Walken admitted to not having watched last year's ratings smash The Sound of Music Live!, which was seen by over 18 million viewers, and said that Captain Hook wasn't a role he had even considered when NBC revealed plans to tackle Peter Pan as its next live television venture.
He confessed, however, that when his agent called with the offer to take on one of Broadway's most iconic stage villains, his initial thought was, "Oh, that's a good idea!" He explained, "With these people and that material, Peter Pan is a wonderful musical. When you think about just the music, it's got great music, great songs."
Though he's known for his nefarious roles, the actor revealed that his on-screen evil streak has not been a deliberate game plan. "I got to playing villains, I don't know how," he laughed. "I think it's like anything else in the movies in particular, that if you establish yourself as something and you're lucky enough to keep getting hired... There's guys who play 'the guy who gets the girl,' there's guys that play 'the best friend of that guy,' there's 'the funny guy,' there's 'the villain.'"
While Hook is out to settle a score with Peter Pan, "who chopped his hand off and fed it to a crocodile," Walken described him as a "sort of sweet character" who can't let go of his pesky need for vengeance. "His pirates keep saying to him, 'Look, you've got all this money, you've done everything, why don't you just take it easy?' And he says, 'I can't, I have to settle a score.' So there's something a little bit sad about it. It's almost a little bit like, poor old Hook, I think."
It's likely that viewers will be saying anything but "poor old Hook," when Walken reveals his take on the role. The Peter Pan creative team has boasted that director-choreographer Rob Ashford, who employed a chorus of dancers from Broadway for his motley pirate crew, has created a few show-stopping numbers for Hook, including a tap routine that takes Walken back to his roots as a dancer. "It helps that I was born in musical theatre," Walken said. "I was a chorus boy until I was nearly 30. I toured West Side Story, I did a lot of musicals, and then I started being a [straight] actor so this is sort of like a hybrid of that.
"This rehearsal, it's just like rehearsing a Broadway musical except that finally it's for cameras," he noted. One of the big challenges for the cast, especially those who primarily herald from the theatrical world, is perfecting the comedy without a live audience to give feedback, Walken said.
"I always find the audience teaches you things and shows you where the jokes are. The audience tells you if it's funny or not, or if it's interesting," he said. "You can absolutely feel an audience, and you know when it's going good. So it's a little bit different, there's a big audience, but you can't see it."
Walken also shared his list of requirements for the role: A simple hook, a lightweight costume and a crocodile capable of standing up on two legs. "I said to them, 'Is the crocodile able to stand up?' Because to me that's essential." NBC obliged. Walken grinned, "There's something about the crocodile walking around like Frankenstein that I think is very funny."
Even though he's showcased his musical chops on the big screen in film adaptations of the Broadway musicals Hairspray and Jersey Boys as well as the captivating tap number "Let's Misbehave" in "Pennies from Heaven," the showbiz veteran said he's tapping his way into unexplored territory with the live television broadcast of the Broadway musical.
"There's more time," Walken said, comparing the shooting schedule of a film with the Peter Pan Live! rehearsal process, which many involved have likened to preparing for a Broadway show that opens and closes on the same night.
"This is eight weeks. When I did 'Pennies from Heaven,'" he recalled, "I think I rehearsed for about a month with the choreographer, just me and him in a room. But this is different, you've got the whole cast around. It's very different. Making a movie sometimes you don't even meet the other people in the movie.
"Doing it this way, getting ready and then having one moment, it's really more like sports than theatre. It's like a football game or something."
Peter Pan Live!, which co-stars Allison Williams in the title role, airs Dec. 4 at 8 PM on NBC.