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ROLE OF CANDY IS SWEET FOR VETERAN ACTOR

SHARE ROLE OF CANDY IS SWEET FOR VETERAN ACTOR

Ray Walston won the 1956 Tony Award as best actor in a musical for originating the role of the devil in the Broadway hit "Damn Yankees," then re-created the part in the 1958 film. An even earlier Broadway success (in 1950) was the role of Luther Billis in "South Pacific," which he also repeated on film (in 1958).

In addition, Walston's familiar face has been a part of such notable films as "The Apartment," "Paint Your Wagon," "The Sting," "Silver Streak," "Popeye" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."Yet, despite these credits and more than 50 years as a professional actor, the 74-year-old Walston says he is still most often recognized by the general public as the title character from the mid-'60s TV sitcom "My Favorite Martian."

"It's something that you live with," Walston said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, "and you have to try to work it out and find a way to not let it bother you. People come up and they call you Mr. Hand, from `Fast Times,' or, `Oh, you're the devil,' from `Damn Yankees' - or the martian.

"I'm hoping enough people see this picture so that they'll call me Candy."

"This picture" is "Of Mice and Men," in which Walston plays the handicapped ranchhand Candy, who shares a dream with protagonists George (Gary Sinise) and Lennie (John Malkovich) in the latest adaptation of John Steinbeck's classic novel.

And, believe it or not, Walston had to tryout for the part.

"Ray auditioned just like everybody else," Sinise said in a separate telephone interview. (In addition to starring, Sinise also directed and co-produced the film.)

Walston says the auditioning process bothers him but he's philosophical about it. "I don't feel good about having to audition at this stage in my career, but as a result of the nature of Hollywood today, unless you are in the superstar status, that's what it requires. And while I resent it, there are times when I feel good about it - not because of the reading but because it keeps me in trim."

And in this case, he adds, "It's the best part I've had in films in years and years."

Oddly, the initial audition for "Of Mice and Men" didn't go well. "I did it the way I thought it should be done and Gary Sinise came over and said he thought it was good but that it was too fast and it should be done in a slow way, with a lot of looks, and I should take my time. So, I did it but I wasn't pleased with it at all.

"The next morning, when I woke up, before I got out of bed, I started going over that scene in my mind, doing it the way he suggested. And I thought, `Well, maybe he's got something there.' So, I did something I've never done before - I called and asked if I could come back and re-read the scene. And at that very moment they were talking about calling me back to do it again."

Sinise adds, "He came in and read a couple of scenes and we worked with him a little bit. Then he left that audition and it was kind of disappointing. He didn't do really well and I was really hoping he would come in and knock us out. I liked Ray and knew this would be a great role for somebody like that, who's had a long career.

"We were going to call him back to try again and before we called him, he called us. He said, `Listen, I stunk! I was terrible! Let me try again. This is my role and I want this part.' He made us know it had been a long time since he'd worked on writing that was this good. Of course, we said, `Please come back.' He came back and was great. In fact, I called him that night and said, `Yeah, you've got it.' "

Still, auditioning has its disappointments, as when Walston recently read for the role of an old cajun trapper in an upcoming thriller. "Boy, did I want that part. It had to be done with that cajun dialect, so I brushed up on it and I went in and thought it was very good - only to learn a week or two later that they thought Wilford Brimley would be better."

Of his many films, Walston's favorites are fairly predictable. " `Paint Your Wagon,' that was a lot of fun; `Damn Yankees' - I thought they did a true version of that; I liked `The Sting' very much, although I didn't get the part I wanted in that one; and I liked `The Apartment' very much."

But he cites his only lead role in a movie, Billy Wilder's 1964 sex farce "Kiss Me, Stupid," as ruining his chances for a starring career.

Walston was still doing "My Favorite Martian" when he became a last-minute replacement for Peter Sellers, who suffered a heart attack three weeks into filming. After its release, "Kiss Me, Stupid" became notorious for its bold use of slightly veiled, sexually charged dialogue.

"While we were filming, Billy Wilder came to me one day and said, `Ray, what do you think the kiddies are going to think of you after this picture is released?' I said, `What do you think they'll think of you?'

"And I remember he said something that proved to be prophetic. He said, `I don't know what it is but I think there will be a big change in the movies - and you watch, I'm trying to get the jump on them.' And, of course, this film was all innuendoes, which were ugly, but there were no curse words, no nudity. And, of course, by 1968 they were skywriting four-letter words in films. So, he was on the button.

"However, as you well know, that film was Billy Wilder's first big failure and it was a turning point in his career, a downward trend from then on. And it was a heartbreaker for me. It was the one big chance I had to be the first team, so to speak. I think the film hurt me more than anybody, really. Had it been a success, I would have had a career out of it."

As for the extreme excesses in films today, Walston is not enthusiastic about them. "They're overdoing a great deal of it, especially on the violence end of it, no question about it."

Walston's career is in an upswing at the moment, not only with "Of Mice and Men" on the big screen but also with his recurring role in the new CBS TV series "Picket Fences." "I'm not a member of the permanent company. I play the part of a judge, Judge Bone, a tough-minded, wonderful character. And I can go in and do it in one day or two days - and it's not every week, so I'm free to do anything else that comes along."

At the moment, however, Wal-ston has no future film offers - and as the interview winds down he laments once more about the one that got away. "The last film I had a chance at was that one about the cajun. . . . I sure wanted that part."