Actor Robert Walden says he loves peace, quiet of mountain life

DANIEL A. MARSH Staff Writer Published March 11, 2012 at 3:12 a.m.
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— When asked what brought him to Petit Jean Mountain, actor Robert Walden didn’t skip a beat.

“A woman,” he said, laughing.

Walden, who has appeared in such television series as Lou Grant and films like All the President’s Men and Capricorn One, has a busy career as an actor and teacher. He currently co-stars in TV Land’s Happily Divorced, with Fran Drescher and Rita Moreno. But the woman who brought him to Petit Jean Mountain is his wife, Christy Carpenter, the new CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute.

He and Carpenter reside in a beautifully restored house on 5 acres of wooded property owned by the institute. Walden said he loves his “new digs.”

“It’s so peaceful,” he said as he relaxed with his 13-year-old dog, Dexter. “It’s a special, magical place. I love taking Dexter down to the lake. In the morning, it looks like the sun is rising up out of it.”

Walden and Carpenter have been “on the mountain” for about six months, and both are looking to have a positive impact on the way that Arkansas in general and the institute in particular are viewed.

For Carpenter, Walden said, that means raising the institute’s profile with such events as last week’s Film Forum. Walden, along with actress Lea Thompson (Back to the Future), director Howard Deutch (Pretty in Pink) and producer Fred Roos (The Godfather Part II), headlined the three-day forum, which featured workshops and seminars exploring the various facets of film making.

“She’s here to do great things,” Walden said of his wife. “That’s what’s expected of her. [The institute] hadn’t fulfilled its potential. People don’t realize that it is a font of culture, education and craft. Christy has a plan to bring more national recognition to the institute, and she wants international recognition, too.”

Walden made the Little Rock media circuit to promote the Film Forum last week, and he does some teaching on cinema history at the University of Central Arkansas.

Prior to making the move to the mountain, Walden and Carpenter lived in New York, where Walden taught acting for six years at The New School for Drama. He said he was “busier and happier” in New York than he was in Los Angeles, and for a while, he was “not enamored with acting.”

“I was in demand as a teacher and a director, and that’s always a good feeling,” he said, “but I didn’t audition for much.”

He said he started acting at age 4 at Camp Roosevelt in Monticello, N.Y.

“I played Jo in Little Women,” he said. “And I did a lot of impersonations - Cab Calloway, James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart. By age 6, I had a guy who would write material for me, and I had kind of an act.”

Walden’s father, Max Wolkowitz, was born in Poland and owned a wholesale drapery business on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

“He manufactured bedspreads and drapes - custom made,” Walden said. “He had a saying - ‘wholesale, not retail,’ because in wholesale, you cater to whom you choose. He didn’t like to be beholden to anyone.”

Walden’s mother, Hilda, was born in America, “but her folks were from the Ukraine. They all came to America to survive. I met a lot of relatives who had been in the concentration camps. I’ve never gotten over that - seeing people who survived that, you don’t know how they did it.”

Walden attended City College of New York, winning a best actor’s award for his performance in Teahouse of the August Moon and further honing his skills at summer stock in Fishkill, N.Y.

“I studied with everyone in New York I could,” he said.

Walden was eventually selected to attend the prestigious Actors Studio, founded by Elia Kazan director of Walden’ favorite movie, On the Waterfront.

“There were all these wonderful actors in New York at this time (1964), and they would all go to the Actors Studio - Dustin Hoffman, Shelley Winters, Robert De Niro,” he said.

Walden shared the screen with Winters and De Niro in Roger Corman’s 1970 film Bloody Mama, which also represented Walden’s first excursion into Arkansas.

“We filmed it here,” Walden said, “in Mountain Home, on the White River, and for a few weeks each in Little Rock and Hot Springs. I remember going to see the rushes at a theater in Mountain Home with De Niro. I said, ‘I’m doing too much,’ and he said, ‘I’m not doing enough.’”

Other film roles for Walden followed, including the part of dirty-tricks expert Donald Segretti in All the President’s Men and a smaller part in Woody Allen’s Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).

“I played a sperm cell opposite Woody,” Walden said.

He got into television “ basically by default,” he said. “I was in San Francisco doing One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and I’d done four movies, but I wasn’t making any money doing Cuckoo’s Nest. I got a TV offer, and frankly, I disguised myself. I wore glasses and a hat. But I needed the dough.”

Lou Grant came about after a couple of false starts.

“CBS wanted to do a series with me,” Walden said, “but they thought a series about a newspaper was death.”

Lou Grant was a spin off of the highly successful sitcom The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Walden said it was the only dramatic series ever spun off from a half-hour sitcom. He received three Emmy nominations for Outstanding Actor in a Supporting Role. The character he played, Joe Rossi, was written with Walden in mind, “but someone else was offered the part first,” Walden said.

“A great role is a great role,” he said of Rossi. “Anybody would have done great in that part. What happens when you get an Emmy nomination is, other actors respect you and people want you on their shows. I didn’t read for anything for years.”

Today, Walden is enjoying his new job on Happily Divorced.

“Franny [Drescher] asked me how I’m liking it,” he said, “and I told her it’s like a paid vacation.”

He said he’s also loving his new life on the mountain.

“This is my home now,” he said.

He said many of his friends were surprised by his and Carpenter’s decision to move to Arkansas.

“They said, ‘What? Why are you going there?’ We’ve been in the diamond lane a long time, but I had gotten tired of the whole scene - the years and years of stress in New York.

“I like the people a lot,” Walden said of living on Petit Jean Mountain. “Everyone has been very generous to us. I couldn’t believe how they welcomed us with open arms.

“I haven’t read a book for pleasure in I can’t tell you how many years,” he said of the quiet on the mountain. “Plus, we have closets now! That hasn’t happened to us in a long time.”

Staff writer Daniel A. Marsh can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or dmarsh@arkansasonline.com.

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