Emmy-winning actress Jessica Walter, who starred in Clint Eastwood‘s directorial debut Play Misty for Me and went on to play Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development, died in her sleep at home in New York City on Wednesday, March 24. She was 80 years old.
Born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens, Walter was a teenager when she began to study acting, making it all the way to Broadway before she even turned 20. From there came a string of TV roles, including guest stints on Naked City and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, before Walter made her movie debut alongside fellow newcomer Gene Hackman in the 1964 drama Lilith starring Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg.
By 1966, Walter was working with top directors such as Sidney Lumet on The Group and John Frankenheimer on Grand Prix, the latter of which brought her a Golden Globe nomination as the unhappy wife of a race car driver. She worked with Lumet again on Bye Bye Braverman, which starred George Segal, who also passed away this week in a sad coincidence of timing.
Walter earned her second Golden Globe nod for her chilling turn as an obsessed fan of a radio deejay in Play Misty for Me, for which she drew rave reviews from critics. She later won her first and only Emmy in 1975 for her starring turn in the limited series Amy Prentiss, which saw her playing San Francisco’s first female chief of detectives.
And yet, despite all these accolades, most Collider readers likely know Walter as the acerbic Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development, for which she surprisingly earned only one Emmy nomination in 2005. I thought she was brilliant as the boozy, entitled matriarch of the wacky Bluth clan, who was always ready with a wink — and a drink.
It was her work on Arrested Development that set the stage for her casting as Archer’s ruthless mother on the FX series of the same name, for which she was actually the first voice actor cast. It was a role she seemed destined to play, seeing as how the show’s producers had reportedly been looking for a “Jessica Walter type” when her agent first got ahold of the Archer script.
“The Archer family is heartbroken to lose Jessica Walter, our beloved colleague and friend,” Archer creator Adam Reed said in a statement. “Jessica was a consummate professional, an actor’s actor, and the exact opposite of Malory Archer – warm, caring, and kind, with an absolutely cracking sense of humor – and it was both a privilege and a true honor to work with her over these many years. She will be greatly missed, but never forgotten.”
“We are utterly heartbroken to learn of the passing of Jessica Walter. She was a comedic genius and a brilliant actor who personified wit, grace and elegance. Jessica’s “Malory Archer” served as the bedrock character for the series and we were always honored to have her as member of our FX family. Words cannot describe the monumental loss we and the Archer producers and cast feel. We extend our love, appreciation and condolences to Jessica’s family,” added FX.
Walter’s career also included features such as The Flamingo Kid (1984) and Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), as well as regular roles on the TV shows Dinosaurs, Coach, Beverly Hills, 90210, and Retired at 35, which once again paired her with Segal. She earned two additional Emmy nominations for The Streets of San Francisco (1977) and Trapper John, M.D. (1980). As for my personal favorite film of Walter’s, I’d have to go with PCU, in which she played the snooty college president who teams with David Spade to try and kick Jeremy Piven and Jon Favreau out of their home, The Pit.
Walter spent 12 years married to Ross Bowman, and 36 years married to Tony-winning actor Ron Leibman, with whom she worked several times before his passing in December 2019. Walter’s late brother, Richard, actually taught Alexander Payne and Dustin Lance Black the craft of screenwriting at UCLA, and Walter’s own famous classmates in New York included James Caan and Brenda Vacarro, who later introduced Walter to Leibman. Walter also served her colleagues proudly as an elected member of the SAG Board of Directors for over a decade.
Walter is survived by her daughter, TV executive Brooke Bowman, and her grandson, Micah Heymann. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Guide Dogs for the Blind.
“It is with a heavy heart that I confirm the passing of my beloved mom Jessica. A working actor for over six decades, her greatest pleasure was bringing joy to others through her storytelling both on screen and off. While her legacy will live on through her body of work, she will also be remembered by many for her wit, class and overall joie de vivre,” Bowman said in a statement.
Expect to see plenty of tributes from her extended Arrested Development family, who will no doubt raise a glass in her honor tonight. R.I.P.
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