Jessica Walter worked. She worked in the literal sense, in that she was rarely without an acting job from the time her career began in the early Sixties, with a role as Julie Murano on the CBS daytime soap Love of Life, all the way through this past February, when her guest appearance on ABC’s American Housewife aired, just weeks before Walter died at the age of 80. Her IMDb page lists 160 film and TV projects, and many series that brought her back repeatedly in different roles, particularly Sixties and Seventies mystery shows like F.B.I., Mannix, and The Streets of San Francisco. Which brings us to the other way in which Walter worked over decades before she improbably found her career-defining role as pickled matriarch Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development: People kept hiring Jessica Walter not because she was famous, but because she was good. In any role, in any genre, from cop dramas to family sitcoms, you could trust her to show up and provide exactly what was needed for the character in question — with her performance often adding more life than there was on the page.
Walter’s reliable professionalism and late-in-life success only made it funnier that she finally found her niche on Arrested, and as the voice of Malory Archer on FX’s animated spy comedy Archer, playing sarcastic, past-their-prime drunks. Walter was the exact opposite of an overnight success. Rather than exploding from obscurity, she just leveled up year after year in roles that made her a familiar, even welcome, face in the living rooms of people who probably didn’t know her name. She waited nearly a lifetime to find a role that fit her like a designer glove, then got to live to enjoy more lifetimes in the business over the 18 years since.
Even without Arrested and all it did for her, Walter would have had an interesting career. After leaving Love of Life, she was a fixture on the small screen, guest-starring on iconic shows like The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, and Columbo. She was the female lead in Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut Play Misty for Me, a kind of proto-Fatal Attraction where Walter played a woman obsessed with Eastwood’s disc jockey. Her work on various Seventies cop shows earned her a spot in NBC’s popular Mystery Movie franchise with a show called Amy Prentiss, where she was the first female chief of police of San Francisco, and single mother to a young Helen Hunt. Only three TV-movies were made (after a two-part appearance on Ironside), but it won Walter her first and only Emmy. (She was nominated three other times, including once for Arrested.)
Hollywood likes to typecast, whether someone’s a big star or an anonymous character actor like Walter, so she mostly stuck to drama though the Seventies, sometimes as a hero, sometimes as a villain. Some of her earliest sitcom appearances were on historically bad spinoffs: an episode of Joanie Loves Chachi (from Happy Days) and a recurring role as John Ritter’s mother-in-law on Three’s A Crowd (from Three’s Company). But the tart, no-nonsense delivery that had served her so well in serious roles turned out to be an even better fit in the comic realm. Again, a lot of it was journeyman, day-player work(*), or more regular gigs on shows that didn’t go the distance (she was the voice of the mom on ABC’s Dinosaurs), but it was clear there was something there, if only the right match of material and performer could be found.
(*) One of those was on an episode of Just Shoot Me, where she played the ex-wife of George Segal (who died yesterday), with whom she had previously co-starred in the Sidney Lumet movie Bye Bye Braverman, before re-teaming as spouses in the short-lived 2011 sitcom Retired at 35.
Plenty of actors never make that match. Walter was an immensely gifted and fortunate exception. Arrested Development, about the members of a spoiled-rich Orange County family running aground when patriarch George (Jeffrey Tambor) is arrested for white collar crimes, was, in hindsight, an astonishing collection of comic talent: Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Tony Hale, Portia de Rossi, David Cross, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Jeffrey Tambor, and, of course, Walter. With the possible exception of Tambor (coming off of The Larry Sanders Show), none had been given parts this funny before, and few would be again. Yet even within that stacked ensemble, Walter was special.
Lucille was a familiar type — imperious, oblivious, passive-aggressively cruel — that in the wrong hands can be unbearable to watch. Walter made her a joy. Rather than causing you to empathize with her kids for the shabby way she treated them, she delivered each insult with such withering conviction that it seemed unimpeachable, as if carved in stone and delivered from a mountaintop. If Lucille never cared for her son Gob, why should you?
After all those years of bringing nuance to the generic ex-wives and other stock characters she played, she was able to take the already hilarious writing of Arrested creator Mitchell Hurwitz and others and find added comic shading. Think, for instance, of Lucille declaring, “If that’s a veiled criticism of me, I won’t hear it, and I won’t respond to it.” That is a spectacular joke on the page, but you can practically see each word dancing out of Walter’s mouth as she says it. Nearly every line was like that, as well as every reaction — remember her delighted, almost juvenile shrieks whenever private investigator Gene Parmesan would reveal himself from under another seemingly unconvincing disguise? — and even every bit of physical comedy(*). Walter was so perfect, the archetype probably could have been retired after Fox canceled the show.
(*) At a Television Critics Association press conference to promote the 2013 Netflix revival, Hurwitz screened what was at the time a deleted scene where Hale’s Buster helped Lucille smoke while on house arrest. Everyone was in such instant hysterics that Hurwitz cut the scene back into the show. It would, unfortunately, prove one of the highlights of the lackluster Netflix seasons, but at least we all got to see it.
Instead, Walter would spend the rest of her life happily playing variations on Lucille — among others, she briefly recurred on the CW’s 90210 revival as the hard-drinking actress grandmother of the two central kids — and occasionally the genuine article whenever Netflix could get some of the cast together again(*). By far the best of these roles was on Archer, as Malory, the boss and mother (arguably in that order) of the show’s title character, H. Jon Benjamin’s Sterling Archer. (Malory, of course, would almost certainly argue that she was the title character.) As ruthless as Lucille, but far more competent, Malory was another great showcase. Though the character’s look was technically modeled on the actor Kathleen Cohen, her face looked like a slightly more exaggerated version of Walter’s familiar, razor-sharp features, which in turn made it even easier to hone a voice that sounded like it had been soaking in vodka for weeks before each take.
(*) This also led to a painful group interview with The New York Times where Walter called out Tambor for his behavior around her, and her male co-stars leaped to Tambor’s defense.
In that American Housewife episode, Walter appears only briefly, and on a video call at that, as the cruel stepmother of Wendie Malick’s Kathryn. Yet even for just a few moments, her voice raspier than usual, she pops off that blurry laptop screen and sells you a long and disapproving relationship with her stepdaughter. And she gets a couple of laughs along the way. It was a job. Jessica Walter showed up one more time, and she worked.