Nobody described what made Jessica Walter’s performance as Arrested Development’s Lucille Bluth so rich and wonderful better than Walter herself. Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in 2019, Walter recalled receiving a pilot script that provided little in the way of detail. “I think it just said, ‘matriarch of this family’,” she said. So she filled in the blanks herself. “I just had a take on it: A mother who loves her children but cannot show it — and who is desperate to keep the lifestyle that she was accustomed to having.” That last element provided Lucille with her motivation, a need to keep up appearances and, more importantly, keep herself in the style to which she’d become accustomed. But it was the way Walter buried an unmistakable sense of love deep — often extremely deep — within the performance that made Lucille memorable. Another actor could have sipped martinis and delivered blistering insults and made it funny. But it was Walter that gave Lucille her withered but still beating heart.
Walter had a way of fleshing out potentially thin characters from her start. She made a deep impression as Evelyn Draper, the unstable fan of the late-night jazz DJ Dave Garver played by Clint Eastwood in Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut Play Misty For Me. That’s partly because of the character’s extreme behavior when, after Garver cuts off their relationship, Draper grows increasingly unhinged. Walter doesn’t shy away from the extremes, but she also never tilts the role into camp, even as Draper turns from obsessive to homicidal. She’s scary, but pitiable. The film could just have been about a crazy woman who couldn’t handle rejection. Instead, she turns Garver into a monster made by the unthinking disregard of a careless man. Eastwood spent the early ’70s trying to shake up his image as an invulnerable macho hero; Walter provided the perfect foil.
Walter was already a familiar face by then. After winning early acclaim for theatrical work — she won a Clarence Derwent Award for Outstanding Debut playing opposite Peter Ustinov in Ustinov’s play Photo Finish in 1963 — she moved on to TV and film. On television, she starred in the soap opera Love of Life, but also appeared in increasingly high-profile guest work on everything from Route 66 to Flipper. Her early film work included appearances in Sidney Lumet’s The Group and John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix.
Lumet’s film is not all that well remembered now, but it dropped Walter into a who’s-who ensemble of future stars, including Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, Shirley Knight and Hal Holbrook. It also established her as an actress who said exactly what was on her mind, a practice she maintained to the end. Speaking to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch she said of her co-stars, “They were very professional on the set, but backstage, brother! They all just hated each other, that’s all! There were feuds over the parts, feuds over who’s thinner than whom, you name it. I didn’t have any feuds, but I’m sure there were some girls who had it in for me. I myself didn’t like a couple of the girls.” While promoting Grand Prix, she used an interview with the Boston Globe as an opportunity to explain why she preferred the stage to the screen: “Making a picture calls for so many wasted hours of waiting—waiting for the hair dresser, the electricians, the director, the script writer, the property man, the cosmeticians. There are interminable conferences before a single camera is turned on. I spent 4 1/2 months on The Group and 4 1/2 months on Grand Prix and what footage I have in both pictures doesn’t equal, to my mind, the amount of work I did and the amount of preparations the roles called for.”
That didn’t stop her from appearing in films and particularly television as the ’60s became the ’70s. Walter memorably guest-starred on Columbo and picked up an Emmy for her work in the short-lived detective series Amy Prentiss in 1975, but she could just as often be found on The Love Boat, Wonder Woman, or Trapper John, M.D. (where she had a recurring role). She even played the villainous Morgan le Fay in the 1978 TV movie of Dr. Strange.
Walter continued to work steadily up until the ’90s, but there’s a difference between working steadily and getting a part like Lucille Bluth, the sort of role that can push a career into a new act and introduce an actor to a new generation of fans. As Lucille, Walter gets the series’ first big laugh when, complaining about the gay activists protesting the Bluth yacht, she says, “Everything they do is so dramatic and flamboyant, it just makes me want to set myself on fire.” Walter delivers the line with the absolute conviction of a woman who knows she’s right then punctuates it with a pained blink, as if her (sorely misplaced) sense of grievance encapsulated the world’s decline.
Arrested Development’s scripts kept giving her plum lines and memorable scenes and Walter kept finding ways to improve on them with frowns, disturbing winks, and other gestures that made her work a font for GIF-makers. She also conveyed, in glimpses, the sense of vulnerability beneath Lucille’s steely glare. She loved her husband and her children, even if that love sometimes took twisted form. (Would, for instance, Buster’s life have been half as warped if he weren’t being used to satisfy Lucille’s need to be needed?) Usually, however, she kept the facade intact, playing Lucille as a woman perpetually exerting her will and need to control those around her, whether by undercutting her daughter Lindsey’s confidence at every opportunity or joining the others to mock Michael with the Bluths bizarre approximations of how a chicken behaves.
That she delivered such unfailingly on-point comedic work seems all the more remarkable now that we know she was working under trying conditions. A 2018 New York Times profile of the Arrested Development cast, conducted after co-star Jeffrey Tambor had been accused of sexual misconduct on the set of Transparent, turned into a tense session that found a tearful Walter reliving Tambor shouting at her on set, explaining that she had “to let go of being angry at him” even if in “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.”
That’s the sort of sentiment expressed by a professional, someone committed to getting the job done no matter what nonsense they have to deal with from others — even if they’re unable to turn a blind eye to abuse. It’s also, in its ability to maintain focus in the service of a clear goal, an extremely Lucille Bluth attitude to adopt — even if, by all accounts, Walter otherwise shared little of Lucille Bluth’s sharpness. When news of Walter’s death broke, co-stars were quick to offer warm and effusive praise. Aisha Tyler’s tweet, calling her “a queen in every way,” summed up the sentiments. Tyler co-starred with Walter on the animated series Archer, whose producers originally set out to fill the role of demanding spy boss Malory Archer with a “Jessica Walter type.” Instead, they got Walter herself. That’s lucky. There really wasn’t anyone like her.