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Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

10 Surprising Facts About Christopher Walken

Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival
Ilya S. Savenok, Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Christopher Walken is often called the quintessential character actor. Thanks to his nervy charm that can skew sinister in a flash, he excels at playing weirdos, psychopaths, and villains. But long before he was a revered cult figure, Walken—who turns 75 years old today—was just another tap-dancing kid from Queens. Find out how Walken first broke into the child star and circus scenes, why he gave up his bid for the presidency, and where that unmistakable voice comes from with these 10 surprising facts.

1. HE AND HIS BROTHERS WERE CHILD STARS.

Christopher Walken grew up in Queens, New York, the middle child of three boys. His father was a baker and his mother had a fascination with show business, so she soon began taking her boys on TV auditions. That’s how Walken ended up in the above cameo role with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Despite his childhood success, Walken insists he was just following his friends.

“In the 1950s television was being born, and there was this phenomenon, about 90 live shows from New York, so there were hundreds of kids from Queens, kids from blue-collar families, doing TV shows,” Walken recalled in an interview. “In the Queens where I grew up, you didn’t go bowling on Saturday; you went to dancing school.”

2. HE WORKED AS A LION TAMER.

Although he got an early start on acting, Walken tested out a few other career options. When he was 16, he spent the summer working as a lion tamer in the local circus. Or at least a lion tamer apprentice. “The real lion tamer who owned the circus, the gag was that he had a son, which he didn’t,” he told IndieWire. “But I had an identical outfit, and he would do this big act with a dozen big cats. Then he would send them all out at the end and just leave this one old girl, and I would come in with my whip … She was really more like a dog. She was very sweet.”

3. HE GOT HIS STAGE NAME FROM THE NIGHTCLUB SCENE.

Walken’s first name is actually Ronald. (He’s “Ronnie” to friends and family.) So how did he wind up as Christopher? He got the stage name from an old boss, Monique Van Vooren. Walken was a dancer in her nightclub act along with two other men early in his career. Van Vooren apparently had a habit of introducing them with fake names, and one night she tried out Christopher. For whatever reason, that was the one that stuck.

4. HE STARRED IN A MUSIC VIDEO FOR MADONNA.

You’ve likely seen Walken’s delightful, (literally) soaring performance in Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice” music video. It was directed by Spike Jonze, and wound up picking up a slew of VMAs as well as one Grammy. But that wasn’t Walken’s lone music video role. He also appeared as Madonna’s guardian angel/stalker in “Bad Girl” back in 1992. Mostly he’s just there to smoke.

5. HE TALKS THAT WAY FOR A REASON.

Walken’s distinctive way of speaking has launched a thousand impressions, but the actor insists he didn’t pick up his unusual cadence for the SNL skits. In an interview with The Guardian, he chalked it up to his childhood in Queens, growing up with immigrants for whom English was a second language. This included his German father, Paul.

6. THERE’S A THEME PARK RIDE ON HIS RESUME.

In addition to acting in countless movies, plays, TV shows, and those two music videos, Walken took on the unique role of Frank Kincaid, the hologram host of the Disaster! ride at Universal Studios. The ride revealed moviemaking tricks and was itself an update on Earthquake: The Big One, a ride inspired by the 1974 Charlton Heston movie. Sadly, Disaster! closed in 2015 to make way for a new Fast & Furious attraction.

7. HE ALMOST RAN FOR PRESIDENT.

In 2005, the web had a minor conniption when it discovered a campaign website for Christopher Walken, www.walken2008.com. Was the actor seriously considering running for president? Not really. His publicist quickly clarified that Walken had not created the site, and that it was presumably an overzealous fan. But when Conan O’Brien asked him about it on Late Night, Walken seemed pretty into the idea. “You know, I’ll do it,” he joked. “Sure, if they want me to be president, I’ll do it.” He even had a campaign slogan: “No more zoos!”

8. HE WROTE A PLAY ABOUT ELVIS.

Walken is a big Elvis Presley fan—so much so that he wrote and starred in a play about the King. Him examined Presley’s life after death, positing an insane theory about his demise and casting his dead twin brother as a major character. It earned a limited run in 1995, and mostly negative reviews.

9. MARLON BRANDO PITCHED HIM A WEIRD VARIETY SHOW.

Toward the end of his life, Marlon Brando acquired a reputation as a bizarre recluse. But he had at least one person on speed dial, and it was Walken. Although Walken didn’t know Brando, he claims the actor called him one day in the ‘90s to pitch him a musical variety show. Brando would be the host, it would be shot in his home, and he’d make guests do dance routines with him. Walken’s musical turn in Pennies From Heaven apparently prompted the call, although it’s unclear if Brando was offering him a guest slot. Still, Walken said he’d watch. If only it had materialized.

10. HE’S REALLY, REALLY BAD AT RIDING HORSES.

Although he’s had to ride horses for work, Walken says they’ve never liked him. When he had to ride one almost every day for eight months on the set of Heaven’s Gate, he just grinned and bore it. But when it came time for his villainous turn in A View to a Kill, the James Bond stunt people came up with a creative solution for a horse racing scene. “That was a stuffed horse. On a trolley. With tires. And they towed it behind a truck,” Walken recalled. See if you can spot the stuffed horse above.

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How to Make Miles Davis’s Famous Chili Recipe
STF/AFP/Getty Images
STF/AFP/Getty Images

Miles Davis, who was born on May 26, 1926, was one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th century, and changed the course of jazz music more times in his life than some people change their sheets. He was also pretty handy in the kitchen.

In his autobiography, Miles, Davis wrote that in the early 1960s, “I had gotten into cooking. I just loved food and hated going out to restaurants all the time, so I taught myself how to cook by reading books and practicing, just like you do on an instrument. I could cook most of the great French dishes—because I really liked French cooking—and all the black American dishes. But my favorite was a chili dish I called Miles's South Side Chicago Chili Mack. I served it with spaghetti, grated cheese, and oyster crackers."

