Moviecrazed
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'IF I CAN TELL SOMEONE TO DROP DEAD AND GO TO HELL, THEN IT'S A GOOD DAY'

Late in 1980, just a few months before he set sail on that tragic voyage with Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner--and quite some time before his vivid turns in "At Close Range," "King of New York," "Pulp Fiction" and "Catch Me If You Can" (not to mention such turkeys as "Gigli" and "The Stepford Wives")--Christopher Walken sat down with me for a Cosmopolitan magazine interview. He did not hold back. --GUY FLATLEY

He steals along pantherlike, oblivious to the dusky street scene, the couples snuggling on the stoops, the tough guys primed for trouble. A firmly muscled, lithe figure in midnight-blue shirt and pleated white pants cockily transcending the trashed splendor of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, he might be tipsy or merely drifting in his own special dreamscape. Or both.

When he spots me, a stranger, at the top of the steps fronting on his elegant brownstone, his mouth falls open in mock astonishment. Yes, I’m still here, 40 minutes after the designated hour, waiting to interview Christopher Walken, recipient of a supporting Oscar in 1979 for his lacerating performance as the suicidal war veteran in “The Deer Hunter,” survivor of the disastrous “Heaven’s Gate,” and star of the soon-to-be released “The Dogs of War.”

“Why didn’t you go in?” he asks, blithely bounding up the steps.

“The door’s locked.”

“Isn’t my wife in there?”

“If she is, she’s not answering the bell.”

“I had a meeting downtown, and I was sure she’d make you at home,” he says, seemingly perplexed. “Well, come on in and let’s relax with some wine and talk. Do you want to discuss the major subjects?”

“That’ll be fine.”

“Actually, I’m more inclined to talk nonsense,” he says, ushering me into a stunning, high-ceilinged room with track lighting, parquet floor, white brick walls, fireplace, sink-into sofas, and an elderly antic cat.

“Let me just take a pee and then we can get started.”

Having relieved his bladder and not yet bared his soul, the boyishly 37-year-old actor decides to display his duplex – living room and huge modern kitchen upstairs, a lovely study downstairs, along with guest room, master bedroom and most un-Manhattan of all, a picture-book sun parlor overlooking a secluded garden. “You must see the garden,” he beams, struggling futilely with a stubborn doorknob. “My wonderful wife, who’s trying to drive me insane, seems to have locked the door. Besides, this is crazy – what am I doing, taking you on a tour of my house?”

Back upstairs, fortified by chilled white wine, we embark on a tour of the sights, sounds, and drives that transformed wee Ronnie Walken, son of a baker and a showbiz-hooked housewife, into Christopher Walken, an actor who ascended the theatrical summit in 1976 as Chance Wayne, the doomed stud in an electrifying revival of Tennessee William’s “Sweet Bird of Youth,” a mercurial artist whose simmering bravado has sometimes boiled over into
searing offstage drama, most notably a year or so ago when he landed in a hospital after a bloody scrape with two young men whose blaring radio intruded upon his privacy.

In keeping with Mrs. Walken’s stardust dreams, Ronnie and his two brothers had been whizzed off to Manhattan’s Professional Children’s School, a sterling institution offering academic excellence and a schedule flexible enough to have accommodated, over the years, the busy bookings of such hustling tots as Milton Berle, Celeste Holm, Carrie Fisher, Amy Irving, Carol Kane and Diane Lane. (Chris’s younger bother, Glenn, having recently played a minor role in “Apocalypse Now,” is still an aspiring actor, but Ken, the eldest of the brood, has traded in grease paint for toque blanche to co-manage the family bakery in Astoria, Queens, with Mom and Pop Walken.)

“When I went to PCS, the ratio of girls to boys was ninety-eight to two,” reminisces Walken, his mesmeric gray eyes misting over with memories of playmates past. “I had the most incredible setup a guy could ever want, and I sometimes wonder about the effect it had on my personality. I never needed to look for a date – and these were gorgeous women, all models and dancers and actresses. I don’t think I ever seriously spoke to another man until I was twenty-two.”

In truth, Walken’s swaggering style, prankish humor, and sexual magnetism probably would have cinched his popularity even if that remarkable PCS ratio had been reversed. “He was the most handsome devil at school,” classmate Marvin Hamlisch, the noted music man, would later recall. “Because of his looks, he was cast in a lot of our shows. I particularly remember him doing a number called ‘All Dressed Up and No Place to Go.’ He was terrific, but no one expected him to become a serious actor. We thought he’d probably end up a model, or maybe in a musical comedy.

