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Christopher Walken’s fearful legacy

Though he’s been defined by channelling the macabre like nobody else, it’s Walken’s versatility, register and laid-back approach that makes him an icon of the big screen

If you do something effective, producers want you to do it again and again.

It’s all in the eyes. The dipped brow, downward tilt of the head and that inimitable glare that arrests you like a police siren prompting a guilt reflex in even the most ethically-minded and innocent. 

Should the situation have ever arisen where Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale and Jesus Christ were in a room debating morality, one characteristic Machiavellian glare from Walken at all four would’ve sent even these paragons of virtue scrambling to reconsider their ethics. 

This reputation for invoking fear in the eye of the beholder is thanks to the notorious masters of menace the 75-year-old has played throughout his on-screen career. 

As Gotham baddie Max Schreck in Batman Returns (1992), Bond villain Max Zorin in A View to Kill (1985), and the Hessian Horseman in Sleepy Hollow (1999) to name just a few of the enduring cinematic psychopaths Walken has channelled. 

If you do something effective, producers want you to do it again and again.

Christopher Walken cutting a dapper figure in a royal blue suit on the set of the film Homeboy, directed by Michael Seresin.

On a slightly disconcerting aside, Walken attributes his command of the callous to just being himself. “I don’t need to be made to look evil, I can do that myself,” Walken told The Guardian at the release of the 2016 remake of the The Jungle Book, in which he voiced Disney’s swinging orangutan villain, King Louie.

Walken has also said, “No matter what character I’m playing, it’s me. I’m the only person in my life that I can refer to” — which, considering he’s embodied a resurrected horseman who lives for a spot of decapitation begs the question: Is this a cause for concern? Possibly. But more likely it’s precisely the opposite: all part of his offensively charming modesty. 

Where some method actors tend to emphasise the artist’s suffering in ‘becoming the character’ on and off screen, Walken is almost dismissive of this intense approach.

Being repeatedly cast as a villain is a product, not of any agonising approach to methodically channelling character, but mainly due to his physical appearance he said when talking to the New York Times in 1992 around the release of Batman Returns, for his role as Max Shreck. “I tend to play mostly villains and twisted people. Unsavory guys. I think it’s my face, the way I look. If you do something effective, producers want you to do it again and again,” he said.

So convincing did Walken become in roles of brooding violence and abnormality that he would frequently receive roles he felt were deliberately written for him. He turned them all down. 

For the Hollywood vet, this written-for-Walken process was unwanted, and became something he termed ‘Walkenising’ for the overtly zany or deliberately offbeat lines he was being given.

While we don’t know which roles were Walkenised, and subsequently rejected, it’s tempting to imagine Walken as Willy Wonka (though Gene Wilder was incredible), The Mad Hatter or Hannibal Lector. To hear how Walken would deliver, in that wonderfully unorthodox syntax, “I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti” is tantamount to masochistic wishful thinking.

Yet, for all of the malevolent figures he has mastered, it’s Walken’s versatility and laissez-faire approach to the profession and himself that stands him out as a legend of the modern era.

The range of roles he’s brought to life with those eyes full of pathos is nothing short of staggering: He’s starred in over 100 movies and tv shows. 

From his Oscar-winning performance as Nicky in Michael Cimino’s harrowing The Deer Hunter (1978) to Secretary Cleary, a protective and by soft-centred father in Wedding Crashers (2005), Walken always brings a believability and watch-ability to any role that few actors can claim over their spectators. 

If I had grown up and been in show business and the movies 25, 30 years earlier, I think I would have made a lot more musical movies.

Christopher Walken

Such is his range that everyone has a favourite Walken moment: from the masterfully delivered monologue from Pulp Fiction — replete with that notorious. Pause in. Unexpected places — or that most famous of age-defying, hip-swinging grooves from the Fatboy Slim music video to ‘Weapon of Choice’.

From singing and dancing in Pennies from Heaven (1981) to Stand up Guys (2012), Walken brings an invaluable part of himself to every role he takes on. And that self is a very laid back one: possibly the secret behind his success. As he told David Letterman once, “If I’m not working I don’t leave the house.” There’s none of that glory-seeking desperation that tends to strain the nerves of others with his status.

Owing to his range, Walken has worked his way through the gamut of the finest talent Hollywood has offered up for nearly half a century. Consider the list: Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep (Deer Hunter), Al Pacino (Stand Up Guys), John Travolta (Pulp Fiction), Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio (Catch Me If You Can), Denzel Washington (Man on Fire). The list is exhaustive, and reads like a who’s who of Hollywood stardom. 

But regardless of who he shares the stage with, everyone knows the movie doesn’t really start until he Walken. And it only ever ends when he is Walken away. 

As these two terrible puns demonstrate, and as any brief ‘Walken’ scansion of social media yields, the veteran actor’s fame is a generous gift that keeps on giving — as the endless ‘I’m Walken Away’ memes littered all over social media testify.

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Though the deep facial lines and sunken eyes are a little deeper, have sunk a little lower, and though the profusion of Elvis-inspired hair that stands on end is a little thinner today, Walken’s image is an enduring and instantly recognisable one.

However, he’s not entirely clean cut. There’s a darker side to the man. The well-tailored, casual-yet-elegant style he is often seen donning in his movies and off set is, remarkably, a result of his admitted kleptomania. 

Walken notoriously steals the clothes from the sets he works on. Such was his reputation for sartorial larceny  that, while was shooting his last scene in Batman Begins, his wardrobe was reportedly cleared before he could return to claim any of Max Shreck’s outrageous outfits and over-zealous wig.

In retrospect, Walken must feel relieved he didn’t get to take home any of Shreck’s — a villainous industrial tycoon — clobber, considering the likeness between the Gotham baddie and a certain American President’s style.

Child actor Ronnie Walken (right), who later found fame under the name Christopher Walken, paints his face at his home in Bayside, Long Island in 1955.

And then. Of course. There’s that most. Unusual. But captivating. And unique. Oratory. Style.

Walken’s oft-impersonated, but never rivalled, drawl is one of the defining elements of his years on screen. There are classes in ‘How to speak like Christopher Walken’ available online. Impressionists have made a living from having a Walken routine.

As the offspring of German and Scottish immigrant parents, being raised in Queens, New York, in the ‘40s and ‘50s Walken attributes his speech pattern to having to take his time to understand and be understood. “I think my rhythm is a bit like someone who first language isn’t English. I could get away with being a German commandant and not really have to do a lot of accent because I already sound like I don’t speak English that well,” he has said in typically self-deprecating fashion.

Rhythm has been a big part of Walken’s life. Starting his performing career as young as three, as a dancer, it was while he was performing in a backing trio for a Belgian songstress in a nightclub that he became the famous Christopher Walken we know today. Before then he was known as Ronald, or Ronnie, Walken.

“I don’t really like Ronnie,” Monique Van Vooren said to a green-eared Walken. “I think you’re more of a Christopher.” Thus Mrs. Van Vooren unwittingly named one of the greatest actors of our time there and then on a cabaret stage in New York. 

Through various guises as a clown, a circus lion tamer, am-dram thespian all the way up to Oscar-winning performances, Christopher Walken’s name is a synonym for the grandmaster of menace, rhythm and Hollywood wisdom. And everything in between. 

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