10 Surprising Facts About Christopher Walken

Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Christopher Walken is often called the quintessential character actor. Thanks to his nervy charm that can skew sinister in a flash, he excels at playing weirdos, psychopaths, and villains. But long before he was a revered cult figure, Walken—who turns 76 years old today—was just another tap-dancing kid from Queens. Find out how Walken first broke into the child star and circus scenes, why he gave up his bid for the presidency, and where that unmistakable voice comes from with these 10 surprising facts.

1. He and his brothers were child stars.

Christopher Walken grew up in Queens, New York, the middle child of three boys. His father was a baker and his mother had a fascination with show business, so she soon began taking her boys on TV auditions. That’s how Walken ended up in the above cameo role with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Despite his childhood success, Walken insists he was just following his friends.

“In the 1950s television was being born, and there was this phenomenon, about 90 live shows from New York, so there were hundreds of kids from Queens, kids from blue-collar families, doing TV shows,” Walken recalled in an interview. “In the Queens where I grew up, you didn’t go bowling on Saturday; you went to dancing school.”

2. He worked as a lion tamer.

Although he got an early start on acting, Walken tested out a few other career options. When he was 16, he spent the summer working as a lion tamer in the local circus. Or at least a lion tamer apprentice. “The real lion tamer who owned the circus, the gag was that he had a son, which he didn’t,” he told IndieWire. “But I had an identical outfit, and he would do this big act with a dozen big cats. Then he would send them all out at the end and just leave this one old girl, and I would come in with my whip … She was really more like a dog. She was very sweet.”

3. He got his stage name from the nightclub scene.

Walken’s first name is actually Ronald. (He’s “Ronnie” to friends and family.) So how did he wind up as Christopher? He got the stage name from an old boss, Monique Van Vooren. Walken was a dancer in her nightclub act along with two other men early in his career. Van Vooren apparently had a habit of introducing them with fake names, and one night she tried out Christopher. For whatever reason, that was the one that stuck.

4. He starred in one of Madonna's music videos.

You’ve likely seen Walken’s delightful, (literally) soaring performance in Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” music video. It was directed by Spike Jonze, and wound up picking up a slew of VMAs as well as one Grammy. But that wasn’t Walken’s lone music video role. He also appeared as Madonna’s guardian angel/stalker in “Bad Girl” back in 1992. Mostly he’s just there to smoke.

5. He talks that way for a reason.

Walken’s distinctive way of speaking has launched a thousand impressions, but the actor insists he didn’t pick up his unusual cadence for the SNL skits. In an interview with The Guardian, he chalked it up to his childhood in Queens, growing up with immigrants for whom English was a second language. This included his German father, Paul.

6. He's got a theme park ride on his resume.

In addition to acting in countless movies, plays, TV shows, and those two music videos, Walken took on the unique role of Frank Kincaid, the hologram host of the Disaster! ride at Universal Studios. The ride revealed moviemaking tricks and was itself an update on Earthquake: The Big One, a ride inspired by the 1974 Charlton Heston movie. Sadly, Disaster! closed in 2015 to make way for a new Fast & Furious attraction.

7. He almost ran for president.

In 2005, the web had a minor conniption when it discovered a campaign website for Christopher Walken, www.walken2008.com. Was the actor seriously considering running for president? Not really. His publicist quickly clarified that Walken had not created the site, and that it was presumably an overzealous fan. But when Conan O’Brien asked him about it on Late Night, Walken seemed pretty into the idea. “You know, I’ll do it,” he joked. “Sure, if they want me to be president, I’ll do it.” He even had a campaign slogan: “No more zoos!”

8. He wrote and starred in a play about Elvis Presley, but it didn't do so well.

Walken is a big Elvis Presley fan—so much so that he wrote and starred in a play about the King. Him examined Presley’s life after death, positing an insane theory about his demise and casting his dead twin brother as a major character. It earned a limited run in 1995, and mostly negative reviews.

