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We Could Use a Little More Christopher Walken

‘The Jesus Rolls’ offers an all-too-brief reminder of Christopher Walken’s unparalleled—dare we say underappreciated—talent and quirks

Screen Media Films/Ringer illustration

A black, mid-1970s Lincoln Continental—wide as a couch and deep as a cargo plane—eases to a stop on some Rust Belt side street, next to an idling brown Chevy, setting the stage for a handoff. Bags hang under the eyes of the man behind the wheel of the Lincoln. His hair is dyed a mottled brown and slicked straight back, instead of spiked to the sky as usual. But even with a different hairdo and some age-appropriate sagging, there is no mistaking the face of Christopher Walken, animated, as it is, by reservoirs of menace that run from his brow to his chin. He reaches across to the Chevy and delivers a fat envelope to an anonymous mob goon. “Give this,” he says, “to the man who kills the Irishman.”

Hang on. Irishman? Mob hit? Classic cars? You could be forgiven for wondering whether you missed a Walken cameo in The Irishman, Martin Scorsese’s three-and-a-half-hour meditation on decades’ worth of mafia lore: the shifting loyalties and grim fates that await once-fearsome hitmen and bosses alike. The Lincoln-Chevy bounty scene, though, is from 2011’s Kill the Irishman, a mediocre Scorsese homage about a tough Irish mobster embroiled in a deadly war with a parade of rivals. Walken, cast as Shondor Birns, an infamous, real-life Cleveland gangster, adds some mirthful swagger to the film in a handful of scenes and then departs in a fiery car explosion.

After a career largely spent portraying scene-chewing bad guys—“I tend to play mostly villains and twisted people. Unsavory guys. I think it’s my face, the way I look,” he told The New York Times in the early 1990s—the last two decades have often found Walken starring as a caricatured version of himself in comedies, all exaggerated wows! and herky-jerky speech patterns, the sort of tics that inspired legions of imitators. On the rare occasions when he’s been offered a spot in a meaty drama, like Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, Walken has shined. Shondor Birns at least gave him a chance to tackle a more serious character, but Walken, now 76, deserves to work with stronger material, like that other Irishman, the one that collected 10 Academy Award nominations.

Whether it’s age or a shortage of offers, Walken has lately eased back on a Nic Cage–like pace of appearing in four or five films a year. It’s our loss. “His cameos are like the prize in a Cracker Jack box,” Roger Ebert once wrote. “You don’t buy the ticket to see Walken, but you keep rummaging around for him.” He saunters or sashays, propelled by a beat only he can hear; his demeanor can veer from playful to cold-blooded in a line of dialogue that defies every preconception about a normal human being’s cadence. “I don’t think any director would say, ‘Chris said to me, What’s my motivation?’” Walken told Charlie Rose in 2003.

You can get a fresh Walken fix in The Jesus Rolls, a quasi-spinoff of The Big Lebowski that follows the lustful post-prison misadventures of Jesus Quintana (John Turturro) and two sidekicks, Petey (Bobby Cannavale) and Marie (Audrey Tautou). As an unnamed prison warden, Walken shares a pep talk with Quintana, thanking him for helping the prison’s bowling team to win a championship. “I’ve never seen anyone. Lick a ball. Before he throw a strike,” he says, breaking one sentence up into three with trademark pauses.

The encounter lasts just a minute, but it’s enough time for Walken to remind everyone how easily he can take over a scene, in this case by saying “Lick a ball” like it’s all one word, or the name of a town in Sweden. Turturro, who also directed, could have chosen any number of actors to fill such a bit part. But Walken—former child actor, former lion tamer, former Bond villain, former Batman villain, Oscar winner, music video muse, aspiring cooking show host—always brings something unique, something unexpected, to the table. Guys like that don’t grow on trees. Although his head once did sprout from the ground in a New York City park.

Long before career-defining roles in era-defining films like Deer Hunter and Pulp Fiction, Chris Walken was Ronald Walken, a kid in post–World War II Astoria, Queens, whose father, Paul, owned a busy little bakery on Broadway. Walken told The New Yorker that he remembers, with cinematic clarity, being an infant and lying on a kitchen table in his family’s first-floor apartment as a warm summer breeze rolled in. “And I turned my head and right next to me was a white plate with scrambled eggs. I can still see it.”

Walken’s childhood overlapped with the dawn of the television age, and his mother pushed him into child acting and modeling. “In the Queens where I grew up,” he once recalled, “you didn’t go bowling on Saturday; you went to dancing school.” The dancing lessons would come in handy decades later, first in touring productions of musicals like West Side Story, then movies like Pennies From Heaven and Hairspray, and ultimately the bonkers video for the Fatboy Slim song “Weapon of Choice,” which has been viewed an astounding 40 million times on YouTube.

