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When They Trod the Boards: Christopher Walken, Song and Dance Man

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How do we love Christopher Walken? On his 70th birthday, let us count the ways. Star of film, TV, and NYPL's own iBook Point, somehow everyone has a favorite film that stars him, be it The Deer Hunter, True Romance, or Pulp Fiction. The consummate villain, he faced off Batman and James Bond with his signature dead stare that transforms at the drop of a hat into a Rockwellesque boyish grin. By the time his fancy footwork stupefied us in Spike Jonze's Fatboy Slim video, few knew Walken was already a 30-year Broadway veteran, sharing the stage with Liza Minnelli and Raul Julia. What? Read on, share movie quotes, or just look at the pictures!

 "Singer, dancer, accordianist"12 yr-old Ronnie Walken's 1955 glossy reads: "Singer, dancer, accordianist"  John Harrison/Wikimedia Commons)Christopher Walken, 2008 (credit: John Harrison/Wikimedia Commons) Liza Minnelli and Christopher Walken rehearse Best Foot Forward in 1963Liza Minnelli and Christopher Walken rehearse Best Foot Forward in 1963Christopher Walken was born in Astoria, Queens. His father ran Walken's Bakery, which in the 1950s served a predominantly German community in Long Island City. Born Ronald Walken (named after the great British actor Ronald Colman), he was still called Ronnie Walken when he and his brother Glenn attended the Professional Children's School in Manhattan. His debut role was in J.B. at ANTA in 1959, and he toured soon after in West Side Story. His dream of being a dancer was somewhat realized in a string of musicals, including Best Foot Forward with Liza Minnelli. In 1966 he won the Theatre World Award for his performance in Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo.

Walken and Maureen Stapleton in The Rose Tattoo, 1966Walken and Maureen Stapleton in The Rose Tattoo, 1966After an extended stint of Shakespeare with the Stratford Festival in Canada, he travelled all over the U.S. and starred in his first film Me and My Brother (1968). He returned to the New York stage and won the Drama Desk Award for his work in Lemon Sky in 1970. During this period he started getting more roles in movies, with a small part in the psychedelic Cleopatra (1970) and a more prominent role that got him noticed in the Anderson Tapes (1971).

Walken continued to garner acclaim on the stage, winning an Obie for his performance in Joseph Papp's production of Kid Champion in 1975. In the 1980s, as critics hailed his Hollywood work, such as Dead Zone and Brainstorm, he was still walking the theatrical boards in the Big Apple. He was a familiar face downtown in Central Park's Delacorte Theater and at the Public, performing Chekhov and Shakespeare. In the 1990s, so as not to rest on his laurels after achieving cult-status in Pulp Fiction, he continued to do Shakespeare in the Park and even a one-man show entitled Him.

Walken, Lee McCain, and Kathryn Baumann in Lemon Sky, 1970Walken, Lee McCain, and Kathryn Baumann in Lemon Sky, 1970Walken's stage and screen two-step continues to this day, including the recent stage production A Behanding in Spokane. A victim of his own success, Mr. Walken's evil persona endures (he once referred to himself as The Malevolent WASP). But the interviews we've found in the archives reveal his true nature: a soft-spoken person who is really quite ordinary. At 70, Christopher Walken remains as ever the nice guy with the boyish grin who sometimes breaks into dance.

The Billy Rose Theatre Division has documentation of Christopher Walken's entire career in the form of clippings, photographs, reviews, videos, and oddly enough, a published biography in French. An Inside the Actor's Studio production and an oral history where he talks about his Shakespeare Festival years, are among the archived interviews held in the collections at the Library for the Performing Arts.

If you want to join a fun crowd project, please give us your favorite Christopher Walken movie or TV quotes in the comments section and we will combine them in a unique and fun way. Watch this space! In the meantime...

Christopher Walken reads Honey Boo-Boo.
Honey Boo-Boo reads Christopher Walken.

Irene Papas and Christopher Walken in Iphigenia in Aulis, 1967Irene Papas and Christopher Walken in Iphigenia in Aulis, 1967Christopher Walken in 1966Christopher Walken in 1966

 Murray Korman)Ronnie Walken's acting resume in 1955 (photo: Murray Korman)

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