You know him. You love him. You can’t not love him. Christopher Walken is one of the best American actors of any of our lifetimes, and I will fight you over this. His unique speech patterns and piercing mismatched eyes aside (Walken has heterochromia, meaning his eyes are different colors), Walken has exhibited an exorbitant range of skill over the years, from daffy, lovable father figures to bone chilling villains.
The man has 129 acting credits to his name on IMDB, and once said he never turns down a role (unless he must due to scheduling issues). With over 100 titles under his belt, I think it’s helpful to point out some of the best pieces of work he has done, in case you’re an alien from the Delta Quadrant and haven’t seen him in anything before. It’s always nice to have a starting point!
What you may find interesting is that in some of these parts he appears incredibly briefly, yet still somehow steals his scenes (and in my opinion, usually the entire film).
Well, let’s get to it!
10. Sleepy Hollow (1999) – Role: The Headless Horseman – You may not have even realized Christopher is in this movie; I know when I first saw it, I totally missed that it was him. Between the makeup, hair, teeth, and the fact, y’know, he’s headless most of the film, it’s not surprising this credit may have snuck past you. The guy has zero lines but he’s pretty much the best part of the movie. I mean, I’m as big a fan of Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the loveably bumbling scardy cat Ichabod Crane, but nothing beats Walken’s Headless Hessian smile.
Sleepy Hollow ranks in at number ten on my list because it is just simply ridiculous, and Walken owns it like a dang boss, that it’s can’t not be mentioned.
9. Seven Psychopaths (2012) – Role: Hans – I actually only saw this film for the first time rather recently, and knew right away it would have to appear somewhere on my list. Seven Psychopaths seems to have slipped under the radar for a lot of people, which I find startling given it’s baller cast (Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson, and of course our main man Chris Walken). The film is a black comedy, metacinematic crime movie that follows Marty’s (Farrell) struggle to finish his screenplay, after which the film itself is titled. His friends Billy (Rockwell) and Hans (Walken) try to help him, and inevitably there are strings of terrible-yet-would-be-whacky-in-any-other-movie things that happen: Billy and Hans, who steal dogs to reap the offered rewards for their safe return for a living, accidentally steal the dog of a mob boss (Harrellson), who causes a great deal of trouble for Marty and his friends in his efforts to get his beloved pet back.
The film has some heartbreaking moments, but overall it’s just a very smart and darkly enjoyable piece. Walken’s unique speech and body language once again help him portray a loveable but slightly “off” guy who goes through some Major Stuff, once more showing his great depth of performance.
8. A View to a Kill (1985) – Role: Max Zorin – Fun Fact: Christopher Walken is the only actor to have played both a James Bond villain and a Batman villain! (More on that later, trust me)
While I have to say A View to a Kill is not my favorite Bond film (I mean… is it anyone’s?), it is one of my favorite Walken roles. He simply nails the quintessential Bond villain in his portrayal of Max Zorin, a rogue KGB agent who was experimented on by Nazi’s, because of course he was. Walken even dyed his hair (a most unflattering) blond to really show his character’s Aryan pride and Nazi background. Walken displays his ability to make your blood run cold with a simple stare, in one of the most iconic villain-hero film franchises of all time, and that’s a big effing deal. While this isn’t one of my favorite Bond films, Walken is definitely one of my favorite Bond villains.
7. Blast from the Past (1999) – Role: Dr. Calvin Webber – “Sam. What the heck?” you may be thinking, “Why is a ridiculous rom-com, staring Brendan Freaking Fraiser, which is, like, always running on TBS* on anyone’s Top Ten list of anything?” Because Christopher Dang Walken, that’s why!
For those who haven’t caught this delightfully charming rom-com on cable, it’s a film about a family trapped in a bomb shelter for 30 years. Dr. Webber is a Caltech scientist in 1962 who is extremely paranoid over the Red Scare. He builds an exact replica of the family’s home in an underground bomb shelter, and seals himself and his pregnant wife inside for 30 years when a plane crashes on their house (he thinks it’s the Russian’s dropping a nuke). His wife goes into labor that very night, and births their son Adam, who is consequently raised in a vacuum of the 1960’s. It is Adam who goes to the surface 30 years later when the doors open to brave what they expect to be a recently irradiated wasteland.
