Character actor? “I’m an actor and that’s it, period,” asserted Ray Walston (b. New Orleans, LA, December 2, 1914; d. Beverly Hills, CA, January 1, 2001). “Producers and studios have thrown many things at me over the years: comedy, tragedy, drama, drawing-room comedy. I’ve managed to keep my head above water in most of these genres, but I don’t put myself in any one category. . . .” Walston’s greatest comic gift, however, was for sarcasm. He won a Tony® in 1956 as Satan in Broadway’s Damn Yankees, two Primetime Emmys® as the judge on television’s Picket Fences (1992), and was a national favorite as the extraterrestrial Uncle Martin on My Favorite Martian (1963). He also had three nominations for TV Land Awards for My Favorite Martian, and nominations for Screen Actors Guild Awards and a Laurel Award.
Herman Walston grew up in New Orleans, son of a lumber man. He caught the theatre bug at an early age, carrying spears and playing one-line parts in the local repertory company, selling tickets and mopping floors when the stage was dark. His family moved to Houston, Texas, and instead of learning the oil business as his father had hoped he would, he took off with a touring troupe. Later he joined the repertory company of the Houston Civic Theater under Margo Jones and spent six years honing his acting skills. He moved to The Cleveland Play House, another repertory theatre, around 1942 and spent three seasons there before heading for New York.
Walston’s Broadway debut was in the ensemble of the Maurice Evans production of Hamlet in 1945. He paid his dues in two very short-lived plays, a revival of The Front Page (1946) and The Survivors (1948), before performing with José Ferrer in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist and the Čapek brothers’ Insect Comedy back-to-back in 1948. Later that year he landed his first major supporting role (Archie Kramer) in Tennessee Williams’s Summer and Smoke, produced and directed by his old friend and associate Margo Jones. It won him the Clarence Derwent Award and the Variety Drama Critics Award for Most Promising Male Newcomer of 1948. Lee Strasberg’s Actor’s Studio welcomed Walston as a member shortly after the show closed.
At about this time Walston broke into musical comedy by taking the part of Navy Seabee Luther Billis in the national touring company of South Pacific. Although he never played the role on Broadway, he became closely associated with it over two years in the Chicago company, several months on London’s West End, and in the big-screen version of the musical in 1958.
Ray Walston’s association with director George Abbott began in 1949 when he appeared in the short-lived play Mrs. Gibbons’ Boys. It continued in 1953 with the very successful Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Me and Juliet, and reached its zenith with Damn Yankees, in which Walston played the Devil (under the name of Applegate), whose vamp minion Lola, played by Gwen Verdon, got “whatever Lola wants.” The role was a perfect fit for Walston, who had spent ten Broadway years developing his sardonic persona. The show took seven Tony Awards®, ran for 1,019 performances, and set Ray Walston up for the Tony Award® for Best Actor in a Musical. Verdon also won, for Best Actress, and both reprised their roles in the 1958 film.
Meanwhile the actor had made notable appearances in Shakespeare’s Richard III (1949), The Rat Race (1949), and Truman Capote’s only musical, House of Flowers (1954).
Walston’s first Hollywood movie was Kiss Them for Me (1957), made the year before his two brilliant musicals, South Pacific and Damn Yankees!. Nearly forty other feature films since have included Say One for Me (1959), The Apartment (1960), Portrait in Black (1960), Kiss Me, Stupid (1964), Caprice (1967), Paint Your Wagon (1969), The Sting (1973), Silver Streak (1976), Popeye (1980), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and O’Hara’s Wife (1982). He was also one of a long string of actors who appeared in cameos for Robert Altman’s The Player (1992).
In 1963 Ray Walston was snagged for the TV sitcom My Favorite Martian, which ran for three years and made him a marked man for many more. He had guest-starred on many earlier programs (Producers’ Showcase 1954, Play of the Week 1960, The Outlaws 1960, The Wide Country 1962, Ben Casey 1963, etc.), but Uncle Martin, the Martian stranded on Earth, was irresistible and viewers could not wait to tune him in week after week. Within a month, Walston was asking himself, “What am I doing here? I’m running around with two pieces of wire coming out of my head. I must be crazy.” Looking back in 1995, he confessed, “I never should have done My Favorite Martian. I didn’t work in TV or film for three years after. . . . Do you know what it’s like to go to Madrid on vacation and have a guy yell out, ‘Hey, Martin!’ and put antennas behind his head? When that happens, you know your career is dead.” The show was mercifully cancelled by top executives in 1966.
By the 1970s the image had faded and Walston returned to serious roles and regular guesting on television (Love, American Style 1970, Mission: Impossible 1972, The Rookies 1974, Ellery Queen 1975, The Six Million Dollar Man 1976, Starsky and Hutch 1979, Little House on the Prairie 1979, The Incredible Hulk 1979, Hart to Hart 1982, Fantasy Island 1983, The Love Boat 1984, and St. Elsewhere 1987 among many, many others). A number of roles as judges (Night Court 1984, 21 Jump Street 1987) or litigants (L.A. Law 1990) led to Walston taking the recurring part of Judge Henry Bone on eighty episodes of Picket Fences (1992–1996). Now in his late seventies in 1992, Ray Walston for the first time was nominated for an Emmy Award®. He won it in each of the next two years.
Walston appeared in Star Trek: The Next Generation in 1992 and twice on Star Trek: Voyager in 1998. It was observed, while the latter chapter was being shot, that he was having trouble remembering his lines. But it happened that during a long technical pause, Walston and fellow cast member Robert Beltran swung into a dialogue from Hamlet that lasted several minutes, eliciting long and amazed applause from the rest of the company.
His career winding down, and his health suffering from lupus, Walston played Grandfather Walter Addams in Addams Family Reunion (1998), the direct-to-video sequel to The Addams Family and Addams Family Values. He also made an appearance in a movie knock-off of his old hit series, My Favorite Martian (1999). His last television episode was on Touched by an Angel in October 2000, and his last movie role in Early Bird Special (released 2001).
Ray Walston was married to Ruth Calvert from November of 1943 until he succumbed to lupus on the first of January, 2001. She survived him, as did their only child, Kate. There is a Star for Live Theatre on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in his memory.