The man born Ronald Walken started out as a dancer, performing in Broadway musicals before transitioning to acting in theater, television and, eventually, movies. But this Academy Award-winning performer isn’t defined by one or two roles but, rather, by a larger-than-life persona that’s made him a beloved onscreen presence for decades. That halting way of speaking, those intense eyes that can be goofy or intimidating—he’s a natural for our meme- and gif-friendly age. (No wonder so many actors love carting out their Christopher Walken impression.)
As Walken prepares to celebrate his 73rd birthday on March 31st, we decided to spotlight his 10 finest roles. You could make an entirely separate list built around his litany of bite-sized appearances: his cameos in Annie Hall, True Romance and Pulp Fiction; or his famous characters from Saturday Night Live. (You have to think Walken can’t go a month without someone on the street yelling “More cowbell!” to him.) However, none of those made the cut—but in a sign of his cultural ubiquity, his part in an iconic music video did.
The Deer Hunter (1978)
Before appearing in The Deer Hunter, the Vietnam War drama that would earn him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, Walken wasn’t fully confident of his talent. “I was good enough, but I wasn’t particularly good,” he later recalled. “I wasn’t ever certain I would be a huge success. I felt okay about that, though, because I was enjoying life.” As Nick, the laid back member of a group of friends that also includes Robert De Niro’s alpha-male Mike, Walken gave a performance of incredible fragility, believably transforming from a sensitive brooder into someone whose mind is irreparably destroyed by the horrors he witnesses once he’s shipped off to war. His death scene is one of the most chilling and sad of the 1970s: Mike had been dead a long time before he pulled that trigger.
Heaven’s Gate (1980)
Two years after their Oscar triumph with The Deer Hunter, Walken and director Michael Cimino reunited for this grand Western, often held up as an example of overblown Hollywood auteurist spectacle. Now considered to be among the most beautiful and sweeping of American epics, Heaven’s Gate features Walken as the coldhearted killer Nate Champion, who shows flashes of tenderness beneath the merciless exterior. Based on actual events in Wyoming during the late 19th century, Heaven’s Gate has for years had to battle a toxic reputation due to its tortured production—the film went way over budget and schedule—but as new generations of cinephiles rediscover it, Walken’s arresting, tragic turn should also get reappraised.
The Dead Zone (1983)
Many people would love the ability to see the future or to read minds, but such a power would probably drive you insane. That’s the dark lesson of this adaptation of the Stephen King novel, and Walken proved to be the perfect person to play Johnny Smith, a small-town teacher who wakes from a coma and discovers he possesses supernatural gifts. Directed by David Cronenberg during a sterling run that included Scanners, Videodrome and The Fly, The Dead Zone might seem ironically funny now. (Audiences familiar with Walken’s later comedic roles could read his urgent performance as tongue-in-cheek.) But Walken captures all the terror and exhaustion of a man who probably wishes he’d never woken up.
At Close Range (1986)
Walken has played dozens of characters who might be described as “creepy” or “ominous.” His role in At Close Range is the best of the bunch: a stripped-down crime boss in rural Pennsylvania who reconnects with his estranged, directionless son (Sean Penn). But this is no happy reunion, as this taut thriller builds up the tension between a son desperate for affection and a father who has an empire to protect—even if that means killing his own flesh and blood. Sporting a bushy mustache that only emphasizes his character’s casual, unsettling evil, Walken is both deeply chilling and also weirdly paternal. You can see why Penn would want his approval—and also why he’s terrified of the guy.
King of New York (1990)
Walken has collaborated with New York filmmaker Abel Ferrara four times. King of New York is the highlight of their partnership, with the actor playing the cunning drug kingpin Frank White. Although the film wasn’t a hit, it’s monstrously influential: Walken’s badass onscreen persona of the 1990s was first articulated here, and the performance so impressed the Notorious B.I.G. that he took to calling himself the “black Frank White” on the mic. The man who played White, however, isn’t that impressed with his acting. “It should have been my best work, but I f*cked up,” Walken once claimed. “I’ve only seen the film twice, and I felt that I didn’t give Frank enough complexity and perspective. You don’t see enough anguish in his face and the things that drive him to do what he does. I wish I had another chance to play him because I would have completely altered my performance.”
