Christopher Walken: From “who is that guy” to “freak of cinema”

My dad and I were watching True Romance one day when I was young, and a tall man appeared in this scene. He was larger than life, but not in the same manner as Arnold Schwarzenegger. He loomed over the camera like an inevitable storm, but didn’t make you hide in the addict. He made you interested in what he would do next. His hair was slicked back, his words pierced through the screen, and he was taking a small role, and essentially blowing it up. I looked at my dad and asked, “who is that guy?”

Christopher Walken has acted in 132 different films and television series’, with a few reprisals filtering a number of highly unique and wildly weird characters. Some would call that a lot of acting, Calling Walken an eccentric performer is like labeling Guinness as just another beer, because it’s only the tip of the iceberg. Walken is a freak of cinema, a man who likes to work has built up a resume of work that 99 percent of the acting population would crave. Last week, that freak of cinema-a man who has interrogated Dennis Hopper and broke Robert De Niro’s heart-turned 74 years young.

The first film Walken acted in was The Wonderful John Acton in 1953, a TV role that led to more work on the small screen. In fact, seven of Walken’s first eight roles were on the television. Later on, he would break our collective hearts as the tortured Nick in Deer Hunter and harbor our feelings in Annie Hall as Duane Hall. Walken burned through the screen opposite Sean Penn in At Close Range, made us fear him as Frank White in King of New York, and got in the way of Batman as Max Shreck. Every single performance was marked by a particular flavor-the odd feeling that Walken was only partially acting, and honestly freaking us out.

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Many know him for proclaiming a band needed more cowbell on Saturday Night Live, but there are so many roles, highly regarded and not, that stick out from his career. Here are a few:

*Catch Me If You Can. Walken was nominated for an Oscar award (rightfully so), playing Frank Abagnale Sr., the father of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Frank Junior. The old school con man who mentored his son at a young age to create shortcuts and fool the authorities, Walken’s role went from suave grifter to heart wrenching father in two scenes late in the movie. The first is where Frank Jr. and Frank Sr. share a drink in a bar, and Walken’s ability to combine despair with stubborn persuasion is absolute, and out-does an extremely game DiCaprio. The father is blown away by how far his son has tumbled down the rabbit hole of criminality that he can barely recognize him. The second is between Tom Hanks’ FBI Agent Carl Hanratty and Walken as the former searches for Frank Jr. across the country. Here you have a couple acting titans squaring off in Steven Spielberg’s ring, and it’s a sight to see as two fathers wage verbal war over a kid they both feel connected to in different ways.

*Things to Do In Denver When You’re Dead. I know what you are thinking-what movie is he talking about? Sure, Gary Fleder’s homage to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction swims in the grimy waters of B-movie glory, but the tale of Andy Garcia’s doomed criminals provides Walken with a wide area to gallop. The Man With The Plan is Walken’s character, but it’s more like, “The Grim Reaper of Bad Decision Making”. Walken chews scenery like an actor who hasn’t worked in decades, and it fits the movie perfectly. Spending his screen time in a wheelchair, Walken stands tall over his cast mates throughout the movie.

*Poolhall Junkies. Walken’s monologue about “the lion in the jungle” is Hall of Fame worthy alone, and his performance as a loan shark who mentors a young pool player in the high stakes arena of billiards gambling is well rounded and highly underrated. Think Fast Eddie Felson with a twist of wicked, and you have Walken’s Mike. He doesn’t get a lot of scenes, but like True Romance, he takes the screen and owns it.

*True Romance and Pulp Fiction. How many movies did an actor get one scene and dominate? Walken’s performances in Quentin Tarantino scripts are both for the ages, as he terrorizes Hopper in one and nurtures a young Bruce Willis in another. “The Watch” and an uncomfortable speech about ancestry still haunt me to this day, and that is due to the energy and flavor Walken brought.

Flavor is a good way to describe Walken’s ability on screen, because what he gave the director and did with the script was untouchable in so many films. He’s 74 today, will act in at least five movies this year and five next, and gains a hundred impersonators on a daily basis.

No worries, though, because you can easily go back and check out all his great work.


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