Meeting actor Ray Walston over lunch is like encountering crusty Judge Henry Bone, his character on CBS' "Picket Fences," in chambers.
A spare man in a crisp summer-blue suit, Walston instantly projects an air of correctness and no-nonsense authority. A knife becomes his gavel; a linen napkin, which he folds into a long rectangle, a legal document. He is not averse to raising his voice or jabbing the air with his finger.
His portrayal of the small-town judge won Walston his first Emmy Award last week for best supporting actor in a dramatic series. You can almost hear him sigh, " Finally "--at age 80.
"I've been involved in television from the word 'Go'--1949--half-hour murder mysteries and 'You Are There,' and never getting any recognition," says the actor, perhaps best known for playing the quintessential space alien with retractable antennae on CBS' "My Favorite Martian" (1963-66). "The Martian show, which was a ridiculous, silly show, was never recognized . . . [although] I don't blame the Academy."
Bone, however, is another world for him. "He is the best character I've ever had in television, so pleasing for me and satisfying to do. . . . He is me," Walston notes in a tone meant to brook no argument.
"Picket Fences," the quirky drama about the intertwining lives of the people of Rome, Wis., enters its fourth season Friday in a new 9 p.m. time slot.
There is toughness mingled with compassion in Bone, along with an innate streak of independence, whether it's arguing the meaning of the Constitution, shouting at someone--or at everyone--in his court to " Get out ," or gently closing the eyes of a dead priest in the final episode of last season--the episode Walston believes cinched the Emmy.
"This comes late in my career," he says of the award, "and that it is a dramatic show is the best thing of all. Because, for the most part, my career had been on the stage in New York. And here, it's been devoted to a couple of those Billy Wilder [movie] comedies and running around with a couple of pieces of wire coming out of my head."
Half a lifetime ago Walston, who had a range of Shakespeare and top Broadway musicals under his belt, won the 1956 Tony Award for best actor in a musical as the wily devil, Mr. Applegate, in "Damn Yankees." That led directly to Hollywood--and to Fox, the very studio where "Picket Fences" is filmed.
Director Stanley Donen, who had seen Walston on Broadway, cast him as a Navy flier opposite Cary Grant in "Kiss Them for Me" (1957) at Fox. The following year, Walston reprised the devil's role in "Damn Yankees" at Warner Bros. and co-starred in the film version of "South Pacific."
Walston got into acting because, as a boy growing up in Laurel, Miss., and New Orleans, he loved going to the movies. He had to quit high school after his junior year because of the Depression. "Don't talk to me about regrets," says Walston, his eyes moistening, about not being able to go on to college.
He broke into show business, prosaically enough, after reading in the newspaper that the Margo Jones Community Players in Houston was holding auditions. He got a part in a Maxwell Anderson play with one word to say: "Hello."
"And six months later," he says proudly, "I was playing Petruchio in 'Taming of the Shrew.' " In Houston, Walston met his wife of 52 years, the former Ruth Calvert, an actress who later reverted to her former occupation as a secretary, which helped when Walston was making the rounds on Broadway. "She realized that one actor in the family would be enough," he says. They have a daughter, Kate, and two granddaughters, Emma, 12, and Sarah, 10.
Walston landed the "Picket Fences" role on a note of genuine anger; it was no act. Called in to read for what was envisioned as "a recurring role, a small role," he resisted, but his agent, Harry Gold, insisted. "[Creator and executive producer David E.] Kelley was there, a couple of the directors, and when I got finished--you realize Bone was supposed to be a very hard-tempered, tough guy--I threw the script down in my chair as hard as I could, not looking at any of 'em, walked to the door, opened the door and slammed it. And they said, 'That's the guy,' " says Walton, his face breaking into a smile.
"Then the part got better as we went along. We . . . I began to put things in it . . . "
Such as? "Compassion for other people . . . Kelley saw this quality, and the second season there was a lot of wonderful stuff, and the third season even better."
Walston has been watching the O.J. Simpson trial "to learn as much about courtroom procedure as I could. Early on I said in an interview, 'Judge Ito is a softy, a piece of cake. If Bone were sitting on that bench, he would throw the entire defense team out the door.' "
Now Walston wants to amend the record: "The judge faced a lot of situations and handled it like a gentleman," he notes softly. "It's a tough case; it's hard to criticize him."
And what has he learned about court procedure? "Nothing!" he shouts.
The real preparation, says Walston, is in the slow and steady reading of lines, his tape recorder and remote switch at the ready. "I don't run around much anymore, I don't go to parties. So I have time. I've had a lot of hobbies--bicycling I [still] do. But I learned a long time ago, and most actors have never learned it, that you stay with those lines all day long. Not [just] trying to memorize--of course you memorize--but you're seeking qualities that even David Kelley didn't realize would be in the role."
Even now Walston ponders the arc of his career. "If I had stayed on Broadway, and that's where I should have stayed, I would have become a good stage star." Yet he always wanted to be a character actor, much like Walter Huston, and got decent roles in noteworthy movies, including "The Apartment" (1960), "The Sting" (1973) and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (1982). He has just finished looping on his 30th or so movie, "House Arrest," a comedy starring Jamie Lee Curtis, which will open next year.
Yet he can't quite escape those Martians. He is that incredulous-sounding citizen asking AT&T; in the TV commercials whether it's possible to talk by phone to Martians living in this country, then saying, " Really ?"
"I've always tried to run from that," notes Walston, "but this time, I thought, 'OK. I'm 80 years old. What the hell. What difference does it make now?"