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Christopher Walken, who once worked as a lion tamer in a circus, said his favorite lion was “very sweet”

Domagoj Valjak
Christopher Walken in a scene from the movie ' McBain', circa 1991. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Christopher Walken in a scene from the movie ' McBain', circa 1991. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Christopher Walken is an acclaimed actor who is regularly praised for his eclecticism and versatility, as well as his distinct voice that makes his characters unique, though often a bit peculiar.

Since the late 1970s, Walken has appeared in a number of famous films, including The Dead Zone, Pulp Fiction, Sleepy Hollow, and Seven Psychopaths. He won his only Academy Award in 1979 for his supporting role in the cult film The Deer Hunter.

In order to accurately portray a steelworker who has been emotionally devastated by the Vietnam War, Walken spent several weeks reading reports on the atrocities of the war and eating nothing but rice and bananas and drinking water. The rigorous regime paid off, and his performance in the film launched him into stardom.

Christopher Walken at the premiere of “Seven Psychopaths,” Toronto Film Festival 2012. Photo: Tabercil /CC BY-SA 2.0/ Flickr

Christopher Walken at the premiere of “Seven Psychopaths,” Toronto Film Festival 2012. Photo: Tabercil /CC BY-SA 2.0/ Flickr

Before becoming an actor, Walken was a dancer who received his training at the Washington Dance Studio. He wasn’t even named Christopher until 1964: in the early 1960s, he worked as a dancer at a cabaret nightclub owned by Monique van Mooren, a Belgian-American dancer who later appeared in several Broadway musicals and a number of lesser-known films. Walken’s given name was Ronald and he started performing at the nightclub under the name Ronnie. However, van Mooren disliked the name and decided to call him Christopher. He apparently liked his new nickname, as he later officially changed his name from Ronald to Christopher.

Even before he became a dancer, Walken worked in show business. His mother, a Scottish immigrant from Glasgow, wanted her children to become famous. With her help and support, Walken appeared as a child extra in a number of television series in the early 1950s.

He also wanted to become a singer: he became obsessed with Elvis Presley and even started imitating his hairstyle. Nowadays, at the age of 74, he is still a huge fan of the King and continues sporting an Elvis hairdo. In 1995, he even wrote and starred in an Elvis-themed play named Him.

Christopher Walken at the “Vanity Fair” party to kick off the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo: David Shankbone CC-BY 3.0

Christopher Walken at the “Vanity Fair” party to kick off the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo: David Shankbone CC-BY 3.0

As a teenager, Walken worked a number of seasonal jobs in order to earn extra money. One of these, when he was aged 16, was as a lion tamer in a circus. The head tamer, Terrel Jacobs, who was also the owner of the circus, organized an elaborate act in which Walken pretended to be his son and apprentice. They wore matching outfits and Jacobs would perform a lengthy show with a dozen lions. Afterwards, Walken would remain on stage with an old lioness named Sheba.

In a 2012 interview with Vanity Fair, conducted at the time of the release of Seven Psychopaths (in which Walken stars as a religious man who makes his living by kidnapping dogs and selling them back to their owners), he commented on his brief lion-taming experience: “When he [Terrel Jacobs] would finish his act, there would be one lion left, and I used to go in and have this lion do tricks. It was a female lion named Sheba, and she was very sweet. Like a dog, really. I would wave the whip, and she would run and sit up and roll over and do things.”

Christopher Walken in stage play “Hurlyburly.”

Christopher Walken in stage play “Hurlyburly.”

Walken is an animal lover and particularly fond of cats. He and his wife, Georgianne, who is a casting director famous for the popular TV show The Sopranos, don’t have any children. However, they have a pet cat named Bow-tie, and they once had a cat named Flapjack: cats have been their mutual passion since they married in 1969.

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Although they frequently speak out against zoos and animals performing in the circus, Walken surely enjoyed the company of a big cat at that time in his life, when he probably didn’t couldn’t imagine that he would once become one of the famous actors of late 20th-century cinema.