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Christopher Walken Biography

 Quick Facts
Christopher Walken
Birth Date 
March 31, 1943
Professional Children's School
Place of Birth 
Queens, New York
Ronald Walken
Film Actor Christopher Walken often plays the bad guy, but he has also proved himself in comic roles and has been a repeat guest on Saturday Night Live.



Actor Christopher Walken was born in Queens, New York, in 1943. Walken began working in the theater in his late teens, and by the early 1970s, he had begun working in film. His breakthrough role came with Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977), and he went on to win an Academy Award for his role in 1978's The Deerhunter. In 1991, he gained his first Emmy Award nomination for his work on Sarah, Plain and Tall. Known to work constantly, Walken takes on all sorts of films.

Early Life

Ronald Walken, better known by the pseudonym Christopher Walken, was born on March 31, 1943, in Queens, New York. A performer since the age of 3, Walken started out as a dancer, taking lessons as a child. "It was very typical for people—and I mean working-class people—to send their kids to dancing school. You'd learn ballet, tap, acrobatics, usually you'd even learn to sing a song," he later explained to Interview magazine.

The son of a baker, Walken would often leave his neighborhood in Queens and head to Manhattan with his brothers. There they would hang out at Rockefeller Center in Midtown where many of the television shows were shot. Sometimes they landed work as extras to make some pocket money. "They used a lot of kids more or less as furniture," Walken later told Entertainment Weekly. At the age of 10, he got a chance to work with comedian Jerry Lewis as an extra in a television skit.

On Stage

Christopher Walken attended the famed Professional Children's School, which was for young people involved in the performing arts. Around the age of 18, he started working in the theater. Walken first landed roles in musicals because his earlier studies. During a tour of West Side Story, he met actress Georgianne Thon, who later became his wife. Early in his career, he changed his first name from Ronny to Christopher while performing in a nightclub act. "A lady in the act said she wanted me to be called Christopher, and I said, 'Fine.' ...Now I wish I'd picked a shorter name because when I see my name in print, it looks like a freight train," he told the Hollywood Reporter.

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After appearing in the chorus in Baker Street in 1965, Walken was asked to try out for a dramatic part. He played King Philip of France in the original production of James Goldman's historical drama, The Lion in Winter, with Rosemary Harris and Robert Preston in 1966.

That same year, Walken had a small role in the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams's The Rose Tattoo. He then appeared in Peter Ustinov's The Unknown Soldier and His Wife in 1967.

On the Big Screen

By the early 1970s, Walken had begun working in film. He had a supporting part in 1971's The Anderson Tapes with Sean Connery and Dyan Cannon. His breakthrough role came six years later with his memorable turn in Woody Allen's Annie Hall (1977). In the comedic film, he played Duane, the offbeat, neurotic brother of the title character played by Diane Keaton.

Walken delivered a gut-wrenching performance in 1978's The Deer Hunter, co-starring Robert Di Niro and Meryl Streep. Directed by Michael Cimino, the film followed the impact of the Vietnam War on a group of friends from a small town. Walken's character goes through a brutal transformation during the course of the movie, starting out as a laid-back steelworker and ending as a man tormented by memories of his time in a prisoner-of-war camp. For his efforts, Walken won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Walken followed up his performance as the star in Cimino's next effort, Heaven's Gate (1980). The Western historical drama proved to be one of the most legendary flops of all time. Costing around $36 million to make, the film was savaged by the critics and earned little at the box office. That same year, Walken received a warmer reception for his starring role in The Dogs of War, playing a mercenary mixed up with an African dictator. After such serious roles, Walken surprised audiences with his tap-dance routine in the Steve Martin musical comedy Pennies from Heaven (1981).

Walken experienced turbulence in his personal life later that year, as a guest on the boat of actress Natalie Wood and her husband Robert Wagner. On November 29, 1981, Wood accidentally drowned while the boat was moored off Catalina Island in California. Walken and Wood had worked together on what proved to be her final film, the science fiction thriller Brainstorm (1983). Speculation about Wood's death lingered for years.

Exploring Genres

Cementing his reputation as a top-notch bad guy, Walken starred in A View to a Kill (1985) as the latest villain to take on superspy James Bond (played by Roger Moore). He then paired up with another intriguing actor, Sean Penn, for the crime drama At Close Range (1986). As critic Roger Ebert enthused about Walken's performance, "there is nobody to touch him for his chilling ability to move between easy charm and pure evil."

In 1991, Walken garnered his first Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Miniseries or Special for his work on Sarah, Plain and Tall. He starred opposite Glenn Close as a widower who solicits a new wife to help raise his two children. Back on the big screen, Walken turned in another memorable performance as an evil businessman in Batman Returns (1992), starring Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight.

Despite being often typecast as edgy characters, Walken also displayed a great sensibility for comic roles. He has been a frequent guest host of the late night comedy series Saturday Night Live, as well as a popular target for spoofs and satire. Numerous comedians have been known to imitate his unusual cadence. "I think my rhythm is a bit like someone whose first language isn't English. I could get away with being a German commandant and not really have to do a lot of accent, because I already sound like I don't speak English that well," he told Entertainment Weekly.

In True Romance (1993), Walken again made the most out of a smaller part. The film starred Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as Clarence and Alabama, a couple on the run from the mob. Walken starred in one of the film's memorable scenes as a mob hitman trying to get some answers out of Clarence's dad (played by Dennis Hopper). The following year, Walken gave another strong performance in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction (1994). He described the experience to Esquire magazine, saying, "Movie scripts are usually pretty loose—things change a lot. But not with Quentin. His scripts are absolutely huge. All dialogue. It's all written down. You just learn the lines. It's more like a play."

Recent Work

Known to work constantly, Christopher Walken takes on all sorts of films. He explored the horror genre with the The Prophecy trilogy, playing the archangel Gabriel. Over the years, however, Walken has appeared in more than his fair share of duds, such as the crime drama Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead (1995); the low-brow comedy Joe Dirt (2001); and the family friendly flop The Country Bears (2002). Explaining the motivation behind taking parts in so many projects, Walken said, "I hardly ever like to sit at home. I don't have any children, I don't have any hobbies, I don't like to travel."

In 1999, Walken returned to Broadway with the musical James Joyce's The Dead. He earned a Tony Award nomination for his work in the production. That same year, he played the Headless Horseman opposite Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow.

He again reminded movie-goers of his immense talent two years later in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can (2002). The film tells the true-life story of a young con artist (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) named Frank Abagnale, Jr. Walken gave a subtle performance as Frank's father, which earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Walken has also appeared in a broad range of movies in recent years. He played roles in such comedies as the box-office hit Wedding Crashers (2005); Click with Adam Sandler; and The Maiden Heist (2009), featuring Walken, Morgan Freeman and William H. Macy. In 2010, Walken appeared on Broadway in the Martin McDonagh comedy A Behanding in Spokane.
When he is not on stage or on set, Walken lives in Wilton, Connecticut, with his wife.

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