From ‘Play Misty for Me’ to ‘Arrested Development,’ Jessica Walter Was an Unparalleled Icon of Charisma

Caroline Framke
·3-min read

No one could go from zero to 100 quite like Jessica Walter.

Walter, who died at the age of 80 on March 24, embodied bold women who made her impossible to forget throughout her 60-year career. In her breakout role, in Clint Eastwood’s 1971 thriller “Play Misty for Me,” Walter portrayed Evelyn, a woman who becomes so obsessed with Eastwood’s radio host that she stalks him, threatens him, threatens to kill herself and then really does kill a police officer who gets in her way. She’s a ticking time bomb with no limit, the terrifying embodiment of female obsession 16 years before “Fatal Attraction” became a phenomenon. That Evelyn is a toxic cliché barely matters thanks to Walter’s performance, in which her beautiful face twists with alarming, ugly fury. The actor makes Evelyn’s pain so visceral it’s impossible not to understand.

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Walter’s résumé is long and varied, spanning auteur films, broadcast network procedurals, and the broadest of sitcoms. So it’s saying something that two of her most iconic roles came in the last third of her storied career, introducing her particular brand of spiky charisma to a new generation of fans.

On Fox’s “Arrested Development,” which premiered in 2003, Walter played the imperious Lucille Bluth, who loves nothing more than to start her day by dressing down her dearest family members with a snide barb about their deepest insecurities — along with a hearty helping of vodka (and a piece of toast). Lucille mostly acts as a sly agent of chaos warming her hands by the fire of her family’s panic, but the show would be lost without Walter providing the sharp reality check of Lucille’s disdain.

Simultaneously, on FX’s animated series “Archer,” Walter voiced Malory, a parallel-universe version of Lucille who runs a spy agency (instead of a guileless family of rich dummies). With her instantly recognizable diamond-grit voice, Walter’s performance is an immediate knockout. Where her son Archer runs red hot, Malory simmers with ice cold contempt — until she gets really pissed off, at which point she, too, is liable to explode. Hearing Walter rev up to one of Malory’s bursts of profane wrath with such startling speed and precision, even 11 seasons later, remains one of the show’s best and most perverse treats.

Year after year, Walter was wickedly funny, especially when portraying people with no sense of humor at all. She was unparalleled in the art of slicing through nonsense with the raise of a skeptical eyebrow, spicing up scenes with line reads that transformed them, and anchoring a story with the kind of inherent gravitas that can’t be taught. But the singular joy of watching her work was in seeing her boil over. Whether letting loose with rage or joy, Walter’s unforgettable characters always became the star of the show.

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