Despite his well-known acting performances as an Italian-American mobster from New York City, Christopher Walken was actually born to Scottish and German immigrants in Astoria, Queens. Born in 1943, he and his brothers were all child actors in the 1950s with Walken training in dance and musical theater. Even though he was accepted to Hofstra University, Walken only attended one year before dropping out for an off-Broadway musical opposite Liza Minnelli in 1963. He spent the next decade on the NYC stage before finally breaking into film.
Over his 50 storied years as a screen actor, discussing Christopher Walken's best cinematic roles is a tricky subject. He has enough scene-stealing cameos in his film catalog to make Stan Lee blush. This, of course, isn't to say his starring roles aren't brilliant, subtle, and transformative, but sometimes Walken accomplishes all of that in just six minutes of screentime, shining through a still stellar cast. Conversely, he has been known to provide brilliant performances in otherwise lackluster pictures. So, as the pendulum swings, where does one land on what his finest, most defining movie roles are?
Well, after a deep comb through his extensive credits, we think we've got our eye on the prize. Here are the roles where Walken shined the brightest and made the most lasting impact on audiences throughout the years.
Duane, <i>Annie Hall</i> (1977)
Even though he only clocks less than four minutes of screen time, Walken's portrayal of the ever so slightly disturbed Duane — brother of Diane Keaton's titular Annie Hall — is both dry and hilarious. Duane sets the precedent for what will turn out to be a lengthy comedy career for Walken, delivering wildly ridiculous dialogue with a deadpan expression and at point blank range. It may be a small role in a multiple Oscar-winning film, but of course, Walken finds a way to make Woody Allen fearing for his life as he drives them home just as memorable as anything else on screen.
Nick, <i>The Deer Hunter</i> (1978)
Best remembered for its nail-biting scenes of Russian roulette, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter is a masterclass of tension and human ties. Robert De Niro leads a phenomenal cast that centers on three friends (DeNiro, Walken, and John Savage) who leave to fight in the Vietnam War and are never the same again. Centering on the ever prominent motif that "War is Hell," the Pennsylvanian trio are forever scarred physically, psychologically, and spiritually. However, it's Walken's broken and shattered performance as Nick, once the life of the party and now a shell of a man, that absolutely steals the show. His tremendous performance even earned him his first — and still only — Academy Award.
Johnny Smith, <i>The Dead Zone</i> (1983)
Although it's one of director David Cronenberg's less… Cronenbergian films, his adaptation of Stephen King's The Dead Zone, is still a stylistically frightening and unsettling experience. Walken plays teacher Johnny Smith, who, after a car accident, winds up in a coma for five long years. Upon awakening, he soon finds that he has the psychic power to vividly see the tragic details of a person's life after he touches them. What begins as a happy-go-lucky role for Walken slowly devolves over the course of the film until Johnny is broken, erratic, and paranoid — but with good reason after all he's experienced. It's another tragic and impressive portrayal by Walken that has easily withstood the test of time.
Max Zorin, <i>A View to a Kill</i> (1985)
In Roger Moore's final outing as 007, the Bond vet stars opposite Walken's tech mogul and madman Max Zorin in A View to a Kill. A product of Nazi experiments to birth a super race, Zorin is left brilliant, but also sociopathic. In dedication to the role, Walken even dyed his hair blonde to better fit the Aryan/Nazi ideal. Zorin was the role that transferred Walken over from his more independent films and introduced him to a wider audience. With a title song by Duran Duran and co-star Grace Jones, the movie is pure, distilled '80s pulp — and one of Walken's highest-grossing works to date.
Frank White, <i>King of New York</i> (1990)
King of New York is, essentially, a retelling of Robin Hood by way of The Wire. Walken's Frank White is fresh out of jail and seeks to reestablish his drug empire, but rather than hoard the profits, he aims to rebuild the community and give back to those hurting the most. But despite his allies and lieutenants, Walken has no shortage of enemies — crooked cops included — making his task near-Sisyphean. Walken plays the role exactly as he should: quietly scheming and incomprehensibly ruthless. Not to mention, it was also this role that established Walken as the quintessential New York City crime boss, a label that would stick with him for years.
Max Shreck, <i>Batman Returns</i> (1992)
Not to be confused with the German actor of a similar name who plays Count Orlok in the film Nosferatu, Walken's Max Shreck almost exists as the Tim Burton version of A View to a Kill's Max Zorin. A shrewd businessman with nefarious plans? Check. Willing to commit murder? Check. Swept-back hairstyle and impeccable taste in suits? Double check. The character of Shreck in Batman Returns may be the first time that Walken was ever really able to have fun with one of his roles, being encouraged to camp it up and be over the top. Plus, his firing of Michelle Pfeiffer's Selina Kyle at the end of the film remains one of his funniest onscreen moments to this day.
