Jessica Walter Was Robbed of the Decades-Long Stardom She Deserved

Jessica Walter thankfully found fame through roles like Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth late in her life. But she should’ve been a major star when she was a young woman. Hollywood’s misogyny in the 1960s and ’70s made that impossible.

Jessica Walter on September 9, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Jason LaVeris / FilmMagic)

With the announcement of Jessica Walter’s death at age eighty, I cursed aloud with an angry sense of being cheated. Walter got to be a star very late in a long career, with her definitive roles as Lucille Bluth in the late, lamented Arrested Development and Malory Archer in the still-running animated favorite Archer. It seemed like just another egregious act of a douchebag god that she couldn’t live to be a hundred, acting the hell out of incorrigible characters for another twenty years.

Perhaps it’s my own tendency toward resentment of authority, but I find it odd to read celebrations of how great it is that Walter got to have a career spanning decades, as if it sure was nice of showbiz bosses to keep handing her roles that long.

In fact, Walter was robbed. She should’ve been a major star when she was a young woman — she was gorgeous, she was insanely talented and charismatic, she had everything. Stardom was predicted for her early when she made a big impression in film — first in The Group (1966) and then more definitely in Play Misty for Me (1971). But it didn’t happen.

Jessica Walter (R) in a scene from the film The Group, 1966. (United Artists / Getty Images)

She worked consistently, combining theater, movies, and television. But it was a tough time to try to become a female star, a time of second-wave feminist advancement that led to a spike of ugly misogyny in Hollywood movies.

There were a limited number of good roles that went to a few top women stars like Jane Fonda, Vanessa Redgrave, Diane Keaton, Julie Christie, and Faye Dunaway. That left a lot of vacuous girlfriend parts for the rest, a lot of getting alternately slapped and screwed by righteous macho guys in the new action film genre on the rise, a lot of favoring of far more numerous male stars such as Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Warren Beatty, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Sidney Poitier, Donald Sutherland, Harrison Ford, Charles Bronson, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Lee Marvin, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Richard Pryor, and Walter Matthau, in film vehicles built to showcase them.

Walter didn’t even get the “girlfriend” parts she tried for, as she remembered with justifiable pride:

“. . . even my ‘leading ladies’ — you know, in air quotes — were characters,” she says. “They were not Miss Vanilla Ice Cream. They weren’t holding the horse while John Wayne galloped into the sunset.” She adds: “I was actually up for a John Wayne movie once. This was way, way back. And the feedback was, ‘We really like Jessica, but we just don’t see her holding the horse.’”

Beautiful though Walter was, she was going to have a hard time getting ahead then, with her gimlet eyes and sardonic mouth. But those same qualities made her perfect for our time. And luckily, too, she relished playing what are blandly called “unsympathetic characters”:

“I love watching movies with people that I hate. I love those old movies with Bette Davis where she’s the evil one,” she told IndieWire in 2013.

“Because we all have that in us, and we can’t really act on it as the audience, but we can watch the actor act on it and it sort of releases those feelings in us.”

Our love for her has been expressed in a million quotes circulating endlessly online, all of them expressing the most inventively vicious sentiments of two self-centered, upper-class, right-wing mothers from Hell. Here are a few of my particular favorites:

MALORY ARCHER (to a limo driver who’s too slow driving off): “If I wanted to sit around all day going nowhere, I’d be a teacher!”

LUCILLE BLUTH (regarding a boatload of gay protesters): “Everything they do is so dramatic and flamboyant, it just makes me want to SET MYSELF ON FIRE!”

MALORY ARCHER: “Immigrants! That’s how they do, you know — just drive around listening to raps and shooting all the jobs.”

LUCILLE BLUTH (regarding her daughter): “She thinks I’m too critical. That’s another fault of hers.”

MALORY ARCHER (on the personal life of her spy son Sterling): “My third biggest fear: he brings home a whore and says, ‘We’re married!’ Oh, and the whore has bangs.”

Great as she was — and I defy anyone to find a bolder, better comic actor than Walter in Arrested Development and Archer — public love for her went beyond just admiring her whiplash timing, incisive line delivery, and willingness to go for the laugh with her whole mobile face, her whole melodic voice, her whole still-lithe body. She’s one of us, we thought, and we don’t think that about many stars.

I read a comment in the outpouring of emotion that followed her death that stated firmly, “She’s a comrade,” and I went off on a hunt to discover her literal politics, which turned out to be hard to verify. Somewhere to the left, clearly, but her mensch qualities shone off her regardless. She displayed such sane, good-natured humor in interviews, and she never pranced about her impressive background.

Reading up on her, you discover she’s the Brooklyn-born daughter of David Warshawsky, whose parents emigrated from Russia. He changed his name to Walter and became “a world-class musician who played with the renowned composer Arturo Toscanini and alongside cellist Pablo Casals,” while earning his living playing double bass for the NBC Symphony.

Walter’s mother Esther Groisser

arrived from the USSR shortly before the enactment of a 1924 law that set immigration quotas that largely curtailed the arrival of Jewish immigrants. “So you can imagine all the stuff going on with immigration now has a great impact on me,” says Walter.

Young Jessica Walter had early acting ambitions, attending New York’s High School of Performing Arts and Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of Theater. She was one of those real-deal performers, highly trained, vastly experienced in and philosophical about the only-in-showbiz lunacy of acting professionally.

Given her overall lovability, it came as a huge shock to the public to find, in a lengthy 2018 New York Times interview with the Arrested Development cast, that she’d been treated badly by her castmates.

Jeffrey Tambor, already accused of sexual misconduct on the set of Transparent and fired because of it, denied the allegations.

But he acknowledged a history of tirades at directors, assistants, and fellow cast and crew members, including the time that he “blew up” at Jessica Walter to such a vitriolic extent on the set of Arrested Development, she wept recalling it:

“I have to let go of being angry at him,” Ms. Walter said through tears, as Mr. Tambor sat a few feet away. In “almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set and it’s hard to deal with, but I’m over it now.”

When [costar Jason Bateman] painted Mr. Tambor’s behavior as typical of certain performers, [costar Alia Shawkat] interjected: “But that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.”

It seemed notable that while Tambor insisted he’d already apologized profusely and “had reckoned with this,” the other male costars including Bateman, Will Arnett, Tony Hale, and David Cross attempted to smooth over any disharmony and express support for Tambor. Only Shawkat — and the general public — wasn’t having it, and the online fury in response to the interview led Bateman and Cross to apologize for their failure to defend her.

How did they not all rise as one and kick Tambor’s ass clear to the curb? I don’t get it. But it’s telling that we all wished we’d been there — so we could have defended Jessica Walter properly.