9. Marlon Brandon once pitched him a bizarre idea for a variety show.

Toward the end of his life, Marlon Brando acquired a reputation as a bizarre recluse. But he had at least one person on speed dial, and it was Walken. Although Walken didn’t know Brando, he claims the actor called him one day in the ‘90s to pitch him a musical variety show. Brando would be the host, it would be shot in his home, and he’d make guests do dance routines with him. Walken’s musical turn in Pennies From Heaven apparently prompted the call, although it’s unclear if Brando was offering him a guest slot. Still, Walken said he’d watch. If only it had materialized.

10. He's very, very bad at riding horses.

Although he’s had to ride horses for work, Walken says they’ve never liked him. When he had to ride one almost every day for eight months on the set of Heaven’s Gate, he just grinned and bore it. But when it came time for his villainous turn in A View to a Kill, the James Bond stunt people came up with a creative solution for a horse racing scene. “That was a stuffed horse. On a trolley. With tires. And they towed it behind a truck,” Walken recalled. See if you can spot the stuffed horse above.

When Mississippi Once Banned Sesame Street

Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Since it began airing in the fall of 1969, Sesame Street has become an indelible part of millions of children's formative years. Using a cast of colorful characters like Big Bird, Bert, Ernie, and Oscar the Grouch, along with a curriculum vetted by Sesame Workshop's child psychologists and other experts, the series is able to impart life lessons and illustrate educational tools that a viewer can use throughout their adolescence. You would be hard-pressed to find anyone—even Oscar—who would take issue with the show’s approach or its mission statement.

Yet that’s exactly what happened in early 1970, when a board of educational consultants in Mississippi gathered, polled one another, and decided that Sesame Street was too controversial for television.

The series had only been on the air for a few months when the newly formed Mississippi Authority for Educational Television (also known as the State Commission for Educational Television) held a regularly scheduled meeting in January 1970. The board had been created by the state legislature with appointees named by Governor John Bell Williams to evaluate shows that were set to air on the state’s Educational Television, or ETV, station. The five-member panel consisted of educators and private citizens, including a teacher and a principal, and was headed up by James McKay, a banker in Jackson, Mississippi.

McKay’s presence was notable for the fact that his father-in-law, Allen Thompson, had just retired after spending 20 years as mayor of Jackson. Highly resistant to integration in the city during his tenure in office, Thompson was also the founder of Freedom of Choice in the United States, or FOCUS, an activist group that promoted what they dubbed “freedom of choice” in public schools—a thinly veiled reference to segregation. Mississippi, long the most incendiary state in the nation when it came to civil rights, was still struggling with the racial tension of the 1960s. Systemic racism was an issue.

Entering this climate was Sesame Street, the show pioneered by Joan Ganz Cooney, a former journalist and television producer who became the executive director of the Children’s Television Workshop. On the series, the human cast was integrated, with black performers Matt Robinson and Loretta Long as Gordon and Susan, respectively, appearing alongside white actors Jada Rowland and Bob McGrath. The children of Sesame Street were also ethnically diverse.

Zoe (L) and Cookie Monster (R) are pictured in New York City in November 2009
Astrid Stawiarz, Getty Images

This appeared to be too much for the Authority, which discussed how lawmakers with control over ETV’s budget—which had just been set at $5,367,441—might find the mixed-race assembly offensive. The panel's participants were all white.

The board pushed the discussion aside until April 17, 1970, when they took an informal poll and decided, by a margin of three votes against two, to prohibit ETV from airing Sesame Street—a show that came free of charge to all public television stations. (The decision affected mainly viewers in and around Jackson, as the station had not yet expanded across the state and was not expected to do so until the fall of 1970.)

The members who were outvoted were plainly unhappy with the outcome and leaked the decision to The New York Times, which published a notice of the prohibition days later along with a quote from one of the board members.

