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10 Surprising Facts About Christopher Walken

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Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Christopher Walken is often called the quintessential character actor. He excels at playing weirdos, psychopaths, and villains, thanks to his nervy charm that can skew sinister in a flash. But long before he was a revered cult figure, he 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.

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 the boys on TV auditions. That’s how Walken ended up in the above cameo role with Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. But 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,” he 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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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What Happened to Jamie and Aurelia From Love Actually?
May 26, 2017
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Nick Briggs/Comic Relief

Fans of the romantic-comedy Love Actually recently got a bonus reunion in the form of Red Nose Day Actually, a short charity special that gave audiences a peek at where their favorite characters ended up almost 15 years later.

One of the most improbable pairings from the original film was between Jamie (Colin Firth) and Aurelia (Lúcia Moniz), who fell in love despite almost no shared vocabulary. Jamie is English, and Aurelia is Portuguese, and they know just enough of each other’s native tongues for Jamie to propose and Aurelia to accept.

A decade and a half on, they have both improved their knowledge of each other’s languages—if not perfectly, in Jamie’s case. But apparently, their love is much stronger than his grasp on Portuguese grammar, because they’ve got three bilingual kids and another on the way. (And still enjoy having important romantic moments in the car.)

In 2015, Love Actually script editor Emma Freud revealed via Twitter what happened between Karen and Harry (Emma Thompson and Alan Rickman, who passed away last year). Most of the other couples get happy endings in the short—even if Hugh Grant's character hasn't gotten any better at dancing.

[h/t TV Guide]

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