“I learned a little of everything,” says Walken, replenishing my wine. “Singing, dancing – all of it pretty meaningless. But your life evolves and eventually you gravitate toward what gives you true pleasure.”

The pleasure of being a gypsy in the chorus of “Best Foot Forward,” a 1963 Off Broadway revival featuring Liza Minnelli – known primarily at the time as Judy Garland’s spunky kid – was ephemeral, at best, and the slew of all-singing, all-dancing, no-talking roles, that followed did little to ease Walken’s frustration. “I remember when I was 20, dancing on Broadway in the chorus of ‘High Spirits,’ and the guy next to me had a son my age. I kept thinking, boy, I hope I don’t have to live hand-to-mouth when I’m 45. He seemed happy, but he was dumb. If he’d been smart, he wouldn’t have settled for such a hard way of life.”

Into each hard life some laughs must fall – and possibly an all-time thrill, such as meeting Noel Coward. “‘High Spirits’ was the last show Coward ever directed,” Walken says. “In fact, he was replaced at the end by Gower Champion because of poor health. Anyway, as you probably know, nobody ever pays any attention to the members of the chorus. But on the first day of rehearsal Coward made a point of shaking the hand of each and every dancer. When he got to me, standing there in my blinding-red T-shirt, I was awestruck.

“ ‘That’s an interesting shirt,’ he said.

“ ‘It’s red,’ I mumbled.

“‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Well it’s been an exciting day for us all!’”

“High Spirits” boasted two glittering stars, Tammy Grimes and Bea Lilllie – one a child of the theater supercharged with ambition and the other flirting, perhaps, with second childhood.

“Since most dancers in musical comedies are little and I was tall and strong, part of my job from the very beginning was to stand in the wings, hold Bea steady on her bicycle, and then give her a push onstage for her entrance. One night she suddenly turned to me and said, ‘Oh, hello, you must be the new boy!’ To this day, I don’t know if she was kidding or was daffy and really didn’t know I’d been pushing her bike for over five months.”

Dancers traffic in steps, not words, so it was with slim expectations in 1967 that Walken auditioned for the meaty role of youthful King Philip in “The Lion in Winter” on Broadway. “I got the part and I still don’t know why,” he says, his street-tough voice tinged with puzzlement.

Rosemary Harris, who starred as Eleanor of Aquitaine, was not surprised, however, when Walken snared the plum, nor when he received the Clarence Derwent Award as the most promising newcomer of the year. “I knew from the first day I saw him that Chris was something special,” she’d tell me during a break in rehearsal for Chekhov’s “The Sea Gull,” a recent off-Broadway production in which she played a majestic Madame Arkadina to Walken’s charismatic Trigorin. “I adore him and am delighted by his success. But I firmly believe Chris hasn’t yet reached his potential. He has a lot of surprises in store of us.”

After “The Lion in Winter,” having retired his dancing shoes for good, Walken distinguished himself in several commendable if uncommercial theatrical projects and made his movie debut in a secondary role in Sidney Lumet’s “The Anderson Tapes,” followed by “The Happiness Cage,” a flop in which he played a surly soldier whose rebellion is quelled by lobotomy. “That one was a piece of garbage,” he says, stroking his briefly docile cat, “and for a while, it seemed my career in film was finished. I wasn’t demoralized – I just felt that’s the way it is; most actors never even have a movie career.

“If you’re in show business, you figure it’s a place where you can hit it big or small or maybe not at all, so I don’t congratulate myself now for finally hitting it big. Success involves luck, but also persistence. I do have incredible persistence. I keep banging away until I’m dead, maybe because I have nothing better to do and because I like to fight. I want conflict in my life. I love arguments with agents, people yelling at me, telling me I’m a jerk. If I can tell someone to drop dead and go to hell, then it’s a good day.”

Walken helps himself to more wine, “I’ve always been a nervy, abrasive bum, quite obnoxious and arrogant. I say a lot of things without thinking, but I’m the first to admit I’m stupid. Someone recently told me he didn’t like me because of what I’d become, but I think you should learn to tolerate people, to take their good news with their bad. I definitely believe there are people put on this earth to be a torment, to serve as an irritant, to keep the action going and stir up the soup. A lot of people I know think I’m a pain in the ass, but they stick around because they figure it’s better to know me than not to know me. Except in California. Everything’s so mellow out there, you just can’t get into a good fight.”

