J.T. Walsh, a former encyclopedia salesman whose stone face, penetrating gaze and flat voice made him one of America’s most menacing character actors, died Friday of a heart attack while vacationing near San Diego. He was 54.
Walsh, who lived in Encino with his son, fell ill while staying at a resort hotel, said his publicist, Cynthia Snyder. He was taken to Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa, where he was pronounced dead.
Once described by a critic as “the canniest and most invisible actor of the last decade,” Walsh excelled at making the malevolent appear prosaic.
His cool, calculating style of escalating insanity landed him roles as a con artist, a college-basketball fixer, a white supremacist cop, a porn magnate, a small-town sheriff who tries to have his wife killed--and as Watergate conspirator John Ehrlichman.
In the 1987 film “Good Morning, Vietnam,” Walsh was the intolerant, humorless Sgt. Major Dickerson to military disc jockey Robin Williams. He was Cole Langley, a hustler, in the 1990 movie “The Grifters.” And in his latest movie, “Breakdown,” he played seemingly harmless truck driver Red Barr, who engineers the kidnapping of Kurt Russell’s wife.
Other film credits included “Hoffa” (1992), “Tin Men” (1987), “Tequila Sunrise” (1988) and “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986).
One career highlight was his small but telling portrayal of an insane patient in “Sling Blade” (1996). Rather than playing an ordinary person with hidden evil quirks, he gracefully portrayed an obviously crazy person as somewhat banal.
A veteran of 41 films--he recently completed work on “Pleasantville” and “The Negotiator"--Walsh was a relative late-comer to stage and screen.
Born in San Francisco and educated at a Jesuit school in Ireland, Walsh graduated from the University of Rhode Island. He was an encyclopedia salesman, social worker, journalist and teacher before turning to acting at age 30.
Discovered off-Broadway, he appeared in seven stage productions. His big break came in 1984, when he was cast as Williamson, the cowardly office manager, in “Glengarry Glen Ross” by David Mamet.
The role, for which Walsh won a Drama Desk Award, caught the eye of Hollywood casting agents. Four years later, he came to Los Angeles and a busy career in what’s-his-name character roles.
“I never resented being called a character actor in New York, but with the caste system they have in Hollywood, you feel the little sting of it,” Walsh once told a reporter. “There is a distinction made between the person who is getting $20 million and everyone else. You’re the one directors know they don’t have to worry about, so they can turn their attention to more pressing problems, like finding the star a bigger trailer.”
Walsh is survived by his son, John West; a brother, Christopher Walsh; and sisters Patricia and Mary Walsh.
Services are scheduled for 5 p.m. Tuesday at the Old North Church at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Hollywood Hills. Plans for a memorial service were pending.
Associated Press contributed to this story.