You see the name, and you can hear the distinctive voice. The stilted, elongated vowels, the New York accent that’s a little off-kilter. Happy birthday to Christopher Walken, who turns 78 today. 78 may not be one of those fancy round number birthdays, but we’re living in a fucking weird world, so it’s worth celebrating every little victory.
Walken’s career has certainly been a triumph to date. From his Oscar-winning performance in The Deer Hunter to his Tony Award-nominated stint in the musical James Joyce’s The Dead, there’s no denying the Queens native’s formidable talent. His comedic chops are undeniable—he’s hosted Saturday Night Live seven times and turned out some of their most iconic sketches—and he’s also unpretentious. One year he’s in the critically acclaimed Catch Me If You Can, the next he appears in Kangaroo Jack, described by critic Nathan Rabin as “some of the longest 90 minutes ever committed to film.” Dude just loves to act.
Let’s raise a glass to Walken, his incredible head of hair and his lengthy career with some of the actor’s best comedic film roles.
With a killer cast and concept, Blast from the Past has the makings of something great. During the Cold War, a nutty scientist (Walken) mistakenly thinks a nuclear bomb has gone off, so he takes his pregnant wife (Sissy Spacek) down to their fallout shelter. She soon gives birth to Adam, and the three live a ‘60s lifestyle entirely underground until their now-grown son (Brendan Fraser) ventures out for supplies after the bomb shelter unlocks in 1997. Adam has a love interest, of course—Eve (Alicia Silverstone)—and the film spends most of its time pointing out how drastically culture changed between the ‘60s and the ‘90s. Its lackluster script makes this film hardly a classic in the larger sense, but Walken is perfectly cast as the paranoid scientist, working well against Spacek’s harried housewife energy.
Walken’s turn as Wilbur Turnblad opposite John Travolta as Edna in Hairspray is a real treat. His dancing is a bit awkward, like seeing your dad bust a move out on the dancefloor at a wedding, but you can tell he’s having a hell of a time as the two tango through lines of drying laundry (and he’s not half bad at singing, either). Walken’s comparatively placid presence provides an excellent foil for Michelle Pfeiffer’s villainous vixen Velma to play off of, and his chemistry with Travolta is undeniable.
Eccentricity comes easily to Walken. Case in point: his character Caesar in Mouse Hunt, the diabolical exterminator determined to remove the pesky rodent from Ernie (Nathan Lane) and Lars Smuntz’s (Lee Evans) house. Caesar is all intensity as he pursues the titular mouse, narrowing his eyes like a cowboy eyeing up his enemy in a final shootout. From his goofy gear (sorry, the Squeak Seeker 2000) to Walken’s hilarious slapstick as the mouse unceremoniously drags him down a staircase, it’s a bit role that Walken eats up… much like a mouse would eat cheese. I dunno, just trying to make rodent puns.
Three words: gold watch monologue.
Walken often steals the show in Seven Psychopaths as Hans Kieslowski, the religiously devout dognapper. One of his best moments has to be when, confronted with the barrel of a gun, Hans refuses to put his hands up in surrender. “I don’t want to,” Walken says carelessly, like a petulant child or Bartleby the Scrivener. The exchange is short but memorable, a casual fuck-you that Walken pulls off with singular humor.
Walken’s old-fashioned cadence fits in perfectly to the 2004 update of The Stepford Wives. As the khaki-clad Mike Wellington, he switches between unnerving calm while assuaging Joanna’s (Nicole Kidman) fears about the town’s cookie cutter wives and overt machismo when in the company of the testosterone-fuelled Men’s Association (and heading up their nefarious doings). Walken serves as the face of toxic masculinity in this movie, but he also brings the funny.
When you need a suave bad guy and you already used Rob Lowe in the last film, it’s time to call Walken. He’s not the most obviously funny part of the Wayne’s World sequel, but every zany duo like Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) needs a normie dude enemy. Walken delivers as Bobby Cahn, the record producer who inevitably has the hots for Cassandra (Tia Carrere). His dancing here is lightyears ahead of where it is in Hairspray and he’s honestly (dare I say it?) pretty hot. Shwing!
Walken’s not in Wedding Crashers much as U.S. Secretary William Cleary, but he uses his time on screen well. His most laugh-out-loud moments come from his disdain for his artistic son, Todd. While Todd is far from the all-American image his father wants to project as a Washington politician, William does occasionally offer him half-hearted encouragement like, “Todd, that’s good! Tell that mean ocean!” Heartwarming stuff.
I’m not going to lie to you and say that I watched this film. No way in hell am I paying for what feels like a fake movie Jenna Maroney starred in on 30 Rock. However, it is objectively hilarious that Walken’s Irish accent is arguably better than Jamie Dornan’s—a literal Irishman. All hail the king.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, Hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.