Walken plays a delightfully eccentric father, who clearly thinks he did what is best for the family. He’s only in a handful of scenes, but he ties everything together from the past and the present through Adam’s flashbacks to his childhood. Walken hits some great comedic highs, and still has some very heartwarming father-son moments through the piece.
It’s cheesy, and by no means a Hollywood grand slam of brilliance, but it’s a fun movie and Walken brings a loving charm to it that makes it rather memorable.
*It’s been like six years since I’ve had cable, so maybe TBS doesn’t play Blast from the Past anymore. Does TBS even still exist?
6. Catch Me If You Can (2002) – Role: Frank Abagnale, Sr. – This is a great film for many reasons, and its amazing cast (which of course features Walken) is not the least of them. It’s a powerful drama that makes you feel all kinds of feeling, and also kind of want to become a badass conman (or conwoman!). Walken plays Frank Abagnale, Sr., the financially troubled father of Frank Abagnale, Jr. (Leonardo DiCaprio). Walken’s character serves as a driving force for his son’s actions, his son’s need to acquire wealth and security through any means necessary. Walken displays a great depth of emotion and sincerity in this role, and I think it’s really a beautiful performance.
5. Annie Hall (1977) – Role: Duane Hall – You may notice that, as far as I’m concerned, some of Walken’s best roles are the shortest. In Annie Hall, Walken plays the depressed and rather creepy brother of Dianne Keaton’s titular Annie Hall. He is in the movie for two scenes: one in which he meets Woody Allen’s character Alvy (Annie Hall’s boyfriend at the time) and, gazing off into space, delves into a story about how, when he is driving at night, he imagines swerving into oncoming traffic.
The second scene he’s in is Duane driving Alvy and Annie home at night, his face totally deadpan as headlights light him up on their approach.
The discomfort Walken makes you feel as Alvy listens to him open up about these terrifying and unsettling emotions, and the comedy of his straight faced drive immediately after, is just so brilliantly done.
4. Scotland, Pa. (2001) – Role: Leiutenant McDuff – I have to be honest here: this is one of my personal favorite movies of all time, and it was really hard not to rate it even higher just because of that. Be proud of my restraint, is all I’m saying.
Anyway. Scotland, Pa. is an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy MacBeth, set in the fictional town of Scotland, Pennsylvania the 1970s. Instead of Scottish kingdoms, it revolves around the ownership of Duncan’s Café, a fast food joint. The McBeth’s, frustrated that their boss (and owner of Duncan’s Café) Duncan ignores all of Mac’s suggestions to improve the restaurant, kill Duncan. They then purchase the property from Duncan’s teenage sons, who have no interest in the family business. The McBeth’s invent the first drive-through and become a fast food hit.
Walken plays the ever so polite and mild mannered Lt. McDuff, an avid vegetarian and self-help loving detective who is sent to investigate the odd death of Duncan, who’s head was (accidentally) shoved into the fryer by the McBeth’s (who staged it to look like a robbery gone wrong). It’s so unusual to see Walken in such a gentle role, rather than terrifying villain or comedic family figure. His performance in this film has always stood out to me. It’s a role that reminds you Walken can play anything you throw at him, from the absurd to the mundane, and he will tackle the role with apparent ease and comfort.
This movie is so much fun, especially for any fellow literature nerds who love a good Shakespeare adaptation. The language is contemporary English, so don’t fret about any Shakespearian language confusion. Even better, the entire soundtrack is by Bad Company, which is just fantastic!
3. Pulp Fiction (1994) – Role: Captain Koons – Yeah, I know you were wondering how far up this appearance would be.
Perhaps one of Walken’s best known appearances is also perhaps his briefest. Walken plays Captain Koons in this 90’s Quentin Tarantino hit, and is in the film for exactly one perfectly brief scene. In this scene, Captain Koons appears in a flashback of Bruce Willis’ character, Butch. Butch is recalling a visit in his childhood from Captain Koons, a POW from Vietnam who was captured with Butch’s father in the war. Koons reveals that he is there is pass on a family heirloom to Butch… He goes into detail about his time as a POW with Butch’s father, about how his father refused to allow their captors to get the watch… about how his father hid the watch in the only safe place—his rectum—for years of torture and illness, until he eventually died of dysentery and asked Koons to keep the watch safe (also up his rectum) until he could pass it on to Butch.
