Let's give Christopher Walken a hand, and not just because he's missing his left one in the offbeat Broadway comedy "A Behanding in Spokane." The Oscar-winning actor has been wowing audiences and critics with his characteristically eccentric performance as a loner who has been searching for his left hand for nearly 50 years. Don't be surprised if his name pops up among this year's Tony nominees when the announcements are made Tuesday. And if he wins, you can bet his wife of 41 years will be there to cheer him on.
Newsday's Daniel Bubbeo recently spoke with Walken, 67, about his unusual stage role, his days at Hofstra and his encounters with Walter Matthau and a lion named Sheba.
When you first heard about this show, what was your reaction?
I was concerned with making it convincing. It's difficult to make something disappear. If I had to add a hand, it would be easier than taking one away. So we had to figure that out. We met with the people who do the prosthetics and it wasn't that difficult. I finally got a dark coat and kept my arm bent and it really wasn't as difficult as it initially seemed.
How do you prepare yourself to get into the mind set of that character?
I didn't think much about that. I figured he was like Chris Walken without a hand. I said to the writer one day, "What made you think about this? Did you think about a guy who went around with a suitcase full of hands?" And he said, "No, I thought what would it be like if somebody chopped my hand off and took it." And my character says in the play "They took my hand and I just want it back. It's mine." So it's a matter of principle. He says "I'll get it back.I won't be able to do anything with it, but it belongs to me."
Your character in this play has lost his hand and he wants it back. And he wants revenge. How do you get into the mindset of that character?
I figured he was like Chris Walken without a hand. I said to the writer one day, "What made you think about this? Did you think about a guy who went around with a suitcase full of hands?" And he said, "No, I thought, 'What would it be like if somebody chopped my hand off and took it?' " And my character says in the play, "They took my hand and I just want it back. It's mine." So it's a matter of principle. He says, "I'll get it back. I won't be able to do anything with it, but it belongs to me."
Do you gravitate toward these types of offbeat roles or do they gravitate toward you?
When I got into the movies, early on, I was in two pictures that may have set a tone for me - I did "Annie Hall," and in that I play a guy who drives head-on into traffic; and pretty much right after that, I did "The Deer Hunter," and I shoot myself. . . . I met Walter Matthau once on a plane, and he said to me, "Oh, I know who you are. You're the guy who plays all the meshugenahs."
You and I have something in common in that we both attended Hofstra.
I only went to Hofstra for less than a year. . . . I wasn't in the drama department, but I would hang around the theater, and I knew some of the people there. I had a good time there, but I wasn't crazy about going to school. I wanted to get back into the theater. I left Hofstra to do an Off-Broadway musical called "Best Foot Forward."
You did live television in the '50s. Do you remember much about working with Martin and Lewis?
Yes, it was on "The Colgate Comedy Hour." And not long ago, I saw a Kinescope and they showed me the scene. It was remarkable. I had a little scene with Jerry Lewis, where we were in a penny arcade. I think I had one line. I'm guessing I was about 10 years old, and I had not changed a bit. It was the same voice, the same everything.
I remember for some reason he took my hand and he had a hand like a doctor. Cool and calm.
You also worked as a lion tamer. What was that like?
One summer when I was 16, I worked in Terrell Jacobs' traveling circus that went up and down the East Coast. . . . I impersonated his son. I would come on at the end of his act, dressed identically as him in this blue and red outfit, and I would go into the cage. There was this very old lion called Sheba, and I would tell her to get up on a box and wave my whip at her, and she would get up on her back feet. She was more like a big dog. It wasn't dangerous, it was kind of fun.
So many people love to imitate you. What do you make of that?
I don't know where that really started. In my neighborhood, everybody talks like me. When people do that, I very rarely pick up on it right away. My wife says certain people are better at it than others. I have a friend who does me on his answering machine, so when I call him it's kind of like I'm talking to myself.
You have done some great movies - "The Deer Hunter" and "Catch Me If You Can" - and then you've also done "Kangaroo Jack" and "Gigli." Do you do every movie you're offered?
I have probably made too many movies. I don't have hobbies. I don't like to travel. I don't have kids. I like to go to work. Going to work is good for many reasons - they pay you, and also it's healthy for me to do that. I suppose I should have stayed home a couple of times.
Is there any movie you wish you hadn't made?
Oh, absolutely. A bunch. But if I was to say them, I would be unkind to those people - but we all know what they are.
Yes, that show I talked about, "Best Foot Forward," I think I was 18 and I got this job and it was with this 16-year-old girl Liza Minnelli. And people didn't know right away that she was Garland's daughter. And then Liza had her 16th birthday and her mother threw her a birthday party, and the whole cast went. And there was music and I danced with Judy Garland. She was very good-looking in person. She was tiny and quite beautiful and very nice.
I've read that you don't own a computer or a cell phone.
It's true. I don't have a computer. People are always saying to me what's your tech thing . . .
You mean e-mail address?
E-mail, that's what it is. I have to say, "I don't have one." I kind of missed out on the tech revolution. I remember applying for a job when I was in high school, at Christmastime the big department stores used to hire extra people as clerks, and you had to pass an adding and subtracting test, and I remember I flunked that test. I couldn't do it fast enough. That could never happen now because no one has to do that anymore. When I was growing up, that's the way the world was. Nowadays, if I have to use a cell phone on the set, I have to have somebody dial it for me.
Fortunately, in the play you use a regular phone.
And that was another issue. I have all this stuff with the phone that I do, and how do I talk and walk around with the phone. But that sort of thing kind of fell into place, the way it would if you were missing a hand.
You've been married for 41 years, which is amazing in show business. What's the secret?
It's mysterious. You have to love people and be a little lucky. I'm pretty easy to get along with. So that helps.