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Also Starring : Walston's Chambers : AFTER YEARS OF LIGHT FARE, THE ACTOR WELCOMES THE WEIGHTY DRAMA OF 'PICKET FENCES '

July 03, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ray Walston has come full circle.

More than 37 years ago, movie director Stanley Donen caught the actor on Broadway in his Tony Award-winning turn as the devil Applegate in the musical "Damn Yankees." Donen was so impressed with Walston, he brought him out to Hollywood to star opposite Cary Grant in the 1957 comedy "Kiss Them for Me."

"The movie didn't turn out to be a good movie at all," Walston reflects. (The next year, though, Walston and Donen teamed up for the far more successful film version of "Damn Yankees.")

"Kiss Them for Me" was made on the 20th-Century Fox lot. Nearly four decade later, Walston, is back on the lot filming the Emmy Award-winning CBS series "Picket Fences." The 75-year-old Walston fits right into David E. Kelley's quirky show as the compassionate, cantankerous and wise Judge Henry Bone, who presides over some of the most difficult and challenging issues any contemporary jurist has had to face. During the show's first two seasons, Judge Bone has cast decisions on cases involving an HIV-positive dentist who lost his job because of his illness, a Christian Scientist who sued the town's Catholic hospital because he wanted his brain-dead wife taken off life support and a pregnant brain-dead woman whose husband wanted her kept alive to give birth to their child.

"Isn't it a good part?," Walston asks passionately. "It's a wonderful part. One of the best parts I've ever had. You know it's interesting, the evolution of the character. I use that word with that character because when we started out, it was only a recurring role, coming in now and then."

And Judge Bone didn't have much patience early in the show. "But as we did several segments of it, I managed to get in some compassion, some understanding," Walston explains. "Kelley began to write it in that fashion, and when he began to write it that way, he began to write some of the most beautiful stuff. Some of those summations at the end of those segments are just so gorgeous and beautiful, really."

(Though a critical favorite, "Picket Fences" rarely cracks the Top 40. This summer, CBS is giving the series more exposure by airing it, through July 21, not only in its regular Friday time slot, but also Thursdays at 10 p.m.)

Walston, best known to baby boomers as the wily extraterrestrial Uncle Martin on the 1963-66 CBS comedy "My Favorite Martian," is holding court this dreary afternoon in Fox's commissary, munching on a rather lackluster fruit salad. "It looks like you made the better choice," he says to his luncheon companion, who chose the more appetizing chicken burger. "Do you want to trade?"

The actor pauses and smiles. "I have got to tell you, it is an absolute joy to play (Judge Bone)," Walston says. "So many people, friends of mine from out of town have called me and written me. People that I meet on the street talk about how they love the fact that the man is so understanding. I am beginning to think that people want to be filled with compassion about their fellow man. They want to be filled with understanding about their fellow man. I really feel that as a result of playing this part. I never felt that before. I never cared how people felt."

The best part, Walston adds, is that he gets to sink his teeth into a strong dramatic role. "My career is to such a degree been in light roles, comedy roles and to be on a series that won the Emmy for being the best drama show of last year and to be on a series that is a drama series and to have dramatic stuff to do....I love that. I can't tell you how much I love it."

Last year during a day off from shooting, Walston decided to observe real judges in action at the Beverly Hills Municipal Court. "I went in and sat down where there were some cases going on, not with a jury. I stayed there about 45 minutes and watched this judge, a young fellow. Then I got up to leave and got out in the hallway and one of the attendants came running after me and said: 'The judge would like for you to come back. He would like to talk to you.' "

When Walston went back into the courtroom, the judge invited him to his chambers to talk about his film work--and case work. "He took off his robe and started talking about pictures I was in and wanted to know what I was doing there. When I told him I was looking for background just to see what was going on, he said, 'What did you learn?' I said, 'When a case came before you and the two or three attorneys walked up to the bench and handed you some papers, you took a pencil and the papers and you went through the papers. It looked as if you were a statue. That really impressed me. I can't do that in ('Picket Fences'). I have to keep moving.' I would love to do a segment where they brought something up to the judge and he just sat there for five minutes."

The judge then gave Walston his card and said, " 'If you ever have anything that you want to know that you are unfamiliar about, please come back.' That was very nice.

"I thought about (calling him) just in case I got a ticket for speeding," he adds with a chuckle.

"Picket Fences" airs Thursdays and Fridays at 10 p.m. on CBS.

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