“Who Am I This Time?”: Christopher Walken’s Early 80s TV Role

By on March 31, 2015

Today is Christopher Walken’s birthday — he was born Ronald Walken on March 31, 1943, in the Astoria neighborhood in Queens, New York — and so we thought we’d dig back into his past to unearth a very touching early performance he did for the PBS American Playhouse series in 1982.

“Who Am I This Time?” was based on a short story of the same name by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. The one-hour production was first shown on TV as episode four of season 1, airing on February 2, 1982.

Along with Walken, the production also starred Susan Sarandon, and it was directed by Jonathan Demme, and written and produced by Neal Miller.

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Walken plays a painfully shy hardware store employee named Harry Nash, and the setting is a small town called North Crawford (it was filmed in Hinckley, Illinois). Nash is awkward, introverted, and completely tongue-tied in his real life, but whenever he takes a part in a local amateur small theater production, he transforms into the part he’s playing completely — but only while on stage.

Sarandon’s Helene Shaw, meanwhile, is new in town. She’s a lonely and insecure itinerant telephone company employee, who travels for her job. She arrives in North Crawford for an eight week stay, and, on a whim, she auditions for, and gets, the part of Stella to Walken’s Stanley when the theater group does their staging of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

Before anyone realizes the growing affection between Helene and Stanley, she falls deeply in love with Nash’s Stanley, not knowing what the Harry is like offstage and mistaking his clueless-ness and shyness for rejection, at first, which results in a clumsy and uneven performance on the second night of the play.

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On the play’s closing night, she gives Harry a copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, and they end up realizing they can pursue a relationship together by reciting lines from romantic plays back and forth to each other, and the story ends with him proposing, in character, from a scene in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

The film’s score was composed by John Cale of the Velvet Underground.

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Walken had already appeared before on TV, going back to the early 70s — his first starring role was in a 1972 sci-fi movie called The Mind Snatchers (aka The Happiness Cage), in which he played a sociopathic U.S. soldier stationed in Germany. Mostly, he worked in film at this time. His very next role was a fictional poet and ladies man named Robert Fulmer, in Paul Mazursky’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village, in 1976.

Next up, Walken played the suicidal brother of Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, then, in 1978,  he appeared in the western Shoot The Sun Down (it was filmed in 1976, but its release was delayed for a few years). He was seen as a rising star by this time, and, along with Nick Nolte, was even considered for the part of Han Solo in George Lucas’s Star Wars, which of course ultimately went to Harrison Ford. That same year, Walken ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, playing a young Pennsylvania steelworker who was emotionally crippled by the Vietnam War. To achieve his gaunt appearance in the film, he consumed only bananas, water and rice for a week. He then appeared in the 1981 action-adventure flick, The Dogs Of War, directed by John Irvin.

The PBS movie “Who Am I This Time?” was, somewhat surprisingly, his very next role, and it really saw Walken using his acting talents in probably the most sensitive and vulnerable part he’s every played. In the long career that followed, in which he is often seen playing the villain, this one really stands out, and so we thought it deserved a second look. Happy Birthday, Mr. Walken!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.