I think one of the things that is my favorite part of this role is how much fun you can see he had with it. He’s said in an interview than when preparing for this role, he would read the script at least once a day… and always cracked himself up by the end of the monologue. Every time he read it. The fact he loved his part and lines as much as the audience really helps give this appearance a special sort of energy that makes it one of the most memorable moments of a film filled to the brim with memorable moments. If that doesn’t warrant a Top 3 slot, I don’t know what does.
2. Deer Hunter (1978) – Role: Nick – Probably one of Walken’s most dramatic and gut wrenching roles, this role scored Walken an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. And man, did he earn it. The film follows the lives of American steelworkers near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, their service through the Vietnam War, and their lives afterwards. Walken plays the mild mannered, and slightly weird in a way only Walken can be, Nick, who is incredibly scarred by his time in the War.
This is a film that I don’t want to tell too much about because it really just speaks for itself, and does a beautifully haunting job of showing life during and after Vietnam for American soldiers. Suffice it to say, you’re going to want to have some tissues on hand, and maybe the next movie on the list queued up to cheer you up afterwards.
1. Batman Returns (1992) – Role: Max Shreck – Yeah, that’s right. As far as I’m concerned, there is no better Batman movie and no better Christopher Walken movie than Batman Returns (it’s also my favorite Christmas movie. Fight me Die Hard fans, I dare you!).
I was a little torn about placing such a goofy choice in my #1 slot, especially because Deer Hunter is so wonderful, but you know what? I’m of the thought that it is far harder to be a good comedic actor than it is to be a good dramatic one. Timing, tone, body language… actors need to have control over all these things for any genre, but I feel comedy is effected by such factors. And I say this as a pretty unsuccessful comedic actor (yet successful comedic student; yay English degrees!) back in my day. I know when comedy is good, and I know when it’s not. And Batman Returns is gold.
Directed by Tim Burton, starring Michael Keaton (Batman), Danny Flipping DeVito (Penguin), Michelle Pfeiffer (Catwoman), and Christopher Walken (Max Shreck), this film is every good part of a Burton comic book movie and none of the bad. It’s funny without being lamely cheesy, but the characters don’t cross the line into far too comedic. Pfeiffer’s portrayal of Selena Kyle struggling with her identity and morals is phenomenal, and DeVito brings an unsettlingly inhuman humanity to what could have been a character no one would take seriously. And then there’s Walken, Max Shreck, a heartless big businessman of Gotham who “kills” his assistant Selena when she learns too much, creating Catwoman, and who manipulates Penguin cleverly to position himself to have more political power over Gotham.
Remember when I said earlier that Walken is the only actor to play both a Batman villain and a Bond villain? There’s a reason! You’d think there would be more overlap—I mean, if you think about they are all sort of the same characters. Evil people make absurdly convoluted schemes to take over an area/industry/city (who are also Nazi’s for Bond, or insane criminals for Bats), fighting a dashing rich white guy who knows all sorts of kung fu and stuff. But you need to walk a delicate line to transition from the world of Bond, which though fantastic tries to remain rooted in the real world, to the world of Batman, which though originating from some of the oldest comic books and the amazingly campy show of the 60s, still brings some serious themes and dilemmas to the table for it’s characters (Ending Spoilers: Selena Kyle’s breakdown over whether to shoot Shreck or not at the end of the film, for instance, is surprisingly powerful).
Christopher Walken displays his dramatic skill, his villainous side, and his comedic abilities all in one film, never trespassing into the Danger Zone of too much of any one thing. That delicate balancing act of performance is why Batman Returns is his best performance, and why he is one of the best actors we will ever see.
HONORABLE MENTION: Weapon of Choice (2001, Music Video)
Role: Man in Suit, Choreographer
I really wanted to stick this in the main list, but after much deliberation it just didn’t seem fair for a short music video to take the place of a larger piece of work like a full length film. But you can’t talk about Christopher Walken as a performer without exploring the magnificence that is his appearance in Fatboy Slim’s music video.
Here it is in all its glory, in case you’ve never seen it, or just want to revel in it’s awesomeness once again:
Did you know Christopher Walken originally trained as a dancer, and he really got his start acting on Broadway? He actually helped to choreograph this music video, which is why it is so awesome.
Fun Fact: Walken tries to slip a little bit of dancing into as many of his roles as possible; he managed to do so in at least three of the films on this very list!