Throwback Thursday: Before 'Peter Pan,' Christopher Walken Was a Song-and-Dance Man

Pennies From Heaven Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Photofest

Pennies From Heaven Still - H 2014

"I can see the glint in his eye every time he has the opportunity to dance onscreen," says his 'Best Foot Forward' co-star Liza Minnelli

This story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

A half-century before Christopher Walken was tapped to play Captain Hook in NBC's live Dec. 4 telecast of Peter Pan, Hollywood's best actor/hoofer since James Cagney was doing Best Foot Forward, a 1963 off-Broadway musical starring 16-year-old Liza Minnelli. Walken, then 19, left a yearlong stint in Hofstra University's ROTC program to join the cast and never returned to college.

Minnelli still thinks of Walken as a song-and-dance man. "I can see the glint in his eye every time he has the opportunity to dance onscreen," she says. Walken, who won a supporting actor Oscar for his role as the Russian roulette-playing POW in 1978's The Deer Hunter, says, "I'm kind of an actor by way of musical comedy. That's really my education, musicals." (He notes that a side benefit to being in Best Foot Forward was getting to dance with Judy Garland at a cast party.)

Read more 'Peter Pan's' Christopher Walken on Always Playing the Villain, Doing Live TV

The actor had grown up in 1950s New York when dozens of live TV shows were broadcast from there. "We weren't child actors," he says. "We were kids who could sing a little, dance a little, maybe memorize a line." Every Saturday he took dance lessons: "You'd go to tap class and the girls would go to ballet." (Marvin Hamlisch, Sal Mineo and Elliott Gould were among his crowd.) Those classes paid off in 1981, when Pennies From Heaven director Herb Ross was looking for an actor who could play a sleazy, tap-dancing pimp. The film's choreographer, Danny Daniels, had been Walken's dance teacher when he was 12.

"I think that's how I got that job," he says. As for the film itself, THR called Pennies "excruciatingly offbeat" and "an exhibitor's nightmare." It disappointed at the box office. For his upcoming role as Hook, Walken, 71, says he told producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, with whom he worked on Hairspray (he played fat-suit-wearing John Travolta's husband): "I can sing a little bit, but I'm no great shakes. Maybe you can emphasize the dancing parts."