Weapon of Choice (2001)
Walken has danced plenty in his movies—perhaps most memorably while lip-synching to “Let’s Misbehave” in Pennies From Heaven—but the betting is that he’ll be best remembered for cutting loose in a Los Angeles hotel in this Fatboy Slim video. Directed by Her Oscar-winner Spike Jonze, “Weapon of Choice” illustrates that, for all the money labels pour into their biggest stars’ videos, the greatest clips can be the simplest. Walken, who won an MTV Music Video Award for Best Choreography that he shared with Jonze and Michael Rooney, moves with a charming, unaffected confidence that’s never slick but is always deeply pleasing. Nearing 60 at the time, Walken was a model of effortless grace, and his performance was so riveting and joyful it’s now impossible to hear the song and not think of him.
Catch Me If You Can (2002)
After winning an Oscar for The Deer Hunter, Walken wasn’t nominated again until this Steven Spielberg comedy-drama, about real-life conman Frank Abagnale, Jr. (played with pluck and vulnerability by Leonardo DiCaprio). Walken portrayed Abagnale’s father, a man with big dreams that never quite took flight, and the actor invests the character with a powerful sense of wounded pride. That’s important considering that it’s the father’s professional and personal failures that drive his son to become a success—no matter the cost. By this stage of Walken’s career, he was transitioning to comedic roles that played off his iconic, off-kilter aura. But Catch Me If You Can demonstrated that he could still dial it back for the right role: He’s heartbreaking in the part.
This cheeky adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, which itself was an adaptation of the John Waters cult classic, is highlighted by over-the-top performances from the likes of Michelle Pfeiffer and John Travolta. So what’s remarkable is that Walken is one of the least campy members of the cast as Wilbur, the kindly father of vivacious teen Tracy (Nikki Blonsky) and loving husband to his emotional, insecure wife Edna (Travolta). Wilbur’s undying devotion to Edna is a relatively novel color in Walken’s acting palette—he rarely gets to be the love interest—and he brings a playful sweetness to the part, especially during his big number, “(You’re) Timeless to Me.”
Seven Psychopaths (2012)
Seven Psychopaths parades around like a smart-ass crime-thriller, featuring everyone from a blocked screenwriter (Colin Farrell) to a ruthless gangster (Woody Harrelson) to a missing Shih Tzu. But underneath, it’s an oddly moving drama about storytelling and the eternal search for meaning, which explains why Walken’s performance as a dog thief is both funny and also unexpectedly touching. Watching his dear wife die of cancer, his character carries himself with a doomed, regal air—not exactly what you’d guess from a professional pooch-napper—and executes writer-director Martin McDonagh’s tart, smart dialogue with a mixture of Zen calm and tough-guy fatalism. A commercial misfire that deserves a second look, Seven Pscyhopaths is guided by Walker’s casually magnificent, incredibly bittersweet turn.
A Late Quartet (2012)
The little-seen drama A Late Quartet stars Walken alongside Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir as a long-running New York string quartet that faces an uncertain future when its senior member, cellist Peter Mitchell (Walken), announces he has Parkinson’s. The film utilizes music and performance as metaphors for life and relationships, and amongst an impressive ensemble Walken shines. On paper, he’s playing a typical aging-great-man character, but the actor keeps bringing small grace notes to the role. Peter has lived his life pursuing the perfection and beauty of playing music, but now that he has to hang up the instrument, he sees all the failings in himself and the people around him. It’s the sort of performance critics tend not to remember when they praise Walken, but it’s a darn good one, quiet and melancholy.