Davis didn’t divulge what was in the dish or how to make it, but in 2007, Best Life magazine got the recipe from his first wife, Frances, who Davis said made it better than he did.

MILES'S SOUTH SIDE CHICAGO CHILIK MACK (SERVES 6)

1/4 lb. suet (beef fat)
1 large onion
1 lb. ground beef
1/2 lb. ground veal
1/2 lb. ground pork
salt and pepper
2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. cumin seed
2 cans kidney beans, drained
1 can beef consommé
1 drop red wine vinegar
3 lb. spaghetti
parmesan cheese
oyster crackers
Heineken beer

1. Melt suet in large heavy pot until liquid fat is about an inch high. Remove solid pieces of suet from pot and discard.
2. In same pot, sauté onion.
3. Combine meats in bowl; season with salt, pepper, garlic powder, chili powder, and cumin.
4. In another bowl, season kidney beans with salt and pepper.
5. Add meat to onions; sauté until brown.
6. Add kidney beans, consommé, and vinegar; simmer for about an hour, stirring occasionally.
7. Add more seasonings to taste, if desired.
8. Cook spaghetti according to package directions, and then divide among six plates.
9. Spoon meat mixture over each plate of spaghetti.
10. Top with Parmesan and serve oyster crackers on the side.
11. Open a Heineken.

John Szwed’s biography of Davis, So What, mentions another chili that the trumpeter’s father taught him how to make. The book includes the ingredients, but no instructions, save for serving it over pasta. Like a jazz musician, you’ll have to improvise. 

bacon grease
3 large cloves of garlic
1 green, 1 red pepper
2 pounds ground lean chuck
2 teaspoons cumin
1/2 jar of mustard
1/2 shot glass of vinegar
2 teaspoons of chili powder
dashes of salt and pepper
pinto or kidney beans
1 can of tomatoes
1 can of beef broth

serve over linguine

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4 Fascinating Facts About John Wayne
Fox Photos, Getty Images
Fox Photos, Getty Images

Most people know John Wayne, who would have been 111 years old today, for his cowboy persona. But there was much more to the Duke than that famous swagger. Here are a few facts about Duke that might surprise you.

1. A BODY SURFING ACCIDENT CHANGED HIS CAREER. 

John Wayne, surfer? Yep—and if he hadn’t spent a lot of time doing it, he may never have become the legend he did. Like many USC students, Wayne (then known as Marion Morrison) spent a good deal of his extracurricular time in the ocean. After he sustained a serious shoulder injury while bodysurfing, Morrison lost his place on the football team. He also lost the football scholarship that had landed him a spot at USC in the first place. Unable to pay his fraternity for room and board, Morrison quit school and, with the help of his former football coach, found a job as the prop guy at Fox Studios in 1927. It didn’t take long for someone to realize that Morrison belonged in front of a camera; he had his first leading role in The Big Trail in 1930.

2. HE TOOK HIS NICKNAME FROM HIS BELOVED FAMILY POOCH. 

Marion Morrison had never been fond of his feminine-sounding name. He was often given a hard time about it growing up, so to combat that, he gave himself a nickname: Duke. It was his dog’s name. Morrison was so fond of his family’s Airedale Terrier when he was younger that the family took to calling the dog “Big Duke” and Marion “Little Duke,” which he quite liked. But when he was starting his Hollywood career, movie execs decided that “Duke Morrison” sounded like a stuntman, not a leading man. The head of Fox Studios was a fan of Revolutionary War General Anthony Wayne, so Morrison’s new surname was quickly settled. After testing out various first names for compatibility, the group decided that “John” had a nice symmetry to it, and so John Wayne was born. Still, the man himself always preferred his original nickname. “The guy you see on the screen isn’t really me,” he once said. “I’m Duke Morrison, and I never was and never will be a film personality like John Wayne.”

3. HE WAS A CHESS FANATIC. 

Anyone who knew John Wayne personally knew what an avid chess player he was. He often brought a miniature board with him so he could play between scenes on set.

When Wayne accompanied his third wife, Pilar Pallete, while she played in amateur tennis tournaments, officials would stock a trailer with booze and a chess set for him. The star would hang a sign outside of the trailer that said, “Do you want to play chess with John Wayne?” and then happily spend the day drinking and trouncing his fans—for Wayne wasn’t just a fan of chess, he was good at chess. It’s said that Jimmy Grant, Wayne’s favorite screenwriter, played chess with the Duke for more than 20 years without ever winning a single match.

Other famous chess partners included Marlene Dietrich, Rock Hudson, and Robert Mitchum. During their match, Mitchum reportedly caught him cheating. Wayne's reply: "I was wondering when you were going to say something. Set 'em up, we'll play again."

4. HE COINED THE TERM "THE BIG C."

If you say you know someone battling “The Big C” these days, everyone immediately knows what you’re referring to. But no one called it that before Wayne came up with the term, evidently trying to make it less scary. Worried that Hollywood would stop hiring him if they knew how sick he was with lung cancer in the early 1960s, Wayne called a press conference in his living room shortly after an operation that removed a rib and half of one lung. “They told me to withhold my cancer operation from the public because it would hurt my image,” he told reporters. “Isn’t there a good image in John Wayne beating cancer? Sure, I licked the Big C.”

Wayne's daughter, Aissa Wayne, later said that the 1964 press conference was the one and only time she heard her father call it “cancer,” even when he developed cancer again, this time in his stomach, 15 years later. Sadly, Wayne lost his second battle with the Big C and died on June 11, 1979 at the age of 72.

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