What Fans Don't Know About Christopher Walken

Christopher Walken has made a name for himself as one of the most unique and fascinating actors in movie history. In classics ranging from The Deer Hunter to Pulp Fiction to Annie Hall, he's given superior performances that will be remembered for decades to come. Walken is a chameleon, doing things with language and movement that are always weird and unexpected but also always believable. He's appeared in nearly every genre there is: Comedies like Wedding Crashers, horror flicks like The Dead Zone, musicals like Pennies from Heaven, and crime thrillers like King of New York have all played host to Walken's talents. The dude has fought James Bond and Batman. If there are kings of Hollywood, he is surely among their number.

As you might expect, such a strange and intriguing man has had a very strange and intriguing life. As a result, he's earned a legion of fans — but even the most diehard among them might not know all the odd twists and turns his life story has taken. These are the things fans don't know about Christopher Walken, from his favorite pranks to his playwriting.

Walken was a lion tamer

Christopher Walken has been in show business for a long time. He played background roles on TV when he was only 10, including one opposite legendary comedy stars Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. When he was in 16, he took an especially exciting entertainment job: He became a lion tamer.

As deadly as lion taming sounds, Walken described the position to Vanity Fair in 2012 as a pretty easy gig he picked up for some extra money over summer vacation. Admittedly, it might be more accurate to call him an assistant lion tamer. As Walken detailed, the head performer "didn't have any kids, but the bit was that I would dress up as his son in an identical outfit. When he would finish his act, there would be one lion left, and I used to go in and have this lion do tricks. It was a female named Sheba, and she was very sweet. Like a dog, really." It's not hard to imagine his time in the surreal world of the circus inspired his many masterful performances of characters living on the margins of society — and, sometimes, the margins of sanity.

A dancer changed his name

Walken might be best known as an actor, but he's shed some serious sweat as a dancer. This might sound strange to people who only know Walken as the many tough guys he's played, but in fact, his dancing skills have served him well throughout his career. Consider his tap dancing in Pennies from Heaven, his iconic performance in the music video for Fatboy Slim's "Weapon of Choice," and his truly bizarre dance with space aliens in Communion. In many ways, dance is where Christopher Walken, as we know him, was born — including some ways that are a whole lot more literal than you might be expecting.

Walken's mother actually named him Ronald, a name she took from Old Hollywood star Ronald Colman. In a 2001 interview with Conan O'Brien, Walken described the shedding of that name: Monique van Vooren, who Walken danced back-up for, turned to him one day and declared she'd be calling him Christopher from then on. In one swift stroke, "Ronnie" became "Christopher." He only has one regret: "I wish it had been Chris — Chris Walken. It's nicer, it's shorter. 'Christopher' always looks like a train ... I asked to do that a number of times, and they said, 'Nope.' You know, I guess they paid for all those letters, and that's it."

He could have played Han Solo

Walken made the jump to the movies in the underground film Me and My Brother in 1969. Well, mostly – his voice was dubbed over by director Robert Frank. He clawed his way up to the A-list with progressively more and more high-profile roles, but he still narrowly missed a chance to play the highest-profile part of an entire decade. Walken, as it turns out, was on a shortlist, along with Al Pacino, Sylvester Stallone, and Bill Murray, for Star Wars' Han Solo. Walken got as far as auditions, and director George Lucas even said he was his second choice, but the role went to Harrison Ford instead.

Movie history would have been very different if Walken had made the cut: Once he steps into a role, it's pretty darn impossible to imagine the character played any other way. But this might have been a blessing in disguise. Losing the role freed up Walken's schedule to make two of his most beloved movies, Annie Hall and The Deer Hunter, which ended up playing opposite Star Wars in 1977. The Deer Hunter also won Walken an Oscar, propelling him towards a very different kind of stardom than the kind Star Wars would have brought him.

He never turns down a role

Christopher Walken has a unique approach to choosing roles: He pretty much takes them all. He's often said that if it's at all possible for him to take a part, he will, no matter what he thinks of the script. Walken has offered a couple different reasons for this policy, chiefly that he's less concerned with the end product than the learning experience he can get from each role. Moreover, he's credited his success to his flexibility: He knows the roles could stop coming at any moment, so he takes work whenever he can. "You can't say yes to everything," he told The Guardian, "But I have an old friend, an older actor, who used to say to me: 'Be brave.'"

