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Jessica Walter, beloved ‘Arrested Development’ star with a long resume, dies at 80

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Emmy-winning actor Jessica Walter, widely known as Lucille Bluth on the TV series “Arrested Development,” has died at 80. Her career spanned decades.

Jessica Walter, a prolific actor whose career spanned six decades and included signature roles on “Arrested Development” and “Archer,” has died, her publicist has confirmed. She was 80.

The Emmy winner for lead actress in TV’s “Amy Prentiss” died in her sleep Wednesday at her home in New York City.

“It is with a heavy heart that I confirm the passing of my beloved mom Jessica,” her daughter, Brooke Bowman, said in a statement Thursday. “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.”

Walter was born in Brooklyn on Jan. 31, 1941, to a musician father and a mother who was an immigrant from the former Soviet Union. She went to New York’s High School of Performing Arts and the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, where the late director-actor Sydney Pollack was her teacher.

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Among her classmates were James Caan and producer Jerry Weintraub — whom she remembered as “the bad boys” — and Brenda Vaccaro, who would introduce Walter to second husband Ron Leibman some 20 years later.

Walter started her career in theater, with Broadway productions including “Advise and Consent,” “Rumors,” “A Severed Head,” “Nightlife” and “Photo Finish.” The last earned her the Clarence Derwent Award for most promising female newcomer in 1963, the year Gene Hackman won for most promising male newcomer.

Walter’s feature film debut was in the 1964 movie “Lilith,” with Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg and Hackman, who coincidentally was also making his big-screen debut. From there she carved out a notable career as a dramatic actress in films such as Sidney Lumet’s 1966 movie “The Group.” Her work in that movie caught Clint Eastwood’s eye for the role of the obsessed stalker in “Play Misty for Me,” his 1971 directorial debut.

“He called me in,” Walter told The Times in 2014. “No audition. We had a talk, and he offered me a carrot juice. The next day my agent called and said, ‘You have the part.’” The result was a Golden Globe nomination for best actress in a motion picture.

“There’s a bit of Evelyn in me — the smothering, capable of killing, desperate, pathetic kind of person,” Walter told The Times about her stalker character in “Play Misty,” shortly after the movie opened. “The characteristics are way down deep. They’re only dormant threats, black things that a sane, civilized woman doesn’t employ. But they’re there — in all of us.”

Walter also appeared in numerous TV series, including “The Streets of San Francisco” and “Trapper John, M.D.,” and won an Emmy for her lead role in the 1974 show “Amy Prentiss.” Like so many New York actors, she had guest roles in “Law & Order,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Jessica Walter stands, holding a glass.
Jessica Walter as Lucille Bluth in “Arrested Development.”
(Netflix)

But all that seriousness changed in 2003, when she was cast as deliciously caustic Lucille Bluth, the vodka-swilling mother from hell in the Emmy-winning Fox and Netflix comedy series “Arrested Development.” Suddenly, Walter was all about the funny — and she had a new generation of fans.

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“Arrested Development” costar David Cross tweeted Thursday that Walter was “an absolutely brilliant actress and amazing talent. I consider myself privileged and very lucky to have been able to work with her. Lucille Bluth is one of TV’s greatest characters.”

“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,’” 20th Television said in a statement Thursday.

In a May 2018 New York Times interview, Walter tearfully called out costar Jeffrey Tambor, who played her husband, George Bluth Sr., for being verbally abusive when they worked together on the show. At the time, he had just been fired from the Amazon Studios show “Transparent” following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Tambor “never crossed the line on our show, with any, you know, sexual whatever,” she said. “Verbally, yes, he harassed me, but he did apologize. I have to let it go. ... In like 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.” She added later that she had known Tambor for “years and years and years,” respected him as an actor and would work with him “in a heartbeat.”

There was a Lucille Bluth GIF for every mood, as perfectly portrayed by Jessica Walter. The ‘Arrested Development’ star died Wednesday at 80.

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Walter’s turn on “Arrested Development” led directly to a decade-plus gig voicing the toxic mom Malory Archer on FX’s irreverent animated spy comedy “Archer,” and to a role as a snooty dowager mother on Broadway in the 2011 revival of the musical comedy “Anything Goes.” She also flexed her comedic chops as a mom with parenting issues in TV Land’s short-lived 2014 comedy “Jennifer Falls.”

“Oh, my God, those parts are the best,” Walter told The Times in 2014, in an article that described her as tall, whippet-slender, sweet and funny, with a kind word for everyone. “We don’t want to be Miss Vanilla Ice Cream.”

The producers on “Archer” were looking for a Jessica Walter “type,” rather than Walter herself, to voice the part of the belligerent, alcoholic CEO of the show’s spy agency and the mother of not-so-ace spy Sterling Archer. “We didn’t think she would do our little cartoon show,” Matt Thompson, an executive producer on the series, said in 2014. But once she saw the script, Walter was all in as Malory Archer.

“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,” Adam Reed, the creator of “Archer,” said in a statement Thursday. FX, the network, remembered Walter as “a comedic genius and a brilliant actor who personified wit, grace and elegance.”

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In addition to her “Amy Prentiss” win, Walter was nominated three other times for Emmys, for work on “Arrested Development,” “Trapper John, M.D.” and “The Streets of San Francisco.” Besides “Play Misty for Me,” her other Golden Globe nomination was for 1966’s “Grand Prix.”

Additionally, she worked with New York’s famed Playwrights Horizons and the Los Angeles Theatre Center. She served as second national vice president of the Screen Actors Guild and was an elected member of the SAG board of directors for more than a decade.

Walter was married twice, first to Ross Bowman, from 1966 to 1978, and then to actor Ron Leibman, from 1983 until his death in 2019. In 2014, she referred to her and Leibman’s marriage as “31 happy, fulfilled, glorious years” together.

She is survived by Bowman, her daughter, who is senior vice president for drama programming at Fox Entertainment, and grandson Micah Heymann.

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Former Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this report.


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