In a 2012 interview with The New York Times Magazine that ran under the not-quite-convincing headline “Christopher Walken Isn’t As Weird As You Think,” he described a pre-Hollywood job as a lion tamer in a circus: “It just looked too good to pass up. I like cats a lot.” About a decade or so before his big break—an attention-grabbing cameo in 1977’s Annie Hall—an actress named Monique van Vooren convinced Walken to change his first name from Ronald to Christopher. The name stuck.

A year after Annie Hall, Walken starred alongside Robert De Niro and Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter, an unflinching look at the irrevocable trauma the Vietnam War inflicted on a group of friends from Pennsylvania. Walken was so compelling as Nick Chevotarevich, a former steel worker who died during a gut-wrenching game of Russian roulette at the film’s end, that he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

“What happened to him is what happens to a lot of people—especially when they win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar—is they have their time where they’re now the leading man,” Quentin Tarantino said during the 100th episode of The Ringer’s Rewatchables podcast, which explored one of Walken’s subsequent leading men: Frank White, the mobster with a heart of gold (but not really) in King of New York.

Some of those post–Deer Hunter roles saw Walken add unsettling depth to sinister characters like Brad Whitewood Sr., in 1986’s At Close Range. The leader of a backwoods band of thieves, Whitewood tries in vain to arrange the murder of one of his sons (Sean Penn) who spurns an offer to join the gang; when he worries that another (Chris Penn) might blab about his criminal enterprise to a grand jury investigation, he confronts the teen late at night, unspooling a foreboding story under moonlight about a female coyote who lures a dog into an ambush.

“All the other coyote come along. They circle round. They kill that dog. Eat it,” Whitewood says. “Tommy. If you was to go up in front of that grand jury, what would you say?”

“Nothing,” the teen assures him.

Something flickers across Walken’s face, and his son realizes he’s doomed. “Liar!” Whitewood roars, raising a gun and squeezing the trigger. (Seven years after At Close Range, Walken worked with Madonna, Sean Penn’s ex-wife, appearing as a guardian angel of sorts in the video for her song “Bad Girl.” If you missed this the first time around, I highly recommend you watch it now.)

Walken couldn’t compete with the physicality of the Herculeses who were top-lining the biggest blockbusters of the decade. Instead, he brought an otherworldliness that made his characters unlike anyone else on screen. In an adaptation of Stephen King’s The Dead Zone, Walken is a school teacher haunted by an ability to see into the future; when he struggles to convince a father that his son’s hockey team is in mortal danger, he erupts by smashing a table and yelling, “The ice! Is gonna break!” (The ice indeed broke.) Dead Zone director David Cronenberg would later remark: “It’s Chris Walken’s face. That’s the subject of the movie; that’s what the movie was about. All the things that are in his face.”

He doubled down on villain roles—Max Zorin in Roger Moore’s final Bond film, A View to a Kill; Max Shreck in Batman Returns; the archangel Gabriel in The Prophecy, to name but a few—and seemingly embraced being typecast. Deep down, he was still a kid from Astoria, just happy to have made it. “In the movies, if you’re a movie actor, if they want you, it’s good,” he told AboutFilm. “You know, one of the difficult things about being an actor is to stick around.” If Walken sometimes seemed out of step with other actors in a given scene, it wasn’t necessarily accidental; he has routinely admitted to reading only his lines in any script he receives—and ignoring all punctuation. “At a certain point, you’re like, ‘Didn’t you read the fucking script?’” said Josh Lucas, who starred with Michael Caine and Walken in 2004’s Around the Bend. “And he’ll say, ‘No. I did not read the script, motherfucker.’ And you’re like, ‘Damn. That’s a really interesting idea.”

Walken was a bankable commodity, someone who could make lackluster projects more interesting just by showing up. Tarantino summed up Walken’s appeal to any filmmaker: “Even if he comes in and does the Nicholson, or comes in and does the Brando—so, like, The Addiction: ‘OK, you’re going to give me the 20 minutes, but it’s going to be the 20 minutes everyone talks about. And the entire movie is going to be built around me for those 20 minutes.’”

Tarantino knows better than most how Walken can transform words on a page, having provided Walken with two of the richest cameos of his career: Sicilian mob boss Vincent Coccotti in 1993’s True Romance and Captain Koons in 1994’s Pulp Fiction.