“Some of the members of the commission were very much opposed to showing the series because it uses a highly integrated cast of children,” the person, who did not wish to be named, said. “Mainly the commission members felt that Mississippi was not yet ready for it.”

The reaction to such a transparent concession to racism was swift and predictably negative, both in and out of Mississippi. Board members who spoke with press, usually anonymously, claimed the decision was a simple “postponing” of the show, not an outright ban. The fear, they said, was that legislators who viewed ETV as having progressive values might shut down the project before it had a chance to get off the ground. It was still possible for opponents to suffocate it before it became part of the fabric of the state’s television offerings.

The concern was not entirely without merit. State representative Tullius Brady of Brookhaven said that ETV exerted “a subtle influence” on the minds of children and that the Ford Foundation, which funded educational programming, could use its influence for “evil purposes.” Other lawmakers had previously argued against shows that promoted integration.

Grover is pictured at AOL Studios in New York City in May 2015
Slaven Vlasic, Getty Images

Regardless of how the decision was justified, many took issue with it. In an anonymous editorial for the Delta Democrat-Times, a critic wrote:

“But Mississippi’s ETV commission won’t be showing it for the time being because of one fatal defect, as measured by Mississippi’s political leadership. Sesame Street is integrated. Some of its leading cast members are black, including the man who does much of the overt ‘teaching.’ The neighborhood of the ‘street’ is a mixed one. And all that, of course, goes against the Mississippi grain.”

Joan Ganz Cooney called the decision a “tragedy” for young people.

Fortunately, it was a tragedy with a short shelf life. The following month, the board reconvened and reversed its own informal poll result, approving of Sesame Street and agreeing that ETV could air it as soon as they received tapes of the program. Thanks to feeds from Memphis, New Orleans, and Alabama, Sesame Street could already be seen in parts of Mississippi. And thanks to the deluge of negative responses, it seemed pointless to try to placate politicians who still favored segregation.

In the fall of 1970, the Sesame Street cast appeared in person in Jackson and was met by representatives from the board, which helped to sponsor the live performance, though it’s not clear any apology was forthcoming.

Sesame Street would go on to win numerous awards and accolades over the proceeding 50 years, though it would not be the only children’s show to experience censorship on public television. In May 2019, ETV networks in Alabama and Arkansas refused to air an episode of the PBS animated series Arthur in which a rat and aardvark are depicted as a same-sex couple getting married.

Attention Movie Geeks: Cinephile Is the Card Game You Need Right Now

Cinephile/Amazon
Cinephile/Amazon

If you’ve got decades worth of movie trivia up in your head but nowhere to show it off, Cinephile: A Card Game just may be your perfect outlet. Created by writer, art director, and movie expert Cory Everett, with illustrations by Steve Isaacs, this game aims to test the mettle of any film aficionado with five different play types that are designed for different skill and difficulty levels.

For players looking for a more casual experience, Cinephile offers a game variety called Filmography, where you simply have to name more movies that a given actor has appeared in than your opponent. For those who really want to test their knowledge of the silver screen, there’s the most challenging game type, Six Degrees, which plays like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, with the player who finds the fewest number of degrees between two actors getting the win.

When you choose actors for Six Degrees, you’ll do so using the beautifully illustrated cards that come with the game, featuring Hollywood A-listers past and present in some of their most memorable roles. You’ve got no-brainers like Uma Thurman in Kill Bill (2003) and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Total Recall (1990) alongside cult favorites like Bill Murray from 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and Jeff Goldblum in The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). Of course, being a game designed for the true film buff, you’ll also get some deeper cuts like Helen Mirren from 1990’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover and Sean Connery in 1974's Zardoz. There are 150 cards in all, with expansion packs on the way.

Cinephile is a labor of love for Everett and Isaacs, who originally got this project off the ground via Kickstarter, where they raised more than $20,000. Now it’s being published on a wider scale by Clarkson Potter, a Penguin Random House group. You can get your copy from Amazon now for $20.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don't return, so we're only happy if you're happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER