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Our Favorite Martian,
Er, Walston

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Ray Walston proudly clutching his Emmy on the balcony of his Beverly Hills apartment.
Image provided by Reel to Real.
The Man Who Wore Hundreds Of Faces Over A Distinguished Career On The Screen And Stage Tells Of His Development As An Actor And Why He Grew Tired Of Playing Uncle Martin

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By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine

March 28, 2016 — It was almost 80 years in the making, but for the millions of viewers who watched the 1995 Emmy telecast, it was a moment to savor: veteran character actor Ray Walston picking up an Emmy for outstanding supporting actor in a dramatic series for his role on the CBS show Picket Fences. It was a fitting tribute, which also served to recognize an impressive body of work that dates back to 1939 and included triumphs on stage, in television and in film.

Although he was nominated the year before (and lost to co-star Fyvush Finkel), Walston didn’t expect to take home the gold statuette that time around.

“I was absolutely positive I was going to win the year before,” he said. “This time I didn’t have those high expectations. I took my daughter with me and went to have a good time and enjoy the show. When they announced my name it came as somewhat of a surprise.”

On Picket Fences, Walston portrayed the crusty and eccentric Judge Henry Bone, who dispensed justice part and parcel with occasional tongue-lashings from the bench in the fictional town of Rome, Wisc. The role fit Walston like a glove because, frankly, playing curmudgeons fit him like a glove.

During a 1995 visit with Walston in his unprepossessing Beverly Hills apartment located off Olympic Boulevard, he displayed flashes of the brittle, tart and very funny personality that was his professional stock-in-trade. He was wearing a purple-striped shirt that, allied with those  bushy brows and impish look, gave him an instant aura of eccentricity. He admitted that his public persona mirrored that of his small-screen counterpart, Judge Bone.

“The character has a great deal of me in it,” he said. “It’s the best part I’ve had on television. It’s a beautiful role, a real gem.”

Walston was to pick up his second Emmy for the show the following year.

But what really made Walston’s blood boil were the questions interviewers invariably asked about the camp ‘60s television series, My Favorite Martian, in which he played a fastidious extra-terrestrial, opposite earthling Bill Bixby for three seasons (1963-66), also on CBS.

“I have to say I’ve never understood the impact of that show,” Walston mused. “It only lasted three years in first run. I’ve really gotten tired of interviewers referring to me as ‘My Favorite Martian.’ My name is Ray Walston. It’s almost at the point where I’d rather not give an interview than read about Martian references and get angry.”

Enough said!

Although he expressed disdain for the show during our visit, Walston had no trouble playing a Martian again in the Christopher Lloyd 1999 feature film reboot of the show.

Various sources list a curious disparity in Walston’s date of birth. “I’ve been lying about my age for so long nobody knows how old I am – and I’m not going to tell you!” When we cite an almanac listing him as 73, he smiles and says with that impish grin, “That’s about correct.” Truth be told, a publicist for Picket Fences put his age at 77 placing his birthdate at 1918, but other sources put it at 1914. Walston was born in Laurel, Miss., but grew up in New Orleans’ French Quarter.

“I was a great fan of the movies and the theater,” he said. “The Le Petit Theater was a block from where I lived and I used to sneak in and watch rehearsals. I was fascinated by the actors on the stage. No one in my family ever directed me toward a career in the theater or had any connection to the entertainment industry. To my knowledge, I don’t think any family member ever saw a stage play.”

In 1939, Walston began acting with the Margo Jones Community Players in Houston. He went on to do two seasons with the acclaimed Cleveland Playhouse before moving to New York, where he landed a role in Maurice Evans’ production of Hamlet. In 1949, Walston began a 20-year association with the dean of Broadway directors, George Abbott, and performed in five of his productions, including the smash hit, Damn Yankees. In 1955, for originating the role of Applegate the Devil  (he also reprised the part in the in the 1958 movie co-directed by Abbott and Stanley Donen), Walston picked up a Tony Award.

The show had a successful revival in 1994 with Victor Garber in the Applegate role, followed by Jerry Lewis, who was touring the country in the show when we were with Walston. As the original “devil,” Walston said he had no intention of seeing Lewis’ manic interpretation of the role.

“A lot of wonderful actors, including Jose Ferrer and Van Johnson have played the part and failed in it,” he said. “Applegate appears in virtually every scene in the first act. With the exception of the first scene, which is great, he has to start pushing-pulling that play along until the character Lola appears, then he’s in safe hands. On opening night, George Abbott did something he had never done before. After three scenes he came backstage looking for me. He said, ‘Ray, your energy is down. Come on, you have to move this play along.’ If you’re not willing to keep the part moving, the entire show will collapse.”

In Damn Yankees Walston worked with stage legends Gwen Verdon (“Lola”) and Bob Fosse. “Verdon had eyes for me for a little bit until she learned I was married, then she backed off completely and turned to Fosse,” he said. “Fosse at the time was married to dancer Joan McCracken. The thing between Fosse and Verdon blossomed and eventually led to marriage and several other shows.”

Damn Yankees ran for more than 1,000 performances.

In 1966, Walston appeared in Abbott’s production of Agatha Sue, I Love You. The show closed after five performances. During tryouts for the show in Boston, Walston finally had lunch with the legendary Broadway impresario who lived to be 107. “I wanted to pick his brain and find out first-hand what kept him so vigorous and healthy. We went to some Greek place and without looking at the menu he ordered some kind of meat and rice swimming in some greasy sauce. I guess that was his secret.”

In London, Walston donned a coconut bra and played the resourceful gob Luther Billis in South Pacific and reprised the role in the 1958 Hollywood adaptation.

At the height of his Broadway success, Walston moved to Hollywood, where he worked virtually nonstop until his death in 2001. His feature credits include: The Apartment, Paint Your Wagon, Popeye, Silver Streak, The Sting and the 1982 film Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which featured the screen debut of Sean Penn as the stoner Spicoli, long before he was interviewing notorious Mexican drug lord El Chapo.

Walston, as the teacher Mr. Hand, said, “At first I didn’t know what to make of Sean. He would sit in the corner and wouldn’t talk to anyone. He had his character’s name Spicoli, written on his dressing room door. When he was called to the set, they had to refer to him as Spicoli. After a few days I caught on to this acting technique, and from then on we got along and I liked him very much.”

Penn’s Method Acting approach wasn’t totally foreign to Walston as he was an early member of New York’s famed Actor’s Studio in the late ‘40s. While not the leading man type, he was proud of his character actor status, one that followed in the tradition of Edward Everett Horton, Walter Huston, Thomas Mitchell, William Demarest and Lee J. Cobb.

“Character actors like us for the most part don’t exist anymore,” he said. “There’s no studio system to put us under contract. Sure, I’d love to do two feature films a year, but at my age those opportunities don’t exist.”

That’s not to say that Walston wasn’t happy in the sunset of his career with his role on Picket Fences.

“You’ve seen me around with those pieces of wire antenna coming out of my head, and jumping up and down in those Jerry Lewis films,” he said. “But to end up in a dramatic series and to be recognized with an Emmy, that’s very satisfying to me. Before that, people looked at me primarily as a comic character actor. This role allows me to show my range as an actor and I really like that.”

In addition to his Emmy, Walston in 1995 was honored with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Beaming and with his two grandchildren present, it was an uplifting moment – one that would have no doubt have met with disapproval from both Applegate and Judge Bone. But for that brief moment, Walston told us he didn’t mind going against type.

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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