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Appreciation: Jessica Walter, wickedly smart and smartly wicked, brought strength to the screen

Jessica Walter out the sides of her eyes in an "Arrested Development" episode.
Jessica Walter as Lucille Bluth in “Arrested Development.”
(Netflix)
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Jessica Walter, who died unexpectedly Wednesday at home in New York at 80, was a wickedly smart, smartly wicked actress. Her work ran from drama to melodrama and comedy, from big, wide-screen Hollywood productions to quirky small films, through the heights and depths of television, from the middle of the mainstream to close to the edge, leading to late-career fame as a star of the dysfunctional family comedy “Arrested Development” and the saucy spy cartoon “Archer.”

Being versatile and open, she was rarely out of work in a six-decade career; there was a youthfulness to her person — even as she did not bother to mask her age — and an adventurousness to her choices that made Walter interesting to an audience whose parents were not born when “Play Misty for Me” was released in 1971.

Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, and a kind of precursor to “Fatal Attraction,” “Misty” threw a spotlight on Walter — already more than a decade into her career — as a woman who mistakes a one-night stand with Eastwood’s jazz DJ for a lifetime commitment and, when he drops her, turns murderous. (“The next scream you hear will be your own,” ran the ads.) Her all-in performance goes right to the edge but not over the top; she’s more attractive in her psychopathic way than Eastwood’s actual love interest, played by Donna Mills. (And than Eastwood, for that matter.) She’s the smoking engine of the film, and had she stopped acting the next day, we would still remember her.

Walter was casually glamorous and poised and sure of speech, an alumna of New York City’s High School of Performing Arts and Sanford Meisner’s Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. She had spine and strength; she was not formed to play wallflowers, shrinking violets, dishrags or doormats, nor was she the first person you’d cast as a happy homemaker — although she came close, in a way, as the voice of Fran Sinclair in the Henson puppet show “Dinosaurs,” which ran on ABC from 1991 to 1994. (And that was satire, after all.)

Even in the 1965 single-season legal drama “For the People,” where her role was essentially “wife of the lead,” she projects frisky intelligence, and watching her scenes with William Shatner, you half expect her to walk out on him. You were more likely to find her playing an unhappy wife sleeping with her husband’s rival (“Grand Prix”) or making a move on a dead husband’s friend (in “Bye Bye Braverman,” for instance, with George Segal, who died earlier this week), or as an independent ex-wife (a recurring role on “Trapper John, M.D.”).

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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 and David Cross peering out of a window in "Arrested Development."
Jessica Walter and David Cross in “Arrested Development.”
(Saeed Adyani / Netflix)

If you went to the movies or watched television in the mid- to late 20th century, you knew her face: the widow’s peak, the wide-set eyes, the flaring nostrils. As she established a career in film — there was Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s “The Group” in which she appeared alongside Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, Elizabeth Hartman and Shirley Knight, and a supporting part in Robert Rossen’s “Lilith” as Gene Hackman‘s wife — she worked steadily in television beginning with a three-year stretch on the soap opera “Love of Life.” She was in the pilot of “Flipper” and guest-starred on numerous cop and doctor shows that defined the era: “Naked City,” “Ben Casey,” “The Fugitive,” “The F.B.I.,” “Name of the Game,” “Cannon,” “Mannix, “Columbo,” “McCloud” and the like.

Later decades would bring visits to all sorts of series: “Knots Landing” and “The Love Boat,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “Touched by an Angel,” “Joanie Loves Chachi,” “Coach,” “Babylon 5" and various flavors of “Law & Order.” There were TV movies too, including a turn as a tough con in “Women in Chains,” with Ida Lupino, and the villainous Morgan Le Fey in a 1978 pass at “Dr. Strange,” in which she declares, “You should learn whose powers to respect,” and in spite of the risible production, there is no doubt.

In 1974, at 33, she got her own series, “Amy Prentiss,” sprung from a two-part, back-door pilot of “Ironside,” in which she becomes San Francisco’s chief of detectives. The “Ironside” episodes won her an Emmy, but “Amy Prentiss” lasted only three episodes before NBC canceled it — prematurely, one would say, on the basis of the pilot, which may be tracked down online. Walter again stands up to the mighty wind of Shatner, now playing a police lieutenant, and lets the chauvinistic wisecracks of old male detectives roll right off her. She’s the boss; she doesn’t have to be bossy.

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Walter was a regular or recurring actor in a surprising number of other series over the years — longer-lived than “Amy Prentiss,” but not usually all that long — including as Holly Hunter’s mother on “Saving Grace”; Cynthia Stevenson’s mother on the lovely “Oh Baby”; an alcoholic, once-famous actress on the first season of “90210"; and, paired again with Segal, as part of a separating couple whose adult child moves into their Florida retirement home in “Retired at 35.”

“Arrested Development” cast members Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Tony Hale and David Cross mourned the death of Jessica Walter, who played Lucille Bluth.

Jessica Walter's Malory Archer occupies a private plane's cabin with the cast of "Archer."
In FX’s “Archer,” Jessica Walter voiced the part of Malory Archer (standing in blue suit), the self-aggrandizing, sex-driven head of a spy ring.
(FXX)

She was in her early 60s when in 2003 she took on what has superseded “Misty” as her defining role: Lucille Bluth on “Arrested Development,” entitled and toxic, a psychologically abusive mother, with a quasi-incestuous relationship with her fatally dependent youngest son, like some awful figure from Greek tragedy handed a martini and turned to highly comic ends.

Walter got a lot of mileage from a pursed lip, an arched brow, a widened eye. (She could deliver a particularly alarming wink as well.) In the earlier seasons, especially, when other characters babble on compulsively, Lucille can be terse — lobbing in some well-timed irony grenade or a “What the hell is this?” — but she’s always watching and listening (unless she is making a show of not paying attention). The editors often go to her for reaction shots: horror, disgust, fiendish glee. As Lucille, Walter had a way of holding her head so she often seems to be looking to the side, as if she were hiding in plain sight; she does it in “Misty” too. (In “Amy Prentiss,” by contrast, she looks everyone straight in the eye.)

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Although Walter once described herself as “really a nice, boring person,” there must have been a spark of the imp within her. She embraced the rude, the weird, the mad. It was a short walk from Lucille Bluth to Malory Archer, the self-aggrandizing, sex-driven head of a spy ring and hostile mother of H. Jon Benjamin’s idiot secret agent in FX’s “Archer.”

Together, “Arrested Development” and “Archer” positioned her within modern comedy and set the stage for her late career, including a hilariously profane turn in Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner’s “Difficult People” and a couple of episodes of Tru TV’s “At Home With Amy Sedaris” as Amy’s old teacher Mrs. Brittlecrunch, who drops in to cheerily embarrass the host.

Her final appearance to date — there’s word she’d completed voice work on the next season of “Archer” — was in an episode of ABC’s “American Housewife,” “Getting Frank With the Ottos,” which aired in late February. As star Katy Mixon’s step-grandmother, Zooming in to a scene, she plays yet another difficult, remote mother. It’s a short visit, but perfectly executed. “Get the [bleep] over it” is nearly her last professionally delivered line, and one can’t help but imagine that, had Walter known, she’d approve.

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