PLANK DECEMBER 7, 2012
Now that Christopher Walken is getting lauded up and down for his performance in "Seven Psychopaths," we thought it'd be worth bringing back this wonderful short essay on the actor by Andrew Corsello. It originally ran on the dearly departed website Other People's Stories, and contains the best reference to Fran Drescher in American letters.
ONE DAY IN THE EARLY ’90s, my friend Michael traveled to Los Angeles on business. The flight sapped him, so after checking into his hotel room he decided to decompress by the pool. The day was bright and hot. He began to doze. Halfway between wakingness and dreams he sensed something, a sudden absence of pressure on his eyelids—a cloud passing before the sun, perhaps. But it didn’t pass. He opened his eyes. A man, silhouetted, standing over him. And then a voice.
“The sun is hot.”
The words emerged in the disquietingly blank voice of a man under hypnosis, and Michael recognized instantly, even before his eyes adjusted, that Christopher Walken was standing over him.
“I like the sun,” Walken said.
Michael sat in his lounger looking up at Christopher Walken. Christopher Walken stood there staring down at Michael. Moments passed.
“Do you like the sun?” Walken asked.
Michael felt something was expected of him, but didn’t know what.
“Um, sure, I guess?”
Walken stared. More time passed.
“I like the sun,” Walken said.
Then he withdrew.
A FEW YEARS AFTER this incident, my friend Fabrice was driving around the Upper West Side of Manhattan on a Saturday morning in January looking for a place to park. It was early, just past seven, and brittle cold. For some twenty minutes he searched in vain. Finally, he decided to position his car near the corner of West 80th and sit, with hazard lights blinking, until a space opened on the block. The cold and the monotony and the chick-chick of the blinker numbed his mind. He went dumb. But then…a gleaning, a proximity alert. Slowly he turned and looked. There, at eye level, inches from the glass, fogging it with his breath, was Christopher Walken. He wore a banana-yellow bathrobe with a matching pair of slippers. Fabrice beheld the Transylvanian countenance, the shock-treatment hair. Walken, in turn, beheld Fabrice. This lasted several moments. Fabrice felt an unfathomable need to explain himself. Then, while still pinning Fabrice with his gaze, Walken raised a hand, pointed a finger at an old yellow Cadillac parked several yards away and asked, “Would you like to park there?” His tone of voice was so queerly neutral, though, that it sounded more like an observation than a question. Fabrice responded by sitting very still.
“I tell you what,” Walken said, pulling a set of car keys from the pocket of the bathrobe. “You park there.” Then he strode to the Cadillac, entered, fired the ignition and drove off.
NOT LONG AFTER THIS, Walken starred in a Broadway musical adaptation of James Joyce’s “The Dead.” A friend of someone in my office worked on the production as a stagehand. As he tells it, the cast and crew were relaxing around the stage one afternoon when Walken, who until that point had been standing off to one side, interrupted the conversation with an off-point question.
“There is a show on television. ‘The Nanny.’ Who is that woman who plays the nanny?”
“That would be Fran Drescher,” someone offered.
“Yup. Fran Drescher.”
Walken considered this.
“Fran Drescher…Fran Drescher…” he mumbled, slowly drifting into a hallway. “I would like to fuck that woman, yes…”
THE SUN, THE PARKING SPACE, the Nanny—what are we to make of these things? How are they linked? What can be learned from the meteorological observations and traffic heroics and corporeal urges of Christopher Walken? Is it the fate of humankind always and merely to declare, “Walken! What a fuckin’ fish-eyed freak! Ha!”—and walk away?
I do not think so, because halfway through the run of “The Dead,” I spent an entire day drinking coffee in a dimly lit room with Christopher Walken in order to write a magazine article about him, and this is what I found.
I found that Christopher Walken is a man who walks through the world as if through a dream, blissfully unaware that most people are frightened by him, and inexplicably unaware that he is a cult figure. One reason for this, which everyone already knows, is that at an early age, Walken was sucked into a galactic wormhole, then spat out half a second behind (or was it ahead?) of the reality the rest of us occupy.
But there is another reason. It is this: Christopher Walken brooks no division between the lives he leads on and off-stage. He welcomes into his performances whatever happens to be in his head when he’s put before a camera or an audience. His words: “Life should always be integrated—no actus interruptus. There are two moments that are enemies of a movie actor. One is when that damn thing [the clapper] goes clap! The other is when a director says ‘Cut!’ Such violent, violating moments. But the best directors know that. They make [the clapper] just a quiet little swipe past the camera, the idea being, ‘Okay, whenever you’re ready, the camera’s rolling.’ And instead of ‘Cut!’ they let the camera roll for 20 seconds because somebody might do something interesting. They’re like lifeguards who just let the kids, you know, play.”
Apparently, Walken has—in at least three instances—taken this principle of “open borders” to its logical conclusion in his everyday existence, eliminating the barrier that all adults, save saints and sociopaths, place between their internal and external goings on, between what is or isn’t “supposed” to be said to other people, between strangers and friends. (He is not so different, I suppose, from a young girl I once saw in a grocery checkout line. She couldn’t have been more than six. She was white. As her mother paid the bill, she looked up at the cashier, a black woman, and in a loud, clear voice, asked, “Excuse me, ma’am. Are you black?” Her mother gasped. But the cashier, who knew where the question was coming from, merely smiled and said, “Why, yes, young lady! I am!”)
This way of being is precisely what makes Walken likeable, if spooky. It creates within and about him a feeling of first things that allows him to approach the world without assumptions, and on its own terms. It is a kind of passport, this way of being. To wonderment. To a younger, more inquisitive version of one’s self. To the simple and ancient realization—long forgotten by most adults—that the sun is hot, and amazing, and quite likeable.
So yes, my first response to these three tales of Walken was, “Walken! What a fuckin’ fish-eyed freak! Ha!” To a large extent, it still is. But upon further reflection it has occurred to me to take at face value, as a child might, these observations and questions which Walken felt moved to share with three complete strangers. And I find—as you surely do, too—that in all three cases, my response is a pleasurable and fundamental YES.
I do like the sun!
I would like to park there!
I would like to fuck Fran Drescher!