The Journeyman

Fri, 08/18/2017 - 10:30am

Journeyman: A worker who learns a skill and then works for another person. — Merriam-Webster

A young Christopher Walken came of age in the swirling and roiling cultural stew of Queens, New York — ensconced amidst the hustle, flow, drama, and color of that borough. This is where Walken began his immersion into his life’s work as an actor, and he was in for a penny or a pound. When he was a kid, his mom would take him and his brothers to audition for acting jobs. “My mother was a stage mother, she was crazy about the movies, theater, and show business,” he said. “They used all these kids, and these kids could do a little dance or say a small line. They had head shots. It was a big industry.” Walken’s father owned a bakery in Queens and took his job seriously — he worked hard. His dad taught him that if you have a shot to do a job, then you need to honor that and do it well.

“He felt like you had to take opportunities while they are here, because tomorrow they may not be there. You have to think about the times when it’s not happening,” he said. Through his example, Walken’s father taught his son a valuable lesson to bring to a profession that requires one to be punctual, prepared and present. This is practical and professional stuff. Walken’s parents and his working-class upbringing contained and provided the ingredients that gave rise to the steady Eddie kind of guy he is, which is at the core of Walken’s personality. 

He did stage work as a young guy, and that’s where he met his wife, Georgianne. They connected while both were acting in a production of “West Side Story.” Does he like to get his wife’s approval for his acting jobs? “Oh, absolutely, I think anyone’s who is married, you want your wife’s approval,” he says, “If she likes it, she will say it’s good. When she doesn’t say anything, then I get the hint. I do like to get the okay.”

Walken’s angular face and distinct hair rest atop a six-foot frame — a lean dancer’s body. His handshake is firm and his blue eyes lock in when he speaks to you; it appears that he listens with his eyes. He is circumspect, and he observes everything intensively — nothing gets by this guy. He’s a New Yorker who has learned to assimilate and blend into the swirl, and stand out at the same time. There is an otherness to him, but don’t be fooled by his mien. His persona may appear dour, but the guy is really funny. One day I told him — in all seriousness — about a tough acting professor I studied with in college. Without missing a beat, he says while looking up from his low-slung black Caddy, “Where does he live? (beat) Let’s go pay ‘em a visit.”  Walken has been able to dance between comedic and dramatic roles. As a result, his career has been varied and expansive.

Yet the acting profession is fickle and competitive. There is an element of the unknown for people who go down this road, and Walken is just fine with that. “It’s part of the actor’s life. That’s kind of a gypsy thing. You don’t really know what you’re going to do next, or if you’re ever going to do anything again,” he said. This realistic perspective probably began when his mom schlepped him to find jobs. It’s nothing personal. It’s just the nature of the non-linear and meandering process of getting a story on to the stage or screen. Moreover, by nodding to lady luck we also get a sense of Walken’s humility. The tools — along with the hustle — and skills this actor has honed to the best of his ability have served him well in a business where it’s best not to have expectations. It’s a paradox — work hard but expect nothing. “I’ve made movies that I expected to be terrific, and they weren’t. Then I’ll make a movie that I don’t expect anything from, and it turns out to be a good movie,” he said. Again, we see the folly of expectations and the fickleness of show business.

Saturday Night Live featured Walken in a series of sketches called “The Continental.” He plays a fumbling, bumbling and fatuously flawed guy with a terrible accent and kitschy wardrobe who tries to woo women into his apartment — for some “champagneyah,” and some charming repartee. This horribly accented character plays to the camera which holds the point-of-view of the poor unsuspecting woman. It is a brilliant piece of comedic writing, timing and structure. Walken says of the sketch, “The way they do that show, they put you in a pitch room. They said, ‘Is there anything you can think of?’ I said, ‘Go to the TV archives and look up ‘The Continental’ from the early 50s and just check it out.’ No one ever heard of it. I told them to go look at it. I didn’t write it or anything, I just acknowledged it.” This was how “The Continental” sketch ended up on SNL. Here was guest host Christopher Walken in a writer’s room at NBC pulling an un-deleted file out of his journeyman’s head to share with the showrunner, cast and writers, and thereby helping create a memorable series of hilarious performances. Bingo!

Christopher Walken is still always waiting for the next job. “Let’s face it, the older you get, the kinds of roles change, but you know when a job comes up I tend to take it. A lot of actors they tell me they’re selective, they don’t do this or they don’t do that. But being in shape and available and going to work is very important,” he said. “You have to look after yourself — which is a good thing — so you can say yes when a job comes up.”