The director specifically wrote Koons’s speech, about a family heirloom—a gold watch that survived three major wars and an extended period of being hidden in two men’s asses—with Walken in mind. “I wasn’t trying to nail it to his cadence, in so much I was trying to nail the character’s cadence, and just figured Walken would find his own cadence inside of that,” he said. “I was imagining him doing it, and I was trying to write a three-page speech that would tempt him to do it. My whole thing with him was, I know he likes monologues. It’s a three-page monologue, and I promise I won’t cut a word.”

In Walken’s hands, the parts became the Cracker Jack prize that Ebert described. Pulp Fiction in particular was overstuffed with iconic scenes and endlessly quotable dialogue, but 25 years later, “This watch …” stands out above the rest, thanks to Walken’s wholly unique delivery—the rise and fall of his voice, the blunt explanation of POW camp etiquette.

Walken wouldn’t find any parts as well written as those two during the rest of the ’90s. He tried unsuccessfully to get a cable network to produce a cooking show that would feature him as host; a Funny or Die episode from 2012 hinted at the possibilities. (“I’m gonna. Change into. My Hawaiian cooking shirt,” he tells his guest, Law and Order actor Richard Belzer.) Occasionally, Walken expressed an interest in playing something other than a bad guy or an off-the-wall secondary character, like a Father Knows Best–style patriarch. “I think it could be very, you know, clever of somebody to put me in one of those parts,” he told Charlie Rose. “It would be unexpected. I’d have a big dog. I’d have a wife who wore a dress around the house.”

He sort of got his way with 2002’s Catch Me If You Can. Cast as the father of infamous con man and check forger Frank Abagnale Jr.—who grew up in Bronxville, New York, 15 miles from Walken—the Spielberg film afforded Walken a chance to tone down his usual fireworks in favor of a more emotional performance. During one scene, he became so convincingly choked up while discussing a desire to win back his estranged wife that Leonardo DiCaprio thought Walken was having a heart attack. “I honestly was about two seconds way from saying, ‘Cut! There’s something wrong with Chris!’” he said, according to the book Christopher Walken A to Z: The Man, the Movies, the Legend. Walken earned an Academy Award nomination, his second, for Best Supporting Actor.

A decade later, he took another stab at going serious, playing a cellist in A Late Quartet, opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener. “Before we started, I said to Yaron Zilberman, the director, ‘I think this part is a chance to be myself,’” Walken said when the movie was released. The role finds him grappling with the death of his wife, and a Parkinson’s diagnosis that seems certain to end his career. He brings an understated melancholy to the film; when he learns that a disease is robbing his ability to play music, he responds with an almost whispered, “Wow.” It is the type of performance that should have attracted the interest of network and streaming service execs looking to fill the casts of aspiring prestige dramas.

Aside from his still considerable acting chops, Walken occupies a spot on the Mount Rushmore of undeniably odd actors who hold multigenerational appeal, alongside Cage, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray and, arguably, Willem Dafoe. (Walken undoubtedly owes some of his enduring popularity to his legendary appearances on Saturday Night Live, but he told Will Ferrell—jokingly?—that the “More cowbell!” sketch ruined his life.)

Bryan Zanisnik

So deep and earnest are people’s affection for Walken that Bryan Zanisnik, a Queens artist, crafted a series of concrete busts of Walken’s head in 2016 as part of a public art project in Socrates Sculpture Park, not far from where Walken’s family used to operate their bakery. “The idea was to make these Chris Walken heads that were sort of growing out of the ground like mushrooms,” Zanisnik told me. “The implied [suggestion] was that he grew up in the neighborhood, and it was as if his DNA was in the soil, and the mushrooms grew to look like him.”

The 18-inch busts attracted a barrage of media attention and visitors for nine months. Zanisnik had to cement the sculptures into the ground to ensure that no one ran off with one. “If it was another celebrity, I feel like people would’ve had just been like, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ But with Walken, people don’t just like him. They love him. They’re obsessed.”

Zanisnik explained that he’d actually met Walken, five years before the sculpture project, during a party in Connecticut, where Walken lives. The gathering was hosted by an art collector who had invited an array of well-known models and actors. “I wasn’t sure how I got on the guest list,” Zanisnik said. At some point, the energy in the room shifted; Walken had joined the party. The two ended up making small talk, and Zanisnik worked up the courage to ask Walken whether they could take a photo together.

Walken looks exactly like you’d expect in the image, wearing a baggy gray blazer over a black shirt, his hair standing at attention, with an expression on his face that’s not quite a smile and not quite a scowl. Zanisnik sensed that other people at the party who noticed him getting a photo with Walken wanted to get a selfie with the big guy, too. Even in a room full of famous people, there was only one Christopher Walken.

David Gambacorta is a writer-at-large at The Philadelphia Inquirer. He’s also written for Esquire, Longreads, and Philadelphia Magazine.