This policy certainly explains some of the Oscar-winner's stranger roles, whether it's playing the archangel Gabriel in schlock horror like The Prophecy (and two of its direct-to-video sequels) or appearing in the critically panned lowbrow comedy Joe Dirt. And that's not even getting into his truly inexplicable appearance in the colossal megaflop Gigli. Somehow, Walken's unique approach to acting is never less than mesmerizing, however high or low the quality of the material he's given.

Christopher Walken: A happy, smug, and slightly sappy cat

Few of Walken's roles are quite as strange as the one he plays in 1988's Puss in Boots. Produced by Israeli-American schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus (responsible for camp classics like The Apple and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo), Puss in Boots adapts Charles Perrault's classic fairy tale with Christopher Walken in the title role. That's right: He plays the cat.

Like most of Golan and Globus' movies, it's a truly confusing experience — not least because it's a musical, allowing Walken to draw on his considerable dance experience, and his far less considerable singing skills. "I'm a happy cat," Walken only barely sings, "A smug and slightly sappy cat." His trademark use of random emphasis in random places is even more bizarre when set to music. Also bizarre: His costume, which looks like open-chested leather pajamas, and the seizure-inducing transformation scenes that flash between Walken and a real cat at dizzying speed. Walken's Noo Yawk tough-guy persona is also a very odd fit for this fairy tale world: A lot of the growly, whispery dialogue he directs towards his young protégé sounds more threatening than comforting.

With all that in mind, you'd think Walken would chalk this movie up as one of the inevitable losses that comes from saying yes to every script. But that's not the case at all — in fact, he once singled it out as one of his finest performances!

Walken wrote and starred in a play about Elvis

Like many folks of his generation, Walken's first hero was Elvis Presley. As a child, he copied the King of Rock and Roll's trademark hair, and as an adult, he wrote his first and (so far) only play, Him, which imagines Presley's afterlife. The play is a potent glimpse into the inner workings of Walken's mind, and what we see there suggests he's just as strange as any of the characters he plays.

The play, which Walken starred in during its 1995 off-Broadway run, opens with Elvis in an otherworldly limbo, along with a couple of Elvis impersonators and Elvis' stillborn twin brother, Rob. Among the strange revelations Walken provides in this play is the idea that Rob has been visiting Earth, and is the real reason for the world's many posthumous Elvis sightings. Audiences in the play's brief run also witnessed a foam rubber Elvis getting tossed back and forth across the stage and a recreation of his funeral with all the mourners in their underwear. The second act reveals Elvis isn't actually dead at all, but faked his death to flee to Morocco for gender reassignment surgery. The play ends with Elvis living a quiet life as a truck stop waitress. Reviews weren't terribly kind to Him, but no one can deny it's unique.

His dream is to make a Broadway musical out of a horror classic

Though most people know him as a movie star, Walken has had a successful stage career that includes iconic roles like Hamlet and Macbeth. The stage is actually how he met Martin McDonagh, the writer-director of one of Walken's greatest movies, Seven Psychopaths. In an interview to promote their stage collaboration in A Behanding in Spokane, Walken revealed the play he really wants to put on — and it's a doozy.

Walken's dream project is to adapt the '70s horror classic Theatre of Blood into a musical. It's actually a less absurd project than it sounds, since the Vincent Price vehicle combines scares with over-the-top camp — and nothing does campy genre-blending quite like a stage musical. In Blood, Price plays the Shakespearean actor Edward Kendal Sheridan Lionheart, who is apparently driven to suicide by the harsh reviews of his latest performance. He appears to throw himself out the window of the clubhouse where his harshest critics meet — but in reality, he's only faked his death, so he can torment his enemies from beyond the grave with murders taken straight out of Shakespeare's most gruesome plays. Walken especially loves the scene where Price recreates Titus Andronicus by cooking Robert Morely's little white dogs and feeding them to him. Good luck with this one, Walken — it sure wouldn't be boring.

Christopher Walken, theme park ride host

If you go to Walt Disney World, you can meet Mickey Mouse, Cinderella, or Queen Elsa. But until recently, if you went across town to Universal Studios Florida, you could meet someone much more important — Christopher Walken! 