Not so in New York, where venting can ignite an arsenal of agonies…as it did the evening in October 1979 when Walken tangled with William and Sam Ortiz, brothers who liked their music hot and loud. The volatile actor’s impassioned plea for silence cost him a broken nose and finger. “People who know me weren’t surprised it happened. I live in New York City and I’m a wise guy. All I did was go up to those two guys and tell them to turn down their radio.”

Later the noisy siblings, one of whom was sentenced to nine months of quieting down in the slammer, insisted they wouldn’t have done anything if Walken had asked politely, a claim that strikes the actor as wildly irrelevant. “I figure if I’m being violated, amenities are beside the point. Anyway, I was having it out with one guy and the other one bashed me in the head with a stick. Well, I decided to go to court, and I went in with a tremendous respect for the law and walked out with a healthy disrespect.

“It’s a good thing I’m an actor and have some money. I’d hate to think what would happen to some poor nine-to-five guy, somebody without the luxury of time and money. I tell you, I really got banged around. It’s probably just New York City – I mean, I love New York, but the tedious machinations of the legal system are depressing. You can rob someone’s house, cut him up, smash him with a brick, and the law won’t pay any attention to you. You have to murder someone in cold blood before they’ll take you seriously.”

The phone rings, and Walken – moving with the sturdy, lyrical ease of a born dancer, a cross between Cagney and Baryshnikov – shifts to the kitchen, where he pays semi-serious attention to a caller with an entreaty. “No, I can’t make it, I’m tied up now, and I don’t drive, anyway. That’s how it is. Talk to you later…

“My wife drives,” Walken says, returning to me and his wine. “She’s very indulgent. She takes care of me, humors me. She’s my partner and she enjoys doing domestic things, plus handling the money and all the business things. If it were up to me, I’d delegate more responsibility to women. Men’s refusal to share the serious tasks with women works to their own detriment. It leaves them with too little time for fishing, playing cards, and drinking wine.”

Would turnabout be fair marital play? What if Georgianne, an ambitious chorus girl before their marriage eleven years ago, wanted to resume her career? Might Walken devote himself to the paring of potatoes and the paying of bills? “No, because I’m a better actor than she is. You have to do what you do well. Besides, Georgianne realizes I’m a lazy bum, that I don’t want responsibility and like to walk around and drink wine all afternoon. If it ever comes to a pinch, I simply pretend I’m studying, that I’m heavily into a part and doing research. If I say I’m doing research, who is she to say I’m not?”

This is beginning to sound like cause for feminist alarm, but Rosemary Harris had earlier assured me the Walkens bask in connubial equality. “Don’t you worry about Georgy,” she’d said. “She’s a very clever girl with a delicious sense of humor, and she loves Chris very, very much and knows how to make him happy. And vice versa.”

Shortly after my interview with Walken, I deide to check in with the happy little woman herself. “Chris is definitely not a male chauvinist,” Georgianne, a svelte redhead who is in fact a highly respected casting director, tells me. “In fact, he feels women should get a chance to do everything.”

“Yes, he told me that way men would have more time for fishing and playing cards…”

“Neither of which he does,” she assures me, laughing.

“He also claims to dodge domestic chores by feigning research.”

“I wouldn’t know about that,” she says, “but I do know it’s a lot easier to get things done when the man you love is out of the house. So it’s okay for Chris to go do research or whatever he wants. He’s a wonderful, nice man with a peculiar sense of humor. I fell in love with him the second I saw him in 1963, and we’ve been together ever since. Chris and I are doing just fine.”

At this particular moment, Chris is doing fine describing the joys of research. “Research. People have such respect for that word. You can goof off, sit around not doing a damned thing, just say you’re researching, and people are in awe. Actors have the greatest goddamn deal in the world. Don’t ever let anyone tell you we work hard. I don’t exert myself at all… I did take up running, but I quit when I realized I’d end up having a great heart and dying of boredom. Actually, I do try to keep fit – I eat sensibly and I don’t smoke. But basically, I’m a bum.”

