Ray Walston

Ray Walston
Ray Walston

“Guardian” obituary from 2001.

Ray Walston, who has died aged 83, was short, bald, had a clownish face and a penetrating, strangely articulated voice – ideal to play an extra-terrestrial, which he did from 1963 to 1966 on television in My Favourite Martian. The comic situations derived from Walston’s deadpan humour as the character struggles to adapt to a more primitive civilisation, his ability to appear and disappear uncontrollably, read minds, speak to animals and levitate.Walston was a down-to-earth character, who hated to be identified as the Martian for so long. He preferred to be remembered for two hit Broadway – and screen – musicals, South Pacific and Damn Yankees, his roles in Billy Wilder’s The Apartment and Kiss Me, Stupid, and a string of character parts.

Walston was born in New Orleans, and made his professional debut for the Community Players in Houston, Texas, in 1938, playing Buddy in High Tor. It took him a few years, after working as a printer and reporter, before he returned to the profession. From playing an attendant in the Maurice Evans Hamlet in 1945 in New York, he went on to appear on Broadway in The Front Page, The Alchemist, and Tennessee Williams’s Summer And Smoke, before landing the role of the conniving marine, Luther Billis, in the touring production of Rogers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific in 1950. He repeated the role for two years at London’s Drury Lane, staged by Joshua Logan, who also directed Walston in the 1958 film version. Walston survived Logan’s stodgy direction, stealing every scene in which he appeared.

Before he made his film debut in 1957 as Cary Grant’s naval sidekick in Stanley Donen’s Kiss Them For Me, Walston sang in three more Broadway musicals, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Me And Juliet, Harold Arlen’s House Of Flowers and George Abbott’s Damn Yankees. In the last, for which he received a Tony, and in the 1958 movie, Walston played a deliciously wicked and frustrated Devil in the human form of an entrepreneur called Mr Applegate, stopping the show with Those Were The Good Old Days.

In 1960, Walston made The Apartment, in which he was one of the bosses using underling Jack Lemmon’s pad for assignations; a shifty chauffeur bringing some reality into the risible soap opera Portrait in Black; a title character in Convicts 4, and a professor trying to help student Anthony Perkins pass an exam to permit him to play in a basketball game in Josh Logan’s Tall Story.

In 1963 Walston appeared as Mr Quimby, the shop manager in the Frank Tashlin-Jerry Lewis comedy, Who’s Minding The Store?, and returned to the big screen in Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). He got the part of Orville J Spooner when Peter Sellers suffered a heart attack. “Both my wife and I sat down and read the script,” Walston recalled, “and I said when I finished it, ‘It’s not good, it’s not good.’ But one doesn’t say that about a Billy Wilder- IAL Diamond script. The feeling was that they would repair it.” They did, and Walston was amusing as a jealous piano teacher and would-be songwriter in Climax, Nevada, who sends his wife away while horny crooner Dean Martin is staying with him, hiring local hooker Kim Novak to play his wife.

“I had a line, when I first bring Kim Novak into the house: ‘Well, it’s not very big but it’s clean.’ And they wanted it done with a slight look from her as if it meant my cock. ‘Hey, Ray,’ Wilder said. ‘Vat are the keedies gonna tink about you ven this film is released?’

“I replied, ‘What are people gonna say about you? How do you think you’re gonna get away with some of this stuff?’ “

IAL Diamond’s wife had her own thoughts: “They should have waited for Peter Sellers to recover, Ray Walston was too unattractive a personality.” She was right in that Walston seldom heeded the exhortatory song You Gotta Have Heart from Damn Yankees, his performances tending towards caricature.

Walston worked on into the 1990s playing the race announcer in on a scam in The Sting (1973), one of the two killers pursuing Gene Wilder in Silver Streak (1976), Poopdeck Pappy in Robert Altman’s Popeye (1981), and the quirky schoolteacher in Fast Times At Ridgemont High (1982), a part he repeated in the TV series Fast Times. Aged 75, Walston gave one of his best, and warmest, performances in Of Mice And Men (1992) as the veteran farmworker Candy, heartbroken at his old dog having to be put down.

Walston is survived by his wife, daughter and two grandchildren.

The above “Guardian” obituary can also be accessed online here.

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