The Role That Made Christopher Walken: Nick in The Deer Hunter


It was 1978’s Vietnam exploration that properly introduced theatergoers to the future cultural icon.


Michael Cimino’s classic Vietnam exploration is, perhaps, best remembered as the Russian roulette how-to starring Robert De Niro, that also earned Meryl Streep her first Oscar nomination. All true — but it’s a classic, not only because of its aforementioned merits, but because of a man by the name of Christopher Walken.

Before he was the “more cowbell” instigator on Saturday Night Live, the do-your-best-impression go-to, the cultural icon he is today, Walken paid his dues appearing in TV movies and bit parts through the mid-’70s — until his first break in Annie Hall (1977) as the titular heroine’s psychopathic brother. The following year, The Deer Hunter stormed into theaters and the world was properly introduced to Walken, who shocked and awed, and eventually snagged the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for the role of the quietly maniacal Nick Chevotarevich. (Oscars fun fact: Walken starred in two back-to-back Best Picture winners: Annie Hall in 1977 and The Deer Hunter in 1978).

Straddling blue collar Pennsylvania and Vietnam’s napalm-hazed jungles, The Deer Hunter offers a no-holds-barred look at the front lines of battle — a given when it comes to war movies today, but back in 1978, it set a visual precedent (see, opening scene of Saving Private Ryan).

Through Walken’s vulnerable Nick, we’re also forced to look at the consequences of combat — the aftermath of a war that was deemed impossible to win — and the debilitating horror of PTSD. A less-than-cheery narrative shouldn’t deter you, however, from discovering (or revisiting) the film, and specifically Walken’s performance. It set a provocative standard for actors depicting veterans — and allowed Walken to prove he’s far more than a character actor.

The Deer Hunter is available on HBO through November 30.