“Who is the greatest villain of all time?” demands Christopher Walken, standing aboard a ship’s deck on a Long Island soundstage. An obvious answer would be Walken himself. During his lengthy and mayhem-filled movie career, he has shot an unarmed Dennis Hopper in True Romance, taken out a hit on Andy Garcia in Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, and plotted a watery death for the entire population of Silicon Valley in the Bond movie A View to a Kill. But today, something is very different about Walken. Soon after delivering that line, he begins to sing—wearing full pirate regalia, a long black wig, and a hook on his left hand.
Walken, 71, is rehearsing his role as Captain Hook in Peter Pan Live!—a follow-up to last year’s Carrie Underwood-starring The Sound of Music Live!—which NBC will broadcast on Dec. 4 with Allison Williams as the boy who won’t grow up. The role requires Walken to sing around half a dozen songs and execute a tap number. But what does a man best known for playing murderers know about killer dance moves?
In fact, quite a lot. Walken is not an actor who dabbles in dance but rather a dancer who fell into acting. He studied tap as a kid, toured in a musical, and even strutted his stuff alongside a teenage Liza Minnelli. “I think that if he had been around in the heyday of MGM, he would have been a big star of musicals on film,” says exec producer Craig Zadan, who is banking in part on Walken’s appeal to generate the same kind of buzz that turned The Sound of Music into a blockbuster event, with nearly 22 million viewers tuning in to enjoy (or, in some cases, ridicule) the program.
As Walken himself puts it in his unmistakable, baroquely punctuated tones: “I always kind of liked putting on a show, you know.”
In Hollywood, Walken has worked with the greats: De Niro, Streep, Spielberg, Eastwood. But in his youth, he had slightly less prestigious peers: a performing monkey, an old lion—and even Howdy Doody.
The actor was born Ronald Walken in Queens on March 31, 1943, which—those who believe in portents may care to note—was also the opening night of the Broadway smash Oklahoma! His German father operated a bakery while his Scottish mother funneled her energy into trying to make stars of her three sons. “My mother was a—what’s the word?—a fan,” says the actor, as if he has genuinely never used the word before. “She loved show business.”
Walken was a child performer who began his musical career around the age of 7 as an extra in an amateur production of Madame Butterfly. Growing up, he took dance lessons on the side with choreographer Danny Daniels, who would win a Tony in 1984 for his work on The Tap Dance Kid. By the time Walken was 10 he was regularly appearing on TV in variety specials.
“I remember doing them with Lucille Ball, Danny Thomas, Jack Benny,” he recalls. “I saw Howdy Doody in his box. When he wasn’t working, they’d put him in his box! And there was that chimpanzee, J. Fred Muggs. He was very famous.”
Walken even spent one summer as an apprentice lion tamer. “It was with a circus owned by this man named Terrell Jacobs,” he says. “He was a lion tamer, and I pretended to be his son. At the end he would send all the lions out except this one old girl sitting on a box. She was very sweet, really. I would come in and I would wave my whip and she would kind of sit up. And that was it!”
In college, Walken studied English but left when he landed a part in an Off Broadway revival of Best Foot Forward with a 17-year-old Liza Minnelli. “I think we made 55 dollars a week,” he says. “It was a pretty good show, as I recall.” Minnelli has fond memories of working with Walken. “I’d been around dancers my whole life, having watched my parents make musicals at MGM, and Chris reminded me of so many of the dancers I knew growing up,” says the Cabaret star. “He’s talented in every way.”
Walken later danced backup for a Belgian cabaret singer—who insisted on changing his name to Christopher—and played the character Riff in a touring production of West Side Story, where he met his future wife, Georgianne. The musical also introduced Walken to Broadway legend-in-the-making Michael Bennett. “They didn’t want to pay the fees of [original choreographer] Jerome Robbins,” remembers Walken. “If you used their choreography, you had to pay them. So they had this kid, and in eight days he rechoreographed West Side Story. It was Michael Bennett.”
