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The Essentials: The 5 Best Christopher Walken Performances

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 9, 2012 at 12:56PM

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."
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Christopher Walken Seven Psychopaths

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. 

Walken The Deer Hunter
"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.

Walken Dead Zone
"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.

This article is related to: Features, Seven Psychopaths, Christopher Walken, The Essentials


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