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.