Ray Walston, whose three-year turn as a sitcom Martian gave him a public profile but only scratched the surface of the talent he showed in a seven-decade acting career on stage and screen and in television, died Monday at his home in Beverly Hills. He was 86.
The winner of two Emmy Awards and a Tony Award, Walston made his last appearance in an episode of the CBS drama “Touched by an Angel,” which aired in October.
In a 1995 interview with The Times not long after he won his first Emmy Award at the age of 80 for his role as the stern but wise Judge Henry Bone on the CBS drama “Picket Fences,” Walston expressed his long-held bemusement that “My Favorite Martian” remained the indelible role of his career.
“The ‘Martian’ show, which was a ridiculous, silly show, was never recognized . . . [although] I don’t blame the academy,” he said of the series’ lack of critical acclaim. It was a recurring theme for Walston, who back in 1964, when the sitcom was on the air, told a reporter: “I had to think twice before I agreed to play a character with wires sticking out of his head who does tricks. I knew I was laying my career on the line.”
“My Favorite Martian” co-starred Bill Bixby as a newspaper reporter whose life turns upside down when Walston’s Martian crash-lands on Earth and moves in with him, becoming Bixby’s “Uncle Martin.” It ran from 1963 to 1966 and still can be seen on cable TV. It remained a chip that Walston could repeatedly play--appearing in the forgettable 1999 film version of the series and earlier in a TV ad campaign for AT & T.
Still, if “My Favorite Martian” branded him, Walston built a distinguished parallel career. Born in New Orleans in 1914, Walston got his acting start in 1939 when he joined the Margo Jones Community Players, a local theater company in Houston. He moved to New York in the 1940s to further his career, a starving actor supplementing his passion with a night job as a Linotype operator at the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune. He landed a role in a Maurice Evans production of “Hamlet” in 1945 and in the late 1940s and ‘50s he worked steadily, garnering critical acclaim in musicals and dramatic works, in everything from “The Front Page” to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Me and Juliet.”
Walston also forged a collaboration with Broadway producer George Abbott, an association whose highlight came in 1955 with Abbott’s production of “Damn Yankees,” in which Walston played the wily and wisecracking devil, Mr. Applegate, a performance that earned him a Tony Award for best actor in a musical in 1956.
There followed a succession of Hollywood films--"Kiss Them for Me,” opposite Cary Grant, and movie versions of “Damn Yankees” and “South Pacific.” Walston co-starred as a business executive sharing the pied-a-terre in Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” and he later teamed up with Wilder in “Kiss Me, Stupid.”
With his lean frame and piercing stare, Walston as he aged was equally convincing in any number of big-screen character parts, whether as a heavy (in “Silver Streak”), a con man (in “The Sting”) or as a disciplinarian teacher, which he played to memorable effect in director Amy Heckerling’s 1982 coming-of-age high school comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.”
As the grim-faced history teacher Mr. Hand, Walston burned his image into the minds of teenagers everywhere, putting the screws to his worst pupil, Sean Penn’s Jeff Spicoli.
“He was the most energetic, the most out-there person, compared to all of these other young people, and amazingly patient with all of us,” Heckerling said of working with Walston. “He had a very diverse career and just stylistically from the musical comedy styles to the super realistic. He conquered it all,” she added.
Walston reprised Mr. Hand in a short-lived “Fast Times” TV series, and while he worked steadily throughout the 1980s and ‘90s on any number of forgettable films and in guest TV spots, he would periodically rise above the volume in select roles, something of a pattern in his later career. These included his performance as the elderly ranch hand Candy in the 1992 film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” and his role as the wizened Judge Bone on “Picket Fences,” the quirky drama set in a small Wisconsin town and created by David E. Kelley. During the “Picket Fences” run from 1992-96, Walston won two Emmys as the irascible judge presiding over his small-town courtroom. It was a role that he read for somewhat skeptically but then inhaled heartily.
“He always wore the clothes of the character,” said Michael Pressman, a producer on the series. “The thing that was most impressive was how hard he worked and how much he cared.”
“I don’t run around much anymore, I don’t go to parties,” Walston said upon winning his first Emmy as Judge Bone. “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 trying to memorize--of course you memorize--but you’re seeking qualities that even David Kelley didn’t realize would be in the role.”
Walston is survived by his wife, Ruth; his daughter, Kate; and two granddaughters. Funeral services will be held at noon Saturday at Westwood Memorial Park, said Walston’s agent, Harry Gold.
Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this story.