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On Video: Ray Walston revisits the role he always wanted to get away from

Friday, September 24, 1999

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Actor Ray Walston is nothing if not honest. Blunt. Unapologetic. And God knows how old or young (but we'll get to that in a bit).

After years of trying to distance himself from his role in the 1960s sitcom "My Favorite Martian," what does he do? He accepts a small part in the 1999 big-screen remake, "My Favorite Martian," new in video stores this week. He plays a mysterious government official who turns out to be, in a clever bit of casting, a Martian who has been waiting a very long time for a ride back home.

Now, why revisit that role after 33 years? "I didn't want to do it, I didn't want to get involved in it," he says by phone. "I really didn't. I wanted no part of it.

"As a matter of fact, I've been trying for years to escape that image. So that was one of the reasons that when they first talked to me, I really didn't want to do it. Eventually I ended up doing it, and that's that."

So, what changed his mind? "Money."

And what did he think of the movie? "I haven't seen it, you want to believe that? I have not seen the finished version. The only things I've seen about the film would be coming out of the looping room," where dubbing is done to match the action on the screen.

While acknowledging it's unfair to judge a movie by a few scenes, he was disappointed "in the choice of a take here or there," especially near the end when he proclaims, "I've been trying to hitch a ride home for 30 years" and calls the spaceship a beauty.

The scene was shot from all angles, including the front -- which is the one Walston would have picked, had he been in the editing room. "So many people involved in watching 'My Favorite Martian' over the years have wondered if he'd ever get back home.

"And here was a moment where you see him, see the ship, move toward the ship and throw his arms around it. ... Well, in the picture, they used a back view," which is not what the moment was all about.

But a Walston line in the movie about magical chewing gum that lost its flavor in '66 is a sly reference to the year the TV show went off the air after three seasons.

This time, Jeff Daniels takes over the Tim O'Hara role created by the late Bill Bixby. Instead of working for a newspaper, he is now a TV news producer in Santa Barbara, Calif. Christopher Lloyd is the alien who crash lands on Earth and poses as Tim's Uncle Martin.

In addition to Walston, support comes from Elizabeth Hurley as an overbearing TV reporter, Daryl Hannah as a camerawoman, Christine Ebersole as Tim's landlady and Wallace Shawn as a geeky scientist.

Computer-generated special effects long ago replaced fishing poles and invisible wires and those rudimentary antennae Walston had attached to the back of his head. Today, the extraterrestrial has a raft of tools at his disposal, including a suit called Zoot with a personality and voice all its own.

Disney, obviously targeting the family audience, has priced the PG-rated movie to sell. Suggested retail prices are $22.99 for the video, $29.99 for the DVD.

Trying to capitalize on the theatrical release, Rhino Home Video next week plans to release "My Favorite Martian," a $19.99 tape with four episodes from the TV show.

Walston's long career includes much more than "Martian," of course. The New Orleans native won a Tony for playing the Devil in Broadway's "Damn Yankees." More recently, he picked up a pair of Emmys for portraying Judge Henry Bone on David E. Kelley's "Picket Fences."

Winning those golden statuettes "meant a great deal," Walston says. "After a long career of not being noticed, it was really quite something. And not letting down people like David Kelley meant a great deal to me, and I think that was one of the reasons I enjoyed winning was because of David. He's such a wonderful man."

Walston's comments came a couple of days before Kelley became the first TV show producer to win Emmys for best comedy ("Ally McBeal") and best drama series ("The Practice") in the same year.

"What did I read recently? That 'Ally McBeal' was one of the finest crafted shows on television. I don't know how to describe his talent, it's so monumental in terms of accuracy and he's very daring in his writing, and I think that helps."

Walston got another chance to work with Kelley when he shot a guest appearance for the season opener of "Ally McBeal," scheduled for Oct. 25 at 9 p.m. on Fox. Walston plays a minister in an episode in which Ally becomes involved with a man who, it turns out, is already attached to someone else.

"Oh, it's a wonderful part. I loved it. I loved doing it," Walston says, hoping that the character returns during the season. "I like working for Kelley. He's such a wonderful writer. My God, he gives you such good stuff."

If Walston's voice comes alive talking about the TV creator extraordinaire, it grows a bit chilled when the subject of his age comes up. Reference books make him 80, 81 or 84. However old he is, he looks fit and healthy, perhaps due to his twice-daily bicycling routine.

Ask him his age and he asks back, "What difference does it make how old an actor is? Let me tell you why I ask you that. In 1957, I was having lunch at the Fox commissary and at the next table Thomas Mitchell, that great character actor, was being interviewed by somebody -- I don't know who it was -- and I couldn't help overhearing some of it.

"And at one point, the interviewer said, 'How old are you Mr. Mitchell?' and there was a long pause and then Mitchell said, 'I have learned about Hollywood that the older you get, the less work you get.' Period. And that was the end of that."

And that's why Walston either vigorously declines to answer or alters his age slightly, from interview to interview. If Walston keeps this up, he cracks, "There will be nobody who will want to interview me. They'll say the hell with him, get lost with that old man."

But as long as he reprises a classic role or gives life to Kelley's words, that seems unlikely to happen.

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