Christopher Walken is one of the most diversely talented actors—playing more than 100 roles in films such as Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, Catch Me If You Can, Seven Psychopaths, and Pulp Fiction, plus dozens of stage roles, which he began as a child. On January 5, 2020 legendary TV personality Dick Cavett interviewed Walken on stage at the Ridgefield Playhouse.
You prefer Chris over Christopher?
Christopher takes too long. My name is Ronald. I was a dancer in a nightclub, doing backup for a woman named Monique van Vooren. At the end of the night, she introduced her dancers. “I don’t like your name,” she said to me. “I am going to call you Christopher.” And that was it.
I’ve heard you pull your hair.
Yes, I do. I was friends with Tony Perkins, and he said if you yank on your hair every day, you will keep it. It keeps the scalp loose and the blood flow going. I heard that JFK used to have somebody come to the White House and yank on his hair. He had a terrific head of hair.
You are a song and dance man. Are people surprised at that?
I got to be an actor by accident. When I was a kid, I was in show business—musicals. I was a chorus boy. I was a dancer until I was in my 30s. My mother put her three sons through it.
Are your old performances lost forever?
Before videotape they had this thing called kinescope. They would point a camera at a television screen and essentially make a film of a TV show. Someone showed me a kinescope of myself when I was ten years old, on the “Colgate Comedy Hour.” I did a skit with Jerry Lewis. And they showed this to me and I thought: You have not changed one bit! Nothing’s happened. Same hair, same voice, same attitude.
Many people see themselves on screen for the first time and are horrified.
It’s not pleasant. I have this idea. You can have a dieting regimen that you could charge for. Take a screen test, look at it, and immediately lose 20 pounds. They’d stop popping their eyebrows when they talk. It’s very valuable as an actor to try to fix these things. It’s very good to watch yourself even if you don’t like it.
Jackie Gleason was a wonderful actor, don’t you think?
People have asked me what to watch to learn something about actors. Watch “The Honeymooners.” It’s a real lesson in how to do it. He didn’t like to rehearse. He would shoot pool and they would say, “Places, please.” And they’d start. That’s what I’ve heard, but who knows?
Who’s the worst schmuck you’ve ever worked with?
Chris Walken. You know, he’s so annoying. He’s always complaining. “When’s lunch?” “Are we done yet?” “Who wrote this?”
People like to do impressions of you. Do you find it endearing or annoying?
It’s interesting. Lot of the time I don’t know what they are doing right away. I think, Why are you talking to me that way? Then I get it. I must be easy to do because a lot of people do it.
You are one of the best hosts of “Saturday Night Live.” Did anyone bring a cowbell?
That skit follows me around. In a way it got to be too much. It got to be the thing that is more important than anything else. More cowbell.
Are there any things that you won’t do?
Yes, there are things I won’t do: get on a motorcycle, get on a horse. I made Westerns when I was young and that is why I won’t do it again.
What was your most challenging role in the theater?
I played a lot of parts and I played many badly. But it made me good at big speeches. That speech from Pulp Fiction about the watch: that was eight pages of just dialogue. Every day I would spend an hour learning that speech. Every time I got to that last moment, it made me laugh.
What advice do you have for someone trying to get into acting?
Even if you are successful, the jobs are few and far between. You need to be prepared for the phone to ring. That’s tricky, staying prepared when no one is asking you to do anything.
Have you ever done hypnosis?
I was hypnotized once, and I remember that I pretended to be hypnotized. I didn’t want to hurt the guy’s feelings. He’d say: You’re a chicken. And I’d act like a chicken. I was just being nice. If I thought hypnosis would work, I would definitely do it.
Many East Coast actors don’t like Los Angeles. Do you?
I like it there, but I’m a terrible driver. I drive here early in the morning on Sunday to get the paper. And that’s it. I can dance. I can’t drive. Everyone in California is a fantastic driver. Fast. Cool.
This neighborhood is full of actors. Do you know them?
I live around here. Bette Davis used to live around here. I was driving around with someone who said, Yeah, she lived over there. I live here and I don’t see anybody. I stay in the house. It’s very nice. I have the cat. My wife.
What is your cat’s name?
My cat? My cats have names but I don’t call them that. I just say, Hey, where’s the cat?