A versatile character actor whose intense demeanor and slightly off-kilter delivery served him well in both comedies and dramas, Christopher Walken was at once one of the busiest and most respected actors of his generation, appearing in as many as five films in a year while still finding time for stage and occasional television work.
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Walken was born Ronald Walken in Queens, NY, on March 31, 1943, the youngest of three sons of Paul and Rosalie Walken; Paul ran a bakery, while Rosalie was convinced her sons had talent and was determined they take advantage of it. Ronald landed his first job in front of a camera at the age of 14 months when he posed for a calendar photo with a pair of kittens. Like his siblings, he received dance lessons as a youngster, and, by the age of ten, was making frequent appearances on television and radio shows, and was a regular on a short-lived sitcom, The Wonderful John Acton. Ronald and his brothers also enrolled at New York's Professional Children's School, and he spent a summer as a junior lion tamer with a circus, later recalling that the lion was quite old and docile.
In 1961, Walken enrolled at Hofstra University. But, little more than a year later, he landed a role in the Broadway-bound musical Best Foot Forward (which starred one of his former classmates, Liza Minelli), and decided to leave college. Spending the next several years working in a variety of musicals -- both in New York and on the road -- the young actor appeared in a 1964 touring production of West Side Story, and there met actress and dancer Georgianne Thon. The two began dating, and eventually married in 1969. While appearing in a revue starring model-turned-singer Monique Van Vooren in 1965, Walken was told by the headliner he looked more like a Christopher than a Ronald; he decided to take her advice, and adopted Christopher Walken as his stage name. In 1966, he made his first appearance in a non-singing role as Phillip, the King of France, in a Broadway production of The Lion in Winter. By the end of the decade, Walken was devoting his energies to stage dramas, although he continued to keep up with his dance training.
Walken made his movie debut with 1968's Me and My Brother -- a film directed by acclaimed photographer and experimental filmmaker Robert Frank -- and, in 1972, scored his first starring role in the low-budget sci-fi thriller The Mind Snatchers. Walken first caught the attention of critics with his performance as a bohemian ladies' man in Paul Mazursky's Next Stop, Greenwich Village, and landed a small but memorable role in Woody Allen's Annie Hall as suicidal preppie Duane. But Walken's real breakthrough came in 1978, with his role as Nick in The Deer Hunter. Playing a small-town boy who is irreversibly scarred by his experiences in Vietnam, the role won Walken an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and made him a bankable and recognizable name. He soon committed to director Michael Cimino's follow-up, which proved to be the infamous box-office and critically-panned flop Heaven's Gate, and later showed off both his acting and dancing skills as a villainous pimp in the musical drama Pennies From Heaven.
While Walken remained a critical favorite, he fell short of becoming a major box-office draw due to the disappointing returns of many of his post-Deer Hunter films. But, by his own admission, Walken was always an actor who liked to work, and he maintained a busy schedule of both stage and screen roles. His willingness to take on edgy film characters with questionable commercial appeal (such as At Close Range, King of New York, and Communion) helped earn the actor a loyal cult following, and small but showy roles in True Romance and Pulp Fiction gave Walken's screen career a serious boost in the early '90s. By the time Walken turned 60, he had written, directed, and starred in an off-Broadway comedy called Him; received another Oscar nomination for his performance in Catch Me if You Can; appeared in films as varied as Sleepy Hollow, The Affair of the Necklace, and The Country Bears; and got to prove he was still a great dancer with his much-talked-about appearance in the music video "Weapon of Choice" by Fatboy Slim.
Walken became one of the most popular recurring guest-hosts on Saturday Night Live creating recurring characters such as The Continental, and appeared in a host of classic skits including getting to deliver the catch phrase, "I need more cowbell!"
As the 2000s progressed, Walken continued to take work in a variety of films from The Rundown, and Man on Fire, to Gigli, The Wedding Crashers, and the Adam Sandler comedy Click, all the while maintaining his status as one of the quirkiest and most gifted supporting actors of his time.
In 2006 he took on a supporting role opposite Robin Williams in the Barry Levinson directed satire Man of the Year as a political consultant. He was in the musical remake of Hairspray, playing the husband of the character played by John Travolta in drag, and the comedy Balls of Fury in 2007. In 2010 he earned rave reviews for his work in the Martin McDonagh's play A Behanding in Spokane on Broadway, and the next year he worked with Todd Solondz, playing the father in Dark Horse.
~ Mark Deming, Rovi