Jessica Walter, ‘Arrested Development’ and ‘Archer’ Star, Dies at 80
Art and Experience:
Jessica Walter, an Emmy-winning actress known for her work as the stalker in Clint Eastwood’s “Play Misty for Me,” and for the TV series “Arrested Development” and “Archer,” died Wednesday in New York. She was 80.
Walter received an Emmy nomination in 2005 for outstanding supporting actress in a comedy for playing the manipulative alcoholic Lucille Bluth in the critically adored and highly influential comedy “Arrested Development.”
With the rest of the cast of “Arrested Development,” she shared three SAG Award nominations for outstanding performance by an ensemble in a comedy, in 2005, 2006 and 2014.
20th Television said in a statement, “Jessica Walter’s spectacular turn as the devilish Lucille Bluth is one of the great comedic performances of television history, and we loved working with her as much as audiences loved her on ‘Arrested Development.’ Our hearts go out to her family and friends, particularly her daughter, and our former colleague, Brooke. We know that heaven just got a whole lot funnier with Jessica now in residence.”
In Eastwood’s 1971 film “Play Misty for Me,” memorably shot in Carmel, Calif., Walter played Evelyn, a woman with whom Eastwood’s DJ has a casual affair only to discover that she has assumed far more from the fact that they’ve slept together and proceeds to follow him, then grow jealous and ultimately frighteningly violent when he becomes involved with another woman.
She also received Emmy nominations in 1975 for outstanding lead actress in a limited series, for her starring role in the NBC detective show “Amy Prentiss”; for a guest performance in 1977 on “The Streets of San Francisco”; and for supporting actress in a drama in 1980 for “Trapper John, M.D.”
With husband Ron Leibman, Walter did lead voice work for the FX animated espionage comedy “Archer,” voicing Malory Archer — “the tough-as-nails mom to turtleneck-loving spy-son Sterling,” in the words of the Daily Beast — from 2009-15. (Leibman voiced Ron Cadillac, Malory’s second husband, from 2013-15.) For her performance she earned two Annie Award nominations, in 2012 and 2013.
Interviewing Walter in January 2015, the Daily Beast said: “You’re known for playing these saucy, diva-like characters. But they don’t seem anything like who you really are,” to which she responded, “I don’t think so, no. It is great fun! It’s way more fun than playing Little Miss Vanilla Ice Cream Ingénue who rides off into the sunset behind her leading man on his stallion.”
She told the Daily Beast that her favorite Lucille line from “Arrested Development” occurred in an episode “where something very sad happened and she gets the news, and Lucille says to her son, ‘You know, I feel like crying, but I can’t spare the moisture.’ That was a good one.”
In 2013 Indiewire asked the actress about the distinction between Malory Archer and Lucille Bluth, to which Walter said: “Well, for instance, with Lucille, one of the main things I thought about was her goal is to stay in the lifestyle she’s accustomed to living in, and so what does she have to do to achieve that? Malory, she works for a living and she runs the business — she makes the money and she doesn’t have to rely on people. Well, she has to rely on her agents to do their job, but she’s the boss. Lucille secretly is the boss, but her husband doesn’t know it. She’s the woman behind the man, pushing, grabbing.”
“Archer” was one of the many projects in which Leibman and Walter collaborated. The pair frequently played a couple on movies and in TV shows, as in Greg Pritikin’s 2003 indie movie “Dummy,” in which they portrayed the squabbling parents of Adrien Brody’s painfully shy ventriloquist.
In a 1995 episode of “Law & Order,” Leibman brilliantly portrayed a lawyer who gets off a little too much on his relationship with mobsters (“I climbed macho mountain!”), and we empathized with Walter, who played his very unsettled wife worried that the war of wills between her attorney husband and Sam Waterston’s A.D.A. McCoy will leave her life in tatters.
In addition to her work on “Archer” and “Arrested Development,” the actress made a guest appearance on “NCIS” in 2015.
In recent years she had series-regular roles on two TV Land sitcoms: She played the mother dating other people in “Retired at 35” in 2011-12 and the somewhat wacky mother in the brief TV Land “Jennifer Falls,” starring Jaime Pressly, in 2014. In 2008-09 she played the alcoholic actress Tabitha, matriarch of the Wilson family, on the rebooted “90210.”
She guested on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” in a 2009 episode as attorney Petra Gilmartin, but much more memorably appeared as Eleanor Reynolds, the mother-in-law from hell who nevertheless turns out not to be the murderer on a 2008 episode of “Law & Order Criminal Intent.”
On ABC’s cult classic 1991-94 series “Dinosaurs,” from the Jim Henson Co., Walter starred as Fran Sinclair.
In 1994 she also turned in a terrifically understated comic performance in college comedy “PCU” as the very politically correct university’s President Garcia-Thompson.
Born in Brooklyn, her father was a musician, and attended the High School of the Performing Arts before starting out onstage, She made her screen debut on an episode of CBS’ “Diagnosis: Unknown” in 1960. The actress guested on series including “Route 66,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “Mission: Impossible,” and she appeared on the CBS soap “Love of Life” as Julie Murano from 1962-65.
Walters made her film debut in Robert Rossen’s “Lilith” (1964), an intriguing story of life in a mental hospital that starred Warren Beatty as Vincent, an orderly, and Jean Seberg as the title character, a patient; Walters had a very small role as Vincent’s ex-girlfriend. Two years later the actress had a role in Sidney Lumet’s “The Group,” based on the Mary McCarthy novel about a group of young women graduating from Vassar during the Depression.
In John Frankenheimer’s 1966 auto racing pic “Grand Prix,” starring James Garner, she played the wife of Brian Bedford’s character, who’s Garner’s teammate, and Walter’s playgirl Pat has a bit of a fling with Garner’s Pete Aron. In Sidney Lumet’s “Bye Bye Braverman” (1968), in which four liberal Jewish intellectuals learn that a friend has died at 41, Walter played Braverman’s wife, “whose ‘sophisticated’ cruel treatment of her daughter gives us a hint of what Braverman had to put up with,” Roger Ebert said.
She had landed her first series-regular role in 1965 on CBS’ “For the People,” a critically acclaimed legal drama in which William Shatner played an assistant D.A. in New York and Walter his musician wife. It ran for only 13 episodes.
About a decade later, she landed her own brief series, NBC’s “Amy Prentiss,” a spin-off of “Ironside” in which she played the young first-ever chief of detectives for the San Francisco Police Dept., drawing an Emmy nomination.
Walter returned to series regular television with NBC’s prime-time soap “Bare Essence,” starring Genie Francis, in 1983, but its stay was brief.
She recurred on CBS medical drama “Trapper John, M.D.,” as Melanie Townsend McIntyre from 1979-85.
Walter was twice married, the first time to Ross Bowman from 1966 until their divorce in 1978. She married Leibman, who died in 2019, in 1983.
She is survived by a daughter, Brooke Bowman, a television development executive at Fox Corp.