From Any Distance, at Close Range Star Christopher Walken Comes Off as Edgy, Electric and Elusive
updated 05/26/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/26/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Believe him. Wired, aloof, his speech tinged with the street-tough inflections of his native Queens, Walken, 43, gives off signals that warn: Proceed with caution. While not ideal for interviews, such smoldering intensity has made him a much-in-demand actor on stage, screen and television. Perennially insecure, despite an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 1978's The Deer Hunter, Walken hotfoots restlessly from one job to another.
Last March he intrigued the theater world by performing the cameo role of a Queens boy who makes good in Hollywood in the off-Broadway revival of John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves. "I just put one foot in front of the other and take what comes next," he says. "What the heck, a part's a part." The show and Walken proved a surprise smash, but Chris left a month later—just before Blue Leaves' triumphant April move to Broadway, where it garnered eight Tony nominations, including Best Play. Most stage actors strive for long runs at top salaries, but not Walken. As soon as he got the offer of a role as a correspondent in a movie tentatively titled War Zone, he was out of the play and off to start filming in Tel Aviv. "You become an actor instead of a dentist because you like to move on," he says. "Not to exercise that perk doesn't make sense." When he contracts to do stage work, he likes the producers to allow him a two-or-three-week escape clause. Two years ago he availed himself of the privilege by exiting the off-Broadway hit Hurlyburly to play the villain in the James Bond film A View to a Kill. But movies with more than 10-week shooting schedules also make him antsy. "An actor can get like a fish that's lying around," he says. "He's not dead, but he may as well be."
However he does it, Walken continues to display vital signs. After all, he survived a starring role in the disastrous Heaven's Gate. In his latest film, At Close Range, he plays a criminal who leads his son—played by Sean Penn—into a life of crime and then tries to engineer Sonny's death when he won't play along. Walken says he was intrigued by the fact that the movie is based on an actual Pennsylvania family. "The story had an authenticity," says Walken, who feels the same way about his co-star, the notoriously temperamental Penn. "Nah, I didn't see any of that," he says. "Sean's a real professional. He's real terrific."
To prepare for their roles, the two drove from New York to Tennessee (where the movie was shot) in Sean's pickup truck. "I've never had a better experience with an actor," says Penn. It shows onscreen. Raved TIME of Chris's chilling performance: "Walken, flashing Faginese charm across his splendidly wasted face, is a monster any son could find walking in his nightmares." Adds the film's director, James Foley: "Chris can go into areas of the human soul that are pretty risky. He managed to capture a character who was seductively evil."
That haunting quality has become a Walken trademark. "I've done all kinds of unusual people, even a guy who drives around in a blimp," says Walken, referring to his role as the bleached-blond baddie in A View to a Kill. "I'm eager to play a real person, a grownup." Clearly the average Joe is not in Walken's repertory. Whether he's playing Diane Keaton's psycho brother in Annie Hall, a mercenary in The Dogs of War or a dancing pimp in Pennies From Heaven, Walken is one of the few actors who can cause uneasiness even with a smile on his face. He knows how to get the same effect off-camera as well. This is a man who avoids eye contact, who slithers in and out of a room almost mid-sentence. One minute he's searching the fridge for some wine ("I eat and drink a lot"), the next he is grabbing for the phone or vanishing into the study where his Oscar is tucked away in a bookshelf.
When a topic rankles, he stonewalls. Tops on that list is the matter of Natalie Wood, his co-star in the 1983 film Brainstorm. Walken was on board the yacht with Natalie and her husband, Robert Wagner, the night she drowned. "I don't know what happened," snaps Walken. "She slipped and fell in the water. I was in bed then. It was a terrible thing. Look," he continues, his eyes icy, "we're in a conversation I won't have. It's a——ing bore."
As changeable as some of his characters, Walken grins like a little boy over a birthday package sent by Gregory Mosher, artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater where The House of Blue Leaves is playing. Inside is an inflatable gorilla. "You must have one already," reads the note. "Maybe they'll mate." Mosher clearly knows his star's penchant for the bizarre. "I don't have one," says Walken with childlike glee, "but I've always wanted one."
Understanding a man who says "I know a million people, but I have hardly any friends" is no easy task, not even for Walken. Self-analysis holds no lure. "Once I went to a psychotherapist because everyone else seemed to be doing that," he says. "And I said, 'How come I pay you? You don't pay me. I'm more interesting than you.' "
The son of a German immigrant baker, Chris—who attended the Professional Children's School in Manhattan—says his show business catalyst was his Scottish stage mother, Rosalie. She was an aspiring actress when she took a fill-in job at Paul Walken's bakery in Queens. That led to marriage in 1936 and a career in bread, rolls and cakes. She transferred her drive to her sons—Ken, now 48, Glenn, 40, and Chris. "Our mom got us to learn to act, sing and dance," says Ken, who joined his brothers in modeling for Sears catalogs and doing small TV roles. Ken has since taken over the bakery from his retired parents, leaving the limelight to Chris.
At 16, Walken made his Broadway debut in J.B. Later he attended Hofstra University on Long Island but left in less than a year because he felt more comfortable in show business. A talented dancer, he joined another young hoofer, David Hartman, in the 1963 Liza Minnelli musical, Best Foot Forward, and followed that with High Spirits and Baker Street. In 1963 he also went on the road as Riff in West Side Story and fell in love with his Graziella, dancer Georgianne Thon. They married in 1969, and Georgianne eventually went to work as an assistant to Broadway producer Fred (Hurlyburly) Zollo. "We've had our ups and downs," she says. "We spend a lot of time together and a lot apart. That helps."
Over the years, work increased the separations. An acclaimed straight dramatic role on Broadway in 1966's The Lion in Winter broke Walken out of the chorus. In 1971 he made his film debut as a holdup man in The Anderson Tapes with Sean Connery and has worked fairly steadily since. For Georgianne, Chris's return from his various locations is always cause for excitement. "It's like a date again," she says. And so what if his characters are mostly morose eccentrics? For Walken it's always exciting, especially the Russian-roulette-playing soldier in The Deer Hunter. "It was just acting," he says. "I looked like I was shooting myself in the head, but I was having a great time on that film. Bangkok is a fascinating city." Cynical roles, such as the often coked-out casting director in Hurlyburly, don't throw him. "I like the humorous perspective on a dark side of things," he explains.
Go figure a guy like this. The best way really is to travel home with him to Astoria, Queens and watch him survey the world from the window of his father's bakery. Spring has finally come to this working-class neighborhood, and the residents are sauntering past the C-Town Supermarket, past John and Angelo's Italian Deli and Dino's Pizzeria.
A subway roars overhead on the tracks of the old Second Avenue El as Walken grabs a candied apple. "Imagine eating this?" he asks, then hastens to add that the coconut custard pie is terrific. So, he notes, is the food a few storefronts away at Walken's Cafe, a New York-slick restaurant with Queens prices, co-owned by Chris and his brother Glenn. "If Chris ever needs a job he can come back here," kids brother Ken. "Like our dad told us when we were children, 'You never go hungry in a bakery.' " Stopping by the cafe as he does when in town, Walken runs his fingers along the bar. "I've danced on this bar very late at night when the doors are locked," he says. Then the former chorus boy heads out into the sunlight with his graceful walk. For once the man who used to deliver his dad's baked goods seems comfortable in his own skin. He's home. "This isn't going back," says Walken. "This is part of my life."