Ray Walston: More Than a Martian

Funny thing about Ray Walston (Herman Raymond Walston, 1914-2001): the second half of his career was supposedly overshadowed by his stint as Martin the Martian on My Favorite Martian (1963-66)…BUT my generation knew him well (and loved him), and most of us knew nothing of that role. I’d seen him in films like The Sting (1973), Silver Streak (1976), Popeye (1980), and Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), and on TV on shows like Love American Style, Ellery Queen, The Six Million Dollar Man, Starsky and Hutch, The Incredible Hulk, Little House on the Prairie and Amazing Stories. His most famous show was not syndicated in my area when I was growing up so I knew it only by reputation.

Later, I discovered a lot of his earlier work in movies like South Pacific (1958), Damn Yankees (1958), The Apartment (1960), Who’s Minding the Store? (1963, with Jerry Lewis), Billy Wilder’s Kiss, Me Stupid (1964, his one bona fide starring role in a movie, which he lucked into because Peter Sellers had a heart attack), Caprice (1967) and Paint Your Wagon (1969).

Walston had a lot in common with Tony Randall, I think — he was a finicky, persnickety little man with precise diction and an obvious intelligence. He was both short and thin, bird-like, yet tough. Like Randall (who was from Oklahoma), Walston was a Southerner, but that level of him was buried somewhat under a carefully cultivated theatrical presence. In a western, he’d always be cast a flashy dude in a bowler and checked suit, never as a gunslinger. Walston was born in Mississippi and spent his young childhood there, then spent later years in New Orleans and Dallas. He was young when he went in the theatre, and his background sounds a lot like the old fashioned stock company route; his was probably the last generation that could have gone about a theatrical career in precisely that way. When still a kid in New Orleans he ripped tickets, swept the stage, played supernumerary parts and gradually worked his way up to roles in stock and touring productions. In Dallas he worked at the repertory company of the legendary Margo Jones during the late ’30s. From here, he went to the Cleveland Playhouse for three years. By the mid 40s he was ready for Broadway, where he worked constantly for over a decade. The first years were spent in smaller roles in ensembles. His debut was in Maurice Evans’ 1945 performance of Hamlet. Next came a 1946 revival of The Front Page. He was in the original 1949 production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke. He hit his stride in the 1950s, with the original productions of Wish You Were Here (1952-53), Me and Juliet (1953-54), Damn Yankees (1955-57, in which he played Mr. Applegate, later immortalized on film), and Who Was That Lady I Saw You With? (1958). After this, he moved out to Hollywood and focused pretty exclusively on screen roles, although he always carried a distinct aura of the theatre about him.

But ya gotta pay the bills! So from 1963 through 1966 he was Bill Bixby’s “Uncle Martin” on My Favorite Martian. The show was very much in tune with the times, having much in common with “big secret shows” like Mr. Ed and My Mother the Car, and “trouble-making magical housemates” shows like I Dream of Jeanie and Bewitched, although in Martin’s case the “magic” was the result of advanced technology. Harvey Korman’s The Great Gazoo on The Flintstones (starting in 1965) seems to me, at least on a broad level, to be an homage to this character.

Walston was a much beloved figure and he worked pretty much until the end. You can see him in things like Robert Altman’s O.C. and Stiggs (1985), as a regular on Picket Fences (1992-96), Stephen King’s The Stand (1994), Addams Family Reunion (1998), and in a cameo in the the inevitable if ignominious My Favorite Martian reboot (1999) starring Jeff Daniels and Christopher Lloyd. His last credit was a 2001 episode of 7th Heaven.