Vincenzo Coccotti, <i>True Romance</i> (1993)
If there ever was an award to be given out for the most memorable cameos in a single motion picture, Tony Scott's True Romance (with a script by Quentin Tarantino) might take the cake. With so many bodies in the room, the dialogue sequence between Walken's Vincenzo and Dennis Hopper's Clifford is still one for the books. Clifford, knowing he isn't walking out of the conversation alive, taunts Vincenzo rather than giving in to his demands. As Vincenzo reacts to the taunts with rapturous laughter, Walken still conveys a frozen layer of ice underneath, and the audience is keenly aware that it's far from joy that the mob consigliere is feeling in his heart. It's Walken at his criminal best.
Captain Koons, <i>Pulp Fiction</i> (1994)
Continuing his established tradition of spellbinding cameos in Academy Award-winning films, Walken briefly appears in Quentin Tarantino's seminal Pulp Fiction to deliver a wild four-minute oral history. Appearing only in a flashback, Walken's Captain Koons explains how he kept a fallen soldier's wristwatch safe after he died in the Vietnam War. What begins as a sorrowful and nuanced performance quickly takes a Tarantino-esque left turn at its climax, leaving the audience in uncomfortable stitches. This scene is the epitome of Walken's breadth of skill and signature quirkiness, gift wrapped in a single monologue for us all.
Gabriel, <i>The Prophecy</i> (1995)
Written and directed by Highlander creator Gregory Widen, The Prophecy is one of Walken's most uncharacteristic and unusual roles — and that's saying something. Playing the literal Archangel Gabriel, Walken descends upon a small town in Arizona with a sinister motive: He seeks the soul of a dead US Army general to help end a war that has been waging in Heaven for thousands of years. Though it received a lackluster reception upon its release, The Prophecy has gone on to reach cult status and even spawned an additional four films. Walken was so personally tied to the character and story, he even starred in the first two despite them being direct-to-video.
Frank Abagnale, Sr., <i>Catch Me if You Can</i> (2002)
Walken earned himself his second Oscar nomination playing Leonardo DiCaprio's father in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can. Aside from the now-apocryphal "Two Mice" story, Walken plays the role from a number of angles, making the viewer unsure of the character's true nature. Is he the slimy scam artist that inspired his son but was charged early on for his crimes? Or is he just a silver-tongued, working-class man who caught the ire of the IRS? Walken makes sure that Frank code-switches so frequently, you're never completely sure of his intentions. It's no wonder why this role is considered one of his finest performances.
Hans, <i>Seven Psychopaths</i> (2012)
Seven Psychopaths is an idiosyncratic dark comedy written and directed by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) about, well, a few things. Among them is Walken as Hans, who, along with Sam Rockwell, spends his time kidnapping people's dogs and then later returning them for a cash reward. However, they wind up stealing the pup of an erratic gangster (played by Woody Harrelson) and hijinks ensue. Walken's character is a roller coaster, sometimes being deeply caring and thoughtful, while other times being hilariously uncaring about his own safety, shrugging off death threats as though they were casual insults. And on top of all that, it's arguably also one of his most tragic roles as well.
Burt, <i>Severance</i> (2022)
This widely-praised and heavily Emmy-nominated speculative fiction story focuses on Lumen, a company that installs a chip into your brain that "severs" all your personal memories while you're at work. The resulting series is subtle, brilliant, jarring, and eerily close to new technologies on our reality's horizon. In Severance, Walken plays Burt, a Lumen employee of another department who happens upon Irving, a "severed" worker played by John Turturro. Burt and Irving find themselves drawn to each other, and the resulting performance by Walken is unique in its emotion and delicacy. It deservedly earned Walken his first Emmy nomination in just over 30 years.
Bonus: Various appearances, <i>Saturday Night Live</i>
"I got a fever! And the only prescription is more cowbell!" These lines may very well be among the most famous lines ever spoken by Walken — and they weren't even in one of his films. Between his roles as music producer Bruce Dickinson in the aforementioned "More Cowbell" sketch, and his turn as the hammy romantic "The Continental," Walken's comedic chops are on full and brilliant display every time he sets foot on the stages of 30 Rockefeller Plaza. If you've never watched any of Walken's sketches on Saturday Night Live, you're missing out on a genuine piece of Walken Americana.