a little like kids, you know? Distraction is good. It means you're paying attention to what's going on - the way kids are. They'll talk to you and then they go" - he stares distractedly away into space.
"It's like, 'Next!"' OK, sure, sure. That's what you're like. But the characters. The machination. The superiority. Already seeing a dead man
"I don't think so." He smiles as if the thought has never occurred to him. "It's not in the characters. No. I think if you see that, it's me playing the part and suddenly thinking about something else. And then I come back to it. Suddenly, something crosses my mind. When I go to dailies and I see that kind of thing, I think that's perfectly natural, that's the way people are. Aren't you that way? When you talk to people aren't you also thinking that you mustn't forget to pick up your laundry?"
Walken is full of this kind of stuff If it's demystification you want, he's your man. He prepares for a part by reading his lines in different voices -Italian, Spanish, German, some slow, some fast, some serious passages in a Pee-Wee Herman voice - until he finds a common rhythm. He doesn't consciously develop his characters. He's never met anyone even remotely like the people he plays.
"I grew up with people in show business," he laughs in disbelief "We did not shoot each other. Really. That's the great thing about showbiz - everybody's really nice." He has no time for The Method. He just turns up and does it. "It boils down to: Can you act? Who cares what you think?"

The reason the set piece between Walken and Hopper in True Romance is so effective is that they got on well together offset. "First of all," Walken remembers, "he made me laugh, and that was very important in the scene. The fact that I was really enjoying this guy, and then I shoot him anyway. And the same is true of him - he really enjoyed telling me that story. And you could see it was delightful, don't you think? It happens to end with me shooting him in the head. But up until then, wasn't it delightful?" And if his characters' callousness is often so extreme that it seems funny, there's a simple reason for that, too: "I always know I'm in a movie. Having been in show business all my life, I'd feel hypocritical telling you it was real. That's just the thing I was brought up with. My acting technique comes directly out of musical comedy."

Walken wasn't much good with academic work, so he concentrated his teenage energies on becoming a dancer. He went on the road with touring musicals, the cast setting up home in cheap hotels up and down the country, taking their pots and pans and bohemian lifestyle with them. And, of course, he tried lion taming for a while. Then, at 18,just out of high school, when everyone else was leaving to go and take up ordinary lives, he spent a few days thinking about what to do. He'd drive down to the park in his car and gaze into the middle distance. Pragmatically, he thought, What do I like to do? Well. . . nothing. But how could he earn a living? He could be a bartender. He could drive a truck.......
"I really couldn't do anything. I wasn't good in school; but I was in show business. And I thought, Well, what could I do and have more fun? Nothing. So that's what I kept doing."
Just short of completing the first year of a course in English and Drama at Hofstra University, Ronnie Walken left education behind and went to dance OffBroadwav with Liza Minnelli in Best Foot Forward. The following year, he appeared in High Spirits and then in a brief run of the Sherlock Holmes musical Baker Street, in 1965. This somehow led to his first dramatic role, as King Philip Of France in The Lion In Winter.
In the meantime, Walken changed his name. He'd never liked Ronnie. It sounded too dorky. Dancing in a nightclub act with one Monique Van Vooren, at the end of every night's show she would introduce him to the audience. One night she said, "You know, I don't really like Ronnie. I see you more as a Christopher. Do you mind if I call you Christopher?" He didn't. So it was Christopher Walken who took to the stage as an actor, and danced and sang in musical comedies -"gee golly type of things". In 1969, while they were both appearing in a summer stock production of West Side Story, Christopher met his wife.

In the years since then, Christopher Walken has made a career from being the baddest thing ever to walk across a cinema screen. But it almost didn't happen like that at all. In 1970, he screentested for the Ryan O'Neal part in Love Story. It's difficult to imagine now. It was also, he points out, difficult to imagine then: "That's why I didn't get the part. They knew I wouldn't be any good in it."
He shouldn't have been surprised - he'd never been able to play Romeo on stage, either. Everything he said always sounded a bit sarcastic. In the end, his first film appearance was as Sean Connery's sidekick in the 1971 caper movie The Anderson Tapes. He was 28 years old.
But it would be another six years until he'd come to the attention of a wider audience: playing Diane Keaton's deranged brother Duane in Woody Allen's Annie Hall. He's only in the film for a few moments, but in those moments, he talks fixedly to Allen, Annie's visiting boyfriend, about his urge to drive his car into headlong traffic. "And actors tend to do things, and they stick. The romantic guy tends to play a lot of those kind of guys. The funny guy tends to play a lot of those kind of guys. And the first thing anybody saw me in, I talk about driving into headlong traffic."
Of course, winning an Oscar for blowing his brains out in The Deer Hunter probably didn't help much either. But from that point onwards, it was spooks, psychos and heavies all the way for Christopher Walken: The Dead Zone, Communion, A View To A Kill, Batman Returns, At Close Range, The Comfort of Strangers, Wayne's World 2. Pulp Fiction...loonies all. And the last time he played a hero?
"Never. A famous, big movie actor said to me once, 'Do you die in every movie?' And I thought about it and said, 'Yes.' He said to me, 'D'you know, I've never died."'"I'm not complaining about playing villains. It's how I make my living. But I'd love to play a hero. I'd love to play James Bond," he says, and then, in a slightly dejected register, "Nobody's going to ask me to play James Bond."

