As Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton, and Dexter Fletcher have shown us, nobody does movie cameos like Christopher Walken.
This feature contains spoilers for Eddie The Eagle.
In the course of a screen career spanning almost 50 years, Christopher Walken has established himself as one of the most unusual movie stars on the planet. Ever the character actor, he’s brought his poise and his unique sense of timing to leading roles, villains, and a multitude of other supporting characters, but if there’s one thing he does better than anyone else, it’s cameo roles.
His unmistakable New York accent alone makes him (for better or worse) one of the most imitated actors working today, but for the man himself, that’s only one part of his remarkable screen presence. Although part of you will always be conscious that he’s just turned up, he has an impeccable talent for creating distinctive characters, whether it’s his Oscar-winning turn as Corporal Chevotarevich in The Deer Hunter or his definitive take on the Big Bad Wolf on Jonathan Ross’ chat show.
While many might call him a scene-stealer, Walken’s gift is grabbing and holding your attention for the entire time he’s on screen, without being so distracting that you miss him for the rest of the movie. It’s a skill you can’t learn as an actor, because although we come to celebrate his greatest cameos, the objective quality that connects them all is simply ‘being Christopher Walken’.
Your mileage may vary on which one, but we’d bet that at least one of these characters would place on most film fans’ lists of best or most memorable cameos, but even so, here are the Walken roles that make a big impression even with very limited screen-time…
Annie Hall (1977)
“Can I confess something? I tell you this as an artist, I think you’ll understand.”
In many ways, Woody Allen’s bittersweet Best Picture winner kicks off the trend of Walken’s cameos. Turning in an absolutely unforgettable turn with less than 5 minutes on screen, he plays the title character’s brother Duane, who confesses to Allen’s bemused Alvy that he sometimes has suicidal impulses while driving.
Shortly after he vividly describes his anticipation of causing an accident by crashing into an oncoming vehicle, (“The sound of shattering glass, the… flames rising out of the flowing gasoline”) we get a hard cut to him driving Alvy and Annie to the airport, the former looking understandably terrified.
Impact: The uncomfortable silence during that car journey highlights every disparity in Alvy and Annie’s relationship – he’s neurotic while she’s almost obliviously easy-going by comparison. The added hilarity in this episode of their relationship is all thanks to Walken’s immaculate deadpan performance.
“Do you know who I am, Mr Worley?”
Walken continued to play lead roles throughout the 1970s and 1980s, but his next cameo of note came in 1993’s True Romance. Directed by Tony Scott and written by Quentin Tarantino, the film sets the stage for Walken’s no-nonsense Sicilian mob consigliere, Don Vincenzo Coccotti to interrogate former cop Clifford Worley (Dennis Hopper) about his son’s whereabouts.
These intense dialogue scenes are commonplace in Tarantino’s later movies, but here, the frank and deliberately provocative exchange is a masterclass in making suspense out of two people talking. In just under 10 minutes, Walken creates a truly intimidating antagonist, who rules the scene from the moment he sits down to the furious outburst that moves the film forward.
Impact: You might think so on first viewing, given the way the scene ends with Coccotti ordering his men to find Clarence, but incredibly, this is Walken’s only scene in the movie. Scary, intense, but above all, brief, his performance makes a huge splash.
“Now, little man, I give the watch to you.”
At the time that he recorded the DVD commentary for True Romance, Tarantino said that watching Walken and Hopper performing his dialogue was his proudest moment as a filmmaker. It’s no surprise that shortly after Scott’s film was released, QT called on Walken for another high-impact cameo role in his next directorial outing, Pulp Fiction, with similarly iconic results.
In a film with so many memorable lines and scenes, Captain Koons’ monologue about young Butch Coolidge’s father and his gold watch is a standout moment. Arriving right at the beginning of the chapter that sees Bruce Willis’ Butch recklessly decide to recover the family heirloom when he should be getting the heck out of town, the Walken-centric flashback proves a hugely effective way of establishing personal stakes for the episode that follows. If this man told you what he did to give you this watch, you’d be attached to it too.
Impact: Playing a more expository role than he did in True Romance, Walken’s role hinges on him making a massive mark with very little screen-time and he absolutely wallops it out of the park. He’s probably not top of the list when casting for Rolex adverts though…
“Normal people are not… psychologically equipped to catch mice.”
Reviving Laurel and Hardy-grade slapstick for a post-Home Alone audience, Gore Verbinski’s riotous family comedy stars Nathan Lane and Lee Evans as the unfortunate brothers who have to evict a single mouse from the priceless manor they’ve inherited before the property goes to auction. By the mid-point of the movie, they’ve done more damage to themselves and the house than the pesky rodent ever could.
Enter Caesar the exterminator, who brings a keen and calculating mind and a thousand-yard stare to the task of cleaning out the house. Instructing his clients to “think like a mouse” and recording personal notes into a tape recorder, (“I’ve activated the Squeak Seeker 2000. I’m about to join with the prey”) Walken is on exceptionally quotable form as he single-handedly nudges the carnage up a notch, all in about 5 minutes of screen-time.
Impact: Although there are no small roles in Walken’s filmography, this is the rare film that uses his unique screen presence against his character, having the mouse make relatively short work of him despite all the gravitas and experience he brings to the part.
Picking up an Oscar for Best Art Direction, Sleepy Hollow is an old-school Gothic horror movie as only Tim Burton could make it. The film’s Headless Horseman is mostly played by Ray Park, but the character also has a noggin at the beginning and end of the movie, so Burton drafts in Walken, who previously played Max Shreck in Batman Returns, to don contact lenses and prosthetic gnashers and vamp it up.
Turning in the most pivotal performance out of all of the films mentioned in this feature, the consummate cameo actor absolutely plays it to the hilt here. Whether he’s encouraging his steed or yelling at a terrified victim, most of his lines amount to him going “AHHH”, but somehow you still wouldn’t want anyone else doing it but Walken.
Impact: Huge, with a performance to match. In another era, this probably would have been the Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff role, and Walken obviously relishes giving a more ghoulish screen monster turn. “AHHH” indeed!
Eddie The Eagle (2016)
“Is that a good book? Instructive?”
Finally, we come to Dexter Fletcher’s brilliant Eddie The Eagle. Taking a few creative liberties in bringing the story of British ski-jumper Eddie Edwards to the silver screen, the film casts Taron Egerton as the title character and Hugh Jackman as a composite character called Bronson Peary, an alcoholic former great who is still bitter about the massive falling-out he had with his own mentor, Warren Sharp.
In casting this fictional legend, Fletcher consciously played for and got a star of Walken’s calibre. Although Walken isn’t on screen for much of the film, it often finds the cover of Sharp’s memoir, which is clutched by Eddie as a kind of how-to manual, somewhere in frame. Its glowering author picture symbolising the leads’ uncertainty and disappointment about their respective contributions to the sport, and even as a still photo, Walken leaves a big impression.
Impact: Having kept him in our minds throughout the running time, the moment in which Walken finally turns up at the triumphant climax of the movie is all the more powerful. Played for catharsis rather than laughs, Sharp’s ultimate approval of both Edwards and Peary is instrumental to the film sticking the landing.
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