Then a couple of terrible things happened, at least for Walken’s song-and-dance career: People started taking him seriously as a stage actor, and Hollywood began moving away from musicals after flops such as 1969’s Hello Dolly! So Walken’s early big-screen roles were nonmusicals like the 1971 thriller The Anderson Tapes and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall in 1977. By the time he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his turn as a Vietnam vet in the 1978 film The Deer Hunter, his reputation as a heavyweight actor was set in stone.
“There was a funny confluence of things: In Annie Hall I was this suicidal brother, and then I did The Deer Hunter, where I shoot myself,” says Walken, forming his hand into a gun and holding it to his head. “So there was kind of a dark thing.”
Yet he still looked for the chance to dance whenever possible. In 1981 his old teacher Daniels put him up for Pennies From Heaven, where Walken memorably tapped to Cole Porter’s “Let’s Misbehave.” A few years later, he cut a rug in Puss in Boots, for which he dyed his hair to play a ginger cat who has been magically transformed into a person. “I thought I was very good as the cat!” he says, stroking his mustache in a decidedly Puss-like fashion. “The cat they used, he lived with me in my trailer. He would sleep in the bed.”
Walken wouldn’t appear in another real movie musical until 2007’s Hairspray, produced by his future Pan EPs, Zadan and Neil Meron. In the meantime, he became Hollywood’s favorite villain and/or weirdo in projects as varied as the 1989 alien-abduction tale Communion, 1993’s Wayne’s World 2, and the obscure 1995 drama Search and Destroy. One thing those films do have in common? Walken dances in every damn one of them—even Communion, in which he dances with aliens. “For a long time, if I was in a scene, and I just had a moment where I felt free to do that, I would throw in a little step,” says Walken.
Earlier this year, a video compilation of Walken’s best dance scenes, including sequences from King of New York and Undertaking Betty, went viral. Walken says he has heard about the clip but hasn’t seen it. He won’t be providing the Internet more fodder anytime soon.
“People started to bring it up,” he says of his impromptu dancing. “And I thought, ‘Yeah, you’re overdoing that.’ So I’ve stopped.” Walken’s hoofing was also showcased in Spike Jonze’s 2001 video for Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” (8). While the video seemed like an odd choice at the time, Walken says it was a no-brainer: “You think, ‘Well, do it now!’ You know, you get too decrepit to dance.”
Today is not that day. Back on Long Island, Walken looks a long way from decrepitude as he rehearses for Pan alongside Tony winner Christian Borle, who plays both Mr. Darling and Smee. Borle says viewers should look out for Hook’s tap dancing in a newly added number called “Vengeance.” “Every single time we break into the tap break, it feels like history being made,” he says. “He just has a whole different way with rhythm. ‘Walkenesque’ is the only way I can describe it. I think that’s the thing that’s going to make people lose their shit.”
Walken has equally impressed his costar Williams, who turned to him for advice on negotiating Peter’s aerial acrobatics. “I was just asking him about his flying in the Fatboy Slim video,” she says during a break. “We were comparing notes.”
The producers didn’t even need to reach out to Walken to play Hook—his camp contacted them. “I wish we could take credit for it,” says Meron. “In reality, when we were first going about the casting process, I got a call from his agent and she said, ‘How about Chris?’ I went, ‘Oh my God, that is a great idea.’ We exposed him to the material and he said, ‘As long as I can dance a lot.’ And we said, ‘No problem.’”
Walken admits he will have a few nerves come Dec. 4—even though this will technically be the second time he has played a pirate on stage this year. In September, Walken appeared in a show at Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for children coping with serious illness. He interrupted a performance of the VeggieTales song “The Pirates Who Don’t Do Anything” to tease his kiddie costars about the nonsensical lyrics. “Pirates don’t kiss chipmunks! There’s no chipmunk kissing!” he growled, very Walkenly.
It would be easy to assume the kids were terrified out of their little minds. But Walken insists otherwise. “I was a pirate,” he says, sounding more softy than psycho. “They had fun!”
This article appears in Entertainment Weekly’s Nov. 28 issue.