Riding High Again

updated 11/30/1992 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/30/1992 01:00AM

CAN YOU NAME THE ACTOR WHO PLAYED Luther Billis in South Pacific, Mr. Applegate in Damn Yankees, Uncle Martin in TV's My Favorite Martian and Sean Penn's beleaguered history teacher in Fast Times at Ridgemont High? Probably not—but four generations of audiences will surely recognize Ray Walston's naughty pixie face and sly, sardonic wit whenever and wherever he appears. Now Walston, who says he made his name as "the only musical-comedy star in the world who couldn't sing or dance," is back—and as busy as ever. At 78, Walston plays crotchety Judge Bones on the CBS comedy-drama series Picket Fences and gives a poignant performance as Candy, the aged but innocent farmhand, in Gary Sinise's film reprise of the classic Of Mice and Men.

On the set of that Depression-era tale, Walston had the distinction of being the only member of the cast who actually had lived through the Depression. "Ray is very likable, but he's also got a hard edge to him," says director Sinise. "You can believe he's a guy who's had a lot of ups and downs." And now, with two dozen movie roles under his belt, and 37 years after winning a Tony for Damn Yankees, Walston can still crow, "I'm just entering an entirely new phase. I really am looking forward to wonderful things."

Walston, of course, has a lot of wonderful things to look back on—and a few things to rue, such as his admitted failure to steer a clear career course. "I can kick myself now for not having a plan," he says. Instead, Walston recalls that during his Broadway days he would "meet the guys at the bar after the curtain and drink, drink, drink and then go home. Then go back the next day and do the same thing."

Walston has indeed enjoyed a classically checkered career. Born in Laurel, Miss., in 1914, he moved with his family of five to New Orleans when he was 9. "We were poverty-stricken," he says. His father was a night watchman for United Fruit Co., and during the Depression his mother was bedridden with arthritis. Young Kay had to quit high school and go to work in a printing studio. Still, it wasn't quite Dickens's blacking factory to him. "I don't consider them dark days," he says. "I was making $3 a week and had money in my pocket all the time."

Besides, movies had given him the acting bug. When the printing shop moved to Houston, he followed it there and joined Margo Jones's Community Players. He met and married a local actress, Ruth Calvert, and together they headed north to join the Cleveland Playhouse. When they moved to New York City in 1945 (Walston was deferred by the military so he could provide for his mother), Ruth worked as an executive secretary while Walston acted and moonlighted as a Linotype operator for the New York Herald Tribune until he got his break—taking over the part of Luther Billis in the Broadway production of South Pacific.

After that, Walston got juicy parts on live TV and, on Broadway, his juiciest part of all: the conniving devil himself, Mr. Applegate, in Damn Yankees. Then, following a featured part as one of the philanderers in Billy Wilder's Academy Award winner The Apartment in 1960, Walston was offered the role of Uncle Martin in the '60s TV series My Favorite Martian. Walston auditioned "because I needed the money" and was astounded when the show, about a reporter and his extraterrestrial "relative," was bought by CBS. Walston eventually charmed viewers for three seasons with his wry commentaries on the odd doings of earthlings. But after only four episodes, he recalls, "I thought, 'What am I doing here? I'm running around with two pieces of wire coming out of my head. I must be crazy.' "

He thought even less of the enterprise when a guest chimpanzee bit a chunk out of his face during a shoot. Walston required reconstructive plastic surgery—but he was back on the set in eight weeks, ready to perform. Says Martian costar Bixby: "That was Ray. The energy, the drive—they've always been his signature."

Walston has put his wheedling, sneering signature on dozens more roles over the years. Musing over his career, though, he says, "I don't feel that I made the first team. I didn't become a big, big star, and that's bothered me, because I wanted it. But," he adds, "it hasn't made me bitter."

No reason it should. Stars come and go, but character actors endure. He and Ruth will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary next year in their modest three-bedroom condo in Beverly Hills. Their daughter, Kate, 37, and her two children live upstairs. Walston avoids Hollywood parties ("I've heard all the talk before," he says) and rides his bike every day for exercise. Otherwise he enjoys listening to recorded renditions of Shakespearean plays and dearly wants to get back onstage. "I knew that as I got older," he says, "I wouldn't have trouble getting the kind of roles that would be good for me." He grins devilishly and adds, "If only I can keep Hume Cronyn away from them."

MARK GOODMAN
STANLEY YOUNG in Beverly Hills

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