”I found myself watching each face, each a map of life in flesh.”
As the narrator of the new Broadway musical James Joyce’s The Dead, Christopher Walken uses this line to describe the emotionally fraught lives of the Irish characters on stage. But take a few seconds to study the photograph on the opposite page. Walken’s face isn’t just ”a map of life in flesh”; it’s a haunting, full-relief masterpiece that would make Rand McNally both weep with joy and cower in terror.
Start with the lips. Occasionally, they’ll widen into a smile. But even then, it’s at the most unexpected moments — when nothing particularly funny has been said, when Walken seems to be listening to some sick joke inside his head. More often, his lips form that chilling scowl you see — the one that curls back to hurl an unscripted gob of spit in Robert De Niro’s face near the end of The Deer Hunter. Now check out the eyes: penetrating, arctic, and slightly dead. In person, Walken has the thousand-yard stare of a soldier just back from combat; he seems to see right through you. Finally, there are all those lines that snake between the eyes and the lips. Those come with age. But if you look closely, you can make out the few that were etched in the late ’70s when Walken was beaten up by a couple of toughs who wouldn’t turn down their radio. One pounded him to the ground while the other hit him with a two-by-four.
Go back and watch an early film like 1971’s The Anderson Tapes, and you’ll see a downright pretty kid who started his career as a dancer. But now, at 56, Walken’s weathered face is, more than anything, a map of life in flesh. It’s easy to look at him and assume that he’s a variation on the menacing characters he’s made famous. But the fact is, Walken couldn’t be more unlike the psychos, crazies, and badasses he plays. He’s just so good at being bad that we think he must be a monster. He’s not. Christopher Walken is a pussycat who can summon the face of a pit bull.
I. The Dancer — Astoria, Queens
Knowing what we think we know about Walken from his movies, it’s bizarre to consider that he got into show business because of Jerry Lewis. But posted on the door of his dressing room at the Belasco Theatre is a black-and-white photo of the King of Comedy with his face twisted as if the picture were snapped mid-”Hey, laaaay-dy!”
Walken met Lewis when he was 10. Growing up in Astoria, Queens, the son of immigrant bakers (his father from Germany, his mother from Scotland), Walken and his two brothers would hop on the subway to Rockefeller Center. In the early ’50s, midtown Manhattan was ground zero for live TV, and he and his brothers would earn extra scratch — and witness celebrities close-up — by performing as extras on shows like Mama and Omnibus. ”They used a lot of kids more or less as furniture,” Walken recalls. One week, Lewis and Dean Martin were guest hosts on The Colgate Comedy Hour. ”I had a scene with Jerry in a penny arcade — there were pinball machines and the things you squeeze and it tells you your passion level — and there was an arm coming out of a wall that you arm-wrestle. And that was the joke: Jerry arm-wrestled the machine and lost. I was in that.”