Radio producer Marc Sterne does some amusing impressions on Washington area sports-talk station ESPN 980. His impersonation of actor Christopher Walken was so convincing that it did more than entertain — it made international news.
The Associated Press on Friday quoted Sterne — in character as Walken — delivering his faux recollections of actress Natalie Wood’s 1981 death: “We had a lot to drink that night. There was Sambuca. There was shouting. And then there was tragedy. And that’s all I can remember. And quite frankly, all my attorney right now would want me to say.”
Except that AP thought it was Walken speaking. It was Sterne, during a regular Friday-afternoon comedy bit on the station, in which he impersonates the actor while discussing his weekend fantasy football picks.
Upon discovering the error, AP sent out a “kill” notification to its media clients, ordering them to scrap the news article containing the comments. “The station now says that it was a hoax involving a station employee who was impersonating Walken,” the notice said.
That really ticked off Chuck Sapienza, program director for the AM station. “No one [from AP] called us to see if it was real, and then they call it a hoax,” he said. “A hoax makes it sound like it’s our fault. We’ve been doing this [impersonation] for two years. They’re taking no responsibility for shoddy journalism.”
AP spokesman Jack Stokes said that an AP reporter — whom Stokes would not identify — heard the Sterne interview and relayed the comments to the organization’s Los Angeles bureau.
The bureau is handling coverage of a city prosecutor’s decision to reexamine Wood’s drowning, after revelations about her death surfaced in a recent book.
Investigators reopened the case prompted by recent statements from a witness, boat captain Dennis Davern, who says he lied when he was interviewed by police in November 1981 about events that occurred on a yacht he skippered.
Wood died after falling overboard from the yacht, authorities ruled, several hours after her husband, Robert Wagner, and Walken got into a fight on the boat. Both men said they had been drinking that day but denied any responsibility for Wood’s death, which was ruled an accident.
AP incorporated Sterne’s comments into its running coverage, Stokes said.
In the meantime, Sapienza said, “Entertainment Tonight,” “Access Hollywood” and the “Today” show called the station to ask for a recording of “Walken.”
The station informed AP that the voice was Sterne’s, triggering the correction. “It was a mistake,” Stokes said.
After the station complained about AP’s characterizing the matter as a hoax, the wire service decided to modify its correction — telling clients that the “Walken impersonation was a regular feature, not a hoax.”
Sterne called the wire service’s case of mistaken identity “the highest compliment I’ve ever been paid” for one of his radio voices. On the station, Sterne also plays a faux-Cockney character named Nigel during a morning program hosted by Tony Kornheiser.
Sterne said that regular listeners know about the Walken voice, which he picked up from Billy Bush several years ago while working with the “Access Hollywood” co-host while Bush was a Washington radio DJ. But Sterne said that casual listeners are occasionally fooled into thinking that Walken phones into the station each week to offer picks and to promote such (fake) projects as a Christmas album with Dolly Parton.
“I’m amazed and horrified at the same time, if that’s possible,” Sterne said of AP’s error. “We’re doing a weekly comedy routine that someone thinks is real. That’s the amazing part.
“But it’s a horrifying commentary on the news system that we live in.”