Well, sort of. In Disaster!: A Major Motion Picture Ride ... Starring You!, visitors got to be extras in a disaster movie produced by Frank Kincaid, played by Christopher Walken. Thanks to the high-tech Musion Eyeliner projection system, Kincaid could interact with the real tour guide onstage during every show, and even tear a picture off a real bulletin board. Kincaid began each ride by telling the audience the secrets of his success, before the guide took them into the "film set," a subway tunnel that would be torn apart in an "earthquake." At the end of the ride, visitors were able to edit Frank Kincaid's blockbuster with footage taken just minutes earlier, featuring an appearance from Dwayne Johnson. Unfortunately, you can't see Walken at Universal anymore: The ride was closed down to make room for Fast & Furious: Supercharged in 2015.

You can't read his p-p-p-poker face

Claiming an actor is so talented they could make reading the phone book aloud into a riveting experience is a classic bit of praise. It's certainly true of Walken — there's no way of predicting how he'll read any given line, and that tension keeps fans eternally on the edge of their seats. While he hasn't literally read the phone book (yet), in two talk show appearances, he did the next best thing. 

In 1993, he went on the British talk show Saturday Zoo to read "The Three Little Pigs." It's well worth a watch, if only for the surreal experience of watching an Oscar winner say, deadpan as anything, "He was a smart piggy. Oink oink." Walken also adds his own commentary: "So now the pig has a chin. What do I know?"

Walken returned to the BBC in 2009, this time appearing on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross to read the lyrics to Lady Gaga's "Poker Face." He reads the verses with all the warmth and naturalism he brings to the work of the great screenwriters, but he really impresses when he gets to the wordless chorus: "Oh ee oh! Oh oh! Ooh!"

He's responsible for one of Quentin Tarantino's proudest moments

Walken enjoyed a brief but fruitful collaboration with Quentin Tarantino in the early '90s. Tarantino is particularly effusive in his praise: He claims Walken's brief performance as a mobster in True Romance constitutes "one of my proudest moments of my entire career." In fact, he says the scene is "almost too good ... It was almost intimidating that such a terrific actor would take my work so seriously."

In True Romance, Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette play two lovers on the run from the mob after he kills her pimp and they accidentally walk off with a suitcase full of cocaine. In one scene, Walken appears as a mobster who interrogates Slater's dad, played by Easy Rider star Dennis Hopper. Walken tries to intimidate Hopper with his Sicilian heritage. Hopper fires back with some old-fashioned bigotry. Predictably, Walken shoots him ... but not before absolutely sinking his teeth into Tarantino's script, announcing himself as "the antichrist." When he discusses inflicting "some damage ... you won't walk away from," he practically injects the audience's veins with ice water. It's not a vague threat in his hands — it's a downright bone-chilling one. No wonder Tarantino adores him for it.

Max Beesley's attempt to impersonate him backfired spectacularly

Walken's unique acting style is immediately recognizable, so it's no wonder he's become a favorite impression among comedians everywhere. Every comic performer worth their salt seems to have a Walken voice in their back pocket, from Ryan Reynolds to Tom Hiddleston.

But that doesn't mean pulling out one's Walken voice is the right choice for every situation, as British TV actor Max Beesley found out the hard way. Beesley pulled out all his stops in one of his auditions, including his impression of Walken in The Deer Hunter. Beesley didn't get the part, and later found out why: The casting director, Georgianne Walken, has been married to Christopher Walken since 1969, and has known him since they met in 1963, when he was touring as part of West Side Story. Obviously, this makes her standards for a convincing impression a lot stricter. Beesley lived an actor's nightmare and didn't get the part to boot, but hey — at least he has an unforgettable story.

It's his birthday ... or is it?

Some stories about Christopher Walken sound too good to be true. Some of them probably are — but not just because fans like to exaggerate. Walken is an active prankster, and his relationship with the truth gets pretty loose when he's looking to pull off a great gag. 

In a 2003 interview with Conan O'Brien, Walken admitted he likes to tell his costars on movie sets that all his friends forgot it's his birthday ... regardless of whether or not it actually is his birthday. "I pretend that I'm sad," he explained, "sooner or later, somebody says, 'Chris, what's wrong, you look a little sad,' and I say, 'It's my birthday, you know, I'm all alone, and another birthday' ... But the key thing is to say after that, you say, 'Make sure you don't tell anyone.'" Obviously, no one he's tried this trick on has listened to that part: "Around lunchtime they have a cake," he detailed, "maybe some gifts, and sometimes a little champagne."

Whether he's making us believe in outrageous stories in real life or on film, Christopher Walken is the kind of character you just can't find anywhere else.