October 20, 2014

Christopher Walken reminisces at Stratford fund-raiser

Christopher Walken, right, takes questions during a conversation about his career, with Frank Rizzo. The appearance raised funds for the restoration of Stratford's Shakespeare Theatre.

Christopher Walken, right, takes questions during a conversation about his career, with Frank Rizzo. The appearance raised funds for the restoration of Stratford's Shakespeare Theatre. Christopher Walken, right, takes questions during a conversation about his career, with Frank Rizzo. The appearance raised funds for the restoration of Stratford’s Shakespeare Theatre.

Christopher Walken of Wilton, Academy Award-winning actor — and former assistant lion tamer?

Mr. Walken, who has been in show business since he was a child, shared several interesting career stories at a recent event in Stratford, including his stint as a lion tamer.

The Stratford Arts Commission and the Stratford Center for the Arts hosted A Conversation with Christopher Walken at the Scottish Rite Theater. The talk is part of the American Shakespeare Theatre Alumni Series, in support of reopening the Shakespeare Theatre. The Hartford Courant’s entertainment editor, Frank Rizzo, asked Mr. Walken questions about his illustrious career. 

The actor, whose films have grossed about $1.8 billion, had his start in musical theater, and it’s a skill that carried over to his later work, including the popular music video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice.”

“I’m a song and dance man,” Mr. Walken said. 

Growing up in Astoria, Queens, all the kids in his neighborhood took tap dance on Sundays, he said. It was also a neighborhood where most children followed in their fathers’ footsteps, becoming police officers.

“I have this theory that there are a lot of retired tap-dancing police officers in Queens,” Mr. Walken said with his deadpan sense of humor. “Someone should do a study.”

He recalled his performances at Stratford’s Shakespeare Theatre. In 1982 he played Hamlet, in what would be the theater’s last season. He said he didn’t think much of his performance as Hamlet, but he does enjoy Shakespeare for another reason.

“I look good in tights,” he said.  

Before giving his talk to a sold-out crowd, Mr. Walken visited the theater on Elm Street.

“It’s built of good stuff. I was afraid it would look decrepit,” Mr. Walken said. “It’s built for musicals and operas or even a one-man show. You can see Billy Crystal up there.”

Mr. Walken said he supports the theater being restored, as it’s a great place for live performances, closer to home than New York or even New Haven. He said he would be happy to return to the American Shakespeare Theatre again, once it’s up and running. One Shakespearean role he would like to play in the future is Prospero in The Tempest.

He said he struggled as a young actor, joking that he collected a lot of unemployment.

“If you get paid, you’re lucky,” he said of acting.

He also admitted that some of the movies he made were clunkers.

“Movies are a roll of the dice,” he said. “It’s just as hard to make a bad movies as it is to make a good movie.”

But in the case of 1978’s The Deer Hunter, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, he said he felt something was significant about the film.

“I think there was a palpable feeling, at least for me, that we were doing something special,” Mr. Walken said. 

“I did Puss in Boots. I think that was some of my best efforts,” he joked.

He was almost cast in the now classic films Love Story and Star Wars.

“I was almost in Love Story and Star Wars, but so were 500 other people,” Mr. Walken said. 

Some of the scripts he receives are unbelievably bad, he said.

“I wish I received better scripts,” he said.

Mr. Walken is also known as one of the most popular hosts of Saturday Night Live. 

“I try to be as silly as possible,” he said of himself. 

His wife, Georgianne, was in the audience, and he sometimes asked her for help remembering a certain detail. He married his wife in 1969, after meeting her in a production of West Side Story.

When not acting, Mr. Walken enjoys cooking at home, using some of the pans his father used at his Queens bakery.

“Baking is hard,” moderator Frank Rizzo commented.

“Not if you know how to do it,” Mr. Walken said with a smile. “Just like when people say comedy is harder than drama — not if you’re funny.”