Does Walken long to hear the patter of little bums’ feet around the duplex and his sprawling getaway house in Connecticut?

“Children? Never!”

Why not?

“Because I don’t like them. Oh, I guess they’re all right when they get to be about 20. I do have nephews and nieces, and I love to see them. But then I love to go home.”

Walken’s ideal offspring would doubtless be born of celluloid and very likely created in the bigger-than-life image of, say, the stonily sensual scoundrel in “Next Stop, Greenwich Village,” Chris’s first high-voltage jolt to moviegoers. Or perhaps the enigmatic combat hero turned mercenary in the “The Dogs of War.” Or possibly the lethal but lovable gunfighter in “Heaven’s Gate.” Or maybe the idealistic steelworker whose Vietnam nightmare plunges him into macabre, dead-eyed insanity in "The Deer Hunter," a film that could not have been around-the-clock fun to make, since Walken was required to spend endless hours imprisoned in a stifling cage on the River Kwai, where his intimate companions were aggressive rats and voracious mosquitoes.

Incredibly, Walken did not complain. Indeed, as I’d soon hear from Michael Cimino, who directed him in both "The Deer Hunter" and "Heaven’s Gate," “Chris’s special gift as an actor is his willingness to try anything, to constantly explore the possibilities of a scene. He never loses his enthusiasm.”

“Acting is the way I make my living,” Walken is saying now with a tinge of pride. “I have a very good time, and not many people have a good time and make money in the bargain. Of course, I have no weekend… and I have a constant weekend. I can’t tell when I’m working and when I’m playing.”

While he’s at the game, does he ever dream of becoming a legend?

“That’s not primary, but yes, I prefer to be rich and famous. When ‘The Deer Hunter’ opened, people would stop and ask for my autograph, and I loved it. The other day, I walked the streets for four hours and no one recognized me. I take this to mean my career is in a desperate condition and I’d better make another big movie – fast.

“Eventually, I’d like to play all the great parts in the theater – some people make things like that happen for them, but I’m not that way. I’m such an arrogant bastard that I feel if I have a destiny, it will come find me. I’m happy, and I acknowledge that there are things I don’t understand. For example, I’m not always sure what I think of myself. I don’t believe in over-esteem or under-esteem. I’m just a guy who got lucky.

“I’ve thought a lot about going into analysis, though, because talking about myself is such a wonderful, enriching experience. But I get to feeling sorry for my analyst before I even meet him or her. Why put somebody through all that torture? So you see, the reason I don’t go to an analyst is selfless and humane. And the other thing is that defects other people suffer from are bonuses in an actor. The hang-ups they’re trying to get rid of we should try to keep so we can make a living. It would be like throwing money in the river for me to go into therapy. Why get rid of the things that are your friction, the film in your Brownie? I can’t think of anything more tedious than an actor who’s got himself straightened out. The only thing left for him to do is get a job with an insurance company.”

Walken has no intention of blossoming into a non-acting actuary. “I can’t understand why the bad times are to be avoided, as if being crazy were somehow less natural than being in great shape. It’s a lot of dislocated baloney to decide that we’re not all entitled to a large dose of bad times, that it’s unnatural to be filled with self-contempt on occasion, to even want to kill yourself. Everyone’s always trying to find something, as if lives are designed to be more than rambling experiences. My life, day by day, could go down the toilet tomorrow. The critics and public could come to the conclusion that I’m a rotten actor. That’s showbiz. I just don’t understand why people get so upset about being upset!”

Unless I miss my guess, Walken is on the verge of getting upset. Could it be that the ordeal of being interviewed has shattered his calm?

“I love to be interviewed! Some actors are so careful in interviews, so frightened of saying something stupid. But not me. I’m dying to see what I can get away with. You never know how people will read you, and I’ve never met you before. And I’m a little drunk. What I’m saying to you matters less than what you’re hearing. It may sound narcissistic, but in my business it’s very important to know the difference between what I think I’ve said and the way it’s perceived. The press is finding out that I don’t always know what I’m talking about, that I tend to contradict myself more often than not. But I am what I am at the moment. What more can anyone offer? If something smart comes out, fine…but if I sound like a slob, that’s okay, too.”

Walken pauses, gazing into his wine glass as if searching there for a clever curtain line.

“Even geniuses,” he says finally, “can only keep people interested a day at a time.”