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The Essentials: The 5 Best Christopher Walken Performances

by Oliver Lyttelton
October 9, 2012 12:56 PM
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It's easy to caricature Christopher Walken. One of the most iconic character actors of his generation, he's also got one of the most imitated voices around (everyone has a Walken impression, even if it's as bad as this writer's...), and has become an indelible part of pop culture, thanks to everything from memorably hosting "Saturday Night Live," to popping up in Spike Jonze's Fatboy Slim video, to taking unlikely roles like the broad villain in "The Country Bears."

But it shouldn't be forgotten that Walken is a terrific actor, first and foremost. Sure, he's crept into self-parody at times, but from his breakthrough Oscar-winning turn over thirty years ago in "The Deer Hunter" to a scene-stealing performance in this week's "Seven Psychopaths," he's consistently given surprising, off-beat and impressive turns on screen. To mark the release of Martin McDonagh's film this Friday, we've picked out five of our favorite Walken performances from across his career. Let us know your own favorites in the comments section below. 

"The Deer Hunter" (1978)
Prior to 1978, Walken was far from an unknown. He'd been appearing on TV and stage since the 1950s (with roles including the original production of "The Lion In Winter" on Broadway), and had cropped up in films like "The Anderson Tapes" and, perhaps most memorably, "Annie Hall." But it was Michael Cimino's Vietnam-era drama "The Deer Hunter," and Walken's Oscar-nominated performance (which might still stand as his very finest) that really was the making of the man. He plays Nick, one of a trio of blue-collar steel workers who ship out to Vietnam together, only to end up in a POW camp. No one in the film has a great time, but Nick perhaps suffers most of all: a quiet, introverted type never happier than when he's hunting at home, he's broken by games of Russian Roulette in captivity, and by survivor's guilt, and ends up a haunted, amnesiac junkie playing his lethal game again in Saigon. It's tough to stand out in a cast that includes De Niro, John Cazale and Meryl Streep, but Walken manages it. It's simply a great and grounded performance, the shell of a man that Nick has become by the end not so much breaking your heart as shattering it. One can only hope he gets another role as great as this one soon.

"The Dead Zone" (1983)
Arguably David Cronenberg's most mainstream picture, "The Dead Zone" is nevertheless a cracking little thriller with some smart supernatural elements. And at the center is Walken, in an inspired piece of casting as Johnny Smith, an everyman school teacher who spends five years in a coma, waking to find not only that the love of his life (Brooke Adams) has married someone else, but also that he's able to glimpse the secrets of others when he touches them. Johnny finds new purpose in life when he shakes the hand of aspiring politician Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen), who it appears will be bring about a nuclear holocaust. Walken was hardly an obvious choice for a man as ordinary as Johnny, but he works brilliantly, downplaying his usual offbeat rhythms, while still letting a touch of weirdness creep in. The loss of almost everything in his life gives him a haunted quality that's perfect for those skeletal cheekbones and outsized eyes, and Walken brings an enormous amount of pathos to the role. Somehow, this was the lone collaboration between Walken and Cronenberg to date, but we can only keep our fingers crossed for a reunion down the road.

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  • Denise | July 16, 2014 1:33 AMReply

    My two Walken performances would have to be King of New York and
    You gotta love Suicide Kings. For kitch i thought he was really entertaining in the Prophecy.
    You have to admire that he never seems to just play it safe
    Doing the same character over and over. He's awesome, i think we all fell in
    Love from the Deer Hunter on.

  • Nathan | December 2, 2012 6:27 PMReply

    My favorite is the Hessian. Grrrr....aaargh!

  • Laurie | October 18, 2012 8:47 AMReply

    My personal favorite is his turn as the exterminator in the silly Nathan Lane comedy "The Mousehunt".

  • BlueFox94 | October 15, 2012 10:53 PMReply

    "But it was Michael Cimino's Vietnam-era drama "The Deer Hunter," and Walken's Oscar-nominated performance (which might still stand as his very finest) that really was the making of the man."

    Umm, I'm pretty sure that Walken WON that Oscar too. :\

  • Rick | October 11, 2012 11:01 PMReply

    The lack of love for King of New York, or more importantly for Ferrara oeuvre , is disheartening to say the least.

  • Rick | October 11, 2012 11:06 PM

    *for the

  • franco | October 10, 2012 12:51 PMReply

    also, you can't forget true romance, batman returns, last man standing and one of my favorites, totally bizarre bond villain max zorin in a view to a kill

  • WRT | October 9, 2012 11:04 PMReply

    You're forgetting the fourth Ferrara collaboration: New Rose Hotel, one of Ferrara's most abstract -- and exceptional -- films

  • HombreGato | October 9, 2012 7:45 PMReply

    Christopher Walken is a master of deadpan comedy. The list is clearly focused on his overlooked dramatic capabilities, but it comes at the cost of his range.

  • Cindy | October 9, 2012 4:13 PMReply

    Anyone remember The Anderson Tapes? That is the first time I saw him and I found him very memorable.

  • Tom | October 9, 2012 4:08 PMReply

    Not that he's doing anything brilliant mind you, but his turn as the exterminator in Mouse Hunt always cracks me up.

  • jarrett | October 9, 2012 3:09 PMReply


  • Scott Mendelson | October 9, 2012 1:34 PMReply

    Allow me to add his performance in Seven Psychopaths, which I'd argue ranks among his very best. It's a terrific mix of 'shtick' and compelling dramatic acting, and Walken gives the film its heart-and-soul and makes the rather brilliant genre deconstruction more than just an exercise in post-modern satire. It won't happen, but I would love to see Walken get an Oscar nod for this one.

  • rotch | October 9, 2012 2:15 PM

    wholeheartedly agreed

  • Curtis Burch | October 9, 2012 1:10 PMReply

    Two huge omissions: In Paul Mazursky's great NEXT STOP GREENWICH VILLAGE and Jonathan Demme's WHO AM I THIS TIME?

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