Classic Hollywood: Jessica Walter tests boundaries in ‘Jennifer Falls’


Jessica Walter is the mother of re-invention.

After getting her start on Broadway more than 50 years ago, she carved a notable career as a dramatic actress in films such as Sidney Lumet’s 1966 “The Group” and Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut, “Play Misty For Me,” as well as countless TV series including “The Streets of San Francisco,” “Trapper John, M.D.” and “Amy Prentiss,” for which she won an Emmy.

But for the last decade, she’s been the queen of comedy.

Walter’s career took a 180-degree turn in 2003 when she was cast as the deliciously caustic Lucille Bluth, the vodka-swilling mother from hell in the Emmy Award-winning comedy series “Arrested Development.”

“Arrested Development” led to her being cast as the equally toxic mom Malory Archer on FX’s irreverent animated spy comedy series, “Archer,” and as a snooty dowager mother on Broadway in the 2011 revival of the musical comedy “Anything Goes.” And she’s flexing her comedic chops playing another mom with parenting issues in TV Land’s new comedy “Jennifer Falls.”


“Oh, my God, those parts are the best,” purred Walter, 73, in her “Jennifer Falls” trailer in Santa Clarita, catching a late lunch after finishing her last scene of the day. “We don’t want to be Miss Vanilla Ice Cream.”

The tall, whippet-slender Walter is the anthesis of her recent on-screen characters — sweet and funny, with a kind word for everyone. She’s been married to actor Ron Leibman “31 happy, fulfilled, glorious years” — he’s the voice of Malory’s husband, Ron Cadillac, on “Archer” — beams when she discusses her daughter ABC Family executive Brooke Bowman and is excited about her grandson’s first birthday this week.

“Arrested Development,” which aired on Fox from 2003 to ’06 and returned for one season last year on Netflix, “did so much for all of us — Jason Bateman and even those who have been around for so long,” noted Walter between bites of her turkey sandwich.

“We are so grateful for that show. I knew it was really funny, but I never thought it would become this sort of cult favorite.”

The producers of “Archer” were such “Arrested Development” fans that they told talent agents they wanted a Jessica Walter “type” for the part of the belligerent, alcoholic CEO of the spy agency and the mother of not-so-ace spy Sterling Archer.

“We didn’t think she would do our little cartoon show,” said Matt Thompson, an executive producer on the series. But when her agent sent her the script, Walter quickly accepted and is currently recording the sixth season of the series.


Though Lucille and Malory may be cut from the same maternal cloth, they aren’t carbon copies. “I don’t think Lucille would ever pick up a gun and murder a man,” Thompson said, laughing. “Our Jessica frequently commits murder and orders people to commit murder.”

Walter sees differences — and similarities — in the characters.

“Lucille would never let her hair go gray like Malory,” Walter noted. “But in many ways they are the same — they both love their children. Malory loves Sterling. Lucille loved most of her children.”

Meanwhile, Maggie, a psychotherapist, is perhaps guilty of loving her children a bit too much in “Jennifer Falls.”

“She has boundary issues,” said Walter. “But there’s nothing hateful about Maggie. She’s trying hard.”

The comedy, which premiered last month, stars Jaime Pressly (“My Name Is Earl”) as a high-powered executive with anger issues who moves along with her teenager daughter back home after she loses her job.

“Jessica’s character has this crazy air about her,” said Pressly. “She doesn’t listen and she can be frustrating but in a funny way.”

The two, noted Pressly, quickly developed a “really great energy and a bond where we can look at each other and kind of know what each other is thinking. It comes through on screen. When Jessica and I do our scenes together, it’s magic.”

The Brooklyn-born Walter attended the High School of Performing Arts in New York and then the Neighborhood Playhouse, where the late director-actor Sydney Pollack was her teacher. Among her fellow classmates were James Caan and producer Jerry Weintraub — “they were the bad boys,” she recalls — and Brenda Vaccaro, who would introduce Walter to Leibman some 20 years later.


It was her performance in the ensemble drama “The Group” that caught Eastwood’s eye for the role of the obsessed stalker in “Play Misty for Me.”

“He called me in,” said Walter. “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.’”

Walter saw Eastwood at an awards show a few years ago and took her daughter over to meet him. “I said ‘Clint, this is my daughter.’ He said, ‘How do you do? I threw your mother off a cliff.’ He has a great sense of humor. I adore him.”