Question: Christopher Lloyd played Uncle Martin in the movie version of My Favorite Martian. But wasn't Ray Walston the first to play the character? A friend of mine insists someone played an earlier version, but can't find anything to back that up. Thank you. Cathy L., Wrightsville Beach, N.C.
Televisionary: Walston did indeed play the character first, Cathy, and certainly worked hard enough at it for fans to remember he was the original Uncle Martin from September 1963 to September 1966 on the CBS comedy. (Lloyd, who was so brilliant on Taxi and in other efforts, wasn't able to make himself the new face of the character in the average TV fan's mind, certainly.)
"Ray can play a gangster, a psycho, an angel or the neighbor next door equally well. He'll work till he does it," one Hollywood friend told TV Guide of Walston's work ethic in 1964. "He's a complete perfectionist."
Backing up that assertion, Martian writer James Komack (who'd go on to give us such series as The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Chico and the Man and Welcome Back, Kotter) offered the following: "One Sunday night, very late, I get an urgent, emergency message to get in touch with Ray. He says to me, 'What's glinkoil?' And I say, what's what?, and what the devil difference does it make at this hour of the night anyway? It seems Ray was studying my script and one line says something about the flying saucer needing glinkoil and he wanted to know what glinkoil was. Only Ray would insist on knowing that."
Walston himself chalked it up to what he called his "old-fashioned actor's training," which began with one-line parts and progressed to starring stage roles. "The only way I can make the Martian believable, and not just a magician, is to absorb the character, to feel it," he said. "Then when you have to read lines that were rewritten two minutes before, it comes out perfectly in character."
The actor's process included recording his lines in a flat, monotone voice on a tape recorder and playing them back so he could learn them without inflection. That way, he could give them a fresh, responsive reading in front of the camera.
Yet being too strongly identified with a role, as many a star will tell you, has its hazards, too. Before becoming Uncle Martin, Walston was known for playing another otherworldly visitor the Devil, aka Mr. Applegate in the stage and screen versions of Damn Yankees. And he didn't appreciate all those who saw similarities between the two signature characters. "It's all that ridiculous business of being typed," he said. "Why, Applegate was an evil man, even though he did have a brilliant sense of humor. The Martian is kindly, whimsical and basically good. But people like to put you in a mold. Why, in New York I lost a number of parts because of the Damn Yankees role there's such a thing as doing a part too well, you know."
For his part, costar Bill Bixby, who played young newspaper reporter Tim O'Hara, saw his character as being not that much of a departure from his real-life self. "In this show I'm living just the way I do in real life chasing girls," he said.
Coming at roles from different angles is only the first of the differences arising from working on a TV series, of course. And, just like pretty much every other show in the history of the medium, key differences often came up between the show's staff and the network execs. For example, there's the classic note that came back from a CBS exec who didn't like one of Uncle Martin's lines: "A Martian wouldn't say that."
Then there was the time a Komack script had a character say, "I don't any more believe in little green men from Mars than I do in Santa Claus." Shortly after turning the script in, Komack got a call from CBS execs, who'd just discussed the matter in a meeting. "It was CBS's official position that there is a Santa Claus," Komack said, "and what's more, one of the executives was reported to have confessed that he believed in Santa Claus till the age of 10 and no one wanted to offend any little watchers."
Offending little watchers didn't seem to be a problem for Walston, who counted one particular little one among his favorite fans. "The most rewarding letter I ever got," he recalled, "was from a third-grade girl who said that she could now sleep at night because she knew that, instead of horrible monsters, nice people came from the vast, scary reaches of space."