Walken never knows what kind of people his characters are until he sees them on the screen. If he's produced something particularly diabolical, he thinks to himself, Ooh, that's good. "I really do feel about it that way: Oh, that'll get 'em. Ooh, that's a good one. And if I think, Oh, gee, that didn't work, then I get depressed."
Of all his creations, the only one who's ever genuinely frightened him is the one in Paul Schrader's The Comfort Of Strangers - an Italian socialite who wines and dines Rupert Everett and then slits his throat. When it's brought up, it's the only point in our conversation that he looks plainly uncomfortable."
I don't think I've ever played anyone quite as horrible in the way that it can be deeply unsettling to be in a room with somebody who is mentally disturbed. As much as you have compassion for them, it scares me."
When he was shooting the film in Rome, he was sitting in his dressing room reading a book when he looked up and caught sight of himself in a mirror. He reacted to his reflection as you would if you walked into a restaurant and saw someone you really didn't want to meet. "I looked up and quickly looked away, thinking, I hope he leaves. I hope he didn't see me. But being the villain has its advantages. Since he made King Of New York, he can go pretty much anywhere he likes in the city, no matter how bad the area. One summer Saturday night a couple of years ago, he decided to go to Times Square to see a late show of the Hughes Brothers' ultra-violent Menace II Society.
"Everybody in the audience was like everybody in the movie. Street people. And they took good care of me. Just kept an eye out and made sure I was OK. 'Cause they'd seen King of New York. I'm a homeboy."

Of all the movies Walken has made, one of his favourite is also one of the most obscure: an '80s Israeli musical production of Puss In Boots. "It's very good. It's one of my best performances. It's a wonderful story - about a cat who gets these boots and becomes a man. In the original story he's just a cat who stands up and talks. But in this, it was this orange and white cat walking around, and then suddenly it would be me. I had my hair dyed red and I had a moustache and... I really looked like a cat. I sing and dance. It was very funny."

Christopher Walken is really not what you expect. He is not, to put it mildly, unaware of the way people see him. When he's shooting a movie, for instance, he'll just put on a reedy, nerdy voice before a take and say, "Is it hot in here, or am I crazy?""And for some reason people laugh," he adds. Sometimes he'll just announce that he's dedicating the take to Jerry Lewis. "And for some reason," he says. his face a mask of earnestness. "that makes people laugh also. Because of the way people perceive me, I can definitely have fun with it."

Despite the cable channel-surfing and the working every fortnight, he has managed to write a play about Elvis, based on the stories he's clipped from copies of The National Enquirer and Weekly World News he's bought on his Supermarket trips. And he's written a script about porn star John Holmes - a project he wants to star in, and Abel Ferrara to direct. When Holmes died of AIDS, he had had sex with 10,000 people. was a free-base cocaine addict and was wanted for murder. Elvis and Holmes are both men crushed by the pressures of fame, who died in middle age. Ferrara is quick to make the link. "Walken's obsessed with Holmes," he said in 1990. "He relates to all this because that's what 33 years in show business is like."

Just the other day, Christopher Walken bumped into an old friend in the street. They're the same age. They've known one another for years. At the time, Walken was on his way to see Things to do in Denver When You're Dead for the first time. So Walken invited the friend along, and they went to see the movie together. Afterwards, Walken noticed his friend was horrified by what he had just seen. "Jesus Christ." he muttered, "that's the most terrible person I ever saw . . . That's just the most terrible person I ever saw."

Christopher Walken looked back at his friend and said, very reasonably, "Well, thank you."

2 comments:

said...

I loved CW in the film 'The Dead Zone'

Cali said...

The 3 Little Pigs clip is now bought to the masses through the power of YouTube...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vNk4K3YaIc