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Jessica Walter played Arrested Development's most iconic role, which is saying something for a show stockpiled with eccentric characters

  • "The Walter role that looms largest today is Lucille Bluth, the boozy, self-absorbed, anti-maternal matriarch on Arrested Development," says Jen Chaney of the Emmy-winning actress, who died Wednesday at age 80. "Actors are often praised with comments like 'No one else could have played this role,' and usually that is an exaggeration. In this case, it’s true. Walter was perfect for the role of Lucille, the privileged, blunt, uncaring mother whose delivery of every snarky comment was drier than the martinis she sipped at every conceivable hour of the day. 'Jessica Walter never missed,' John Levenstein, a writer for Arrested Development, tweeted today. 'If she didn’t get a laugh, there was a problem with the script.' Arrested Development featured a stockpile of eccentric characters, from never-nudes to wannabe magicians, and had a cast filled with comedy all stars. So it’s saying something that Walter’s Lucille has become the show’s most quoted, most revered, and most iconic — yes, that word gets tossed around too liberally, but dammit, it’s warranted in this case — figure. Not a day goes by on Twitter without the appearance of a GIF or image of Lucille rolling her eyes, telling her adopted son Annyong to go 'see a Star War,' or dropping this always-applicable gem: 'I don’t understand the question, and I won’t respond to it,' a line that’s even funnier in the context of the actual episode in which it appears. (Lucille says this with a combination of disdain and disinterest after a server at a restaurant called Klimpy’s has the audacity to ask, 'Plate or platter?') Great performances should not be assessed on the number of memes they generate. Still, the fact that so many of Walter’s moments on that series stood out enough to be digitally memorialized tells you something about why that performance was so phenomenal: because Walter didn’t waste a single second of it. It would have been very easy to ham up every scene and make a meal out of Lucille’s out-of-touch ridiculousness, and there are certainly times when Walter deliberately went in that direction — her bizarre yet somehow elegant take on the Michael-mocking chicken dance comes to mind. But what makes her Lucille so sharp is her sense of control and the nonchalance with which she makes truly brutal statements."


    • It's okay that Jessica Walter's career is being memorialized in memes: "Walter, of course, had a career spanning decades," says James Poniewozik. "And you might think that remembering her life’s work through these brief quotes and gestures — sometimes not even entire lines, sometimes not lines at all — is reductive even if well-meaning, the minimizing of a screen icon into a meme icon. In fact, it’s a tribute to exactly what made Jessica Walter so exceptional. TV history is full of brilliant lines, memorable scenes and captivating characters. But few of them have been so GIF-able, have so dominated the visual language of social media, as Walter’s Lucille did late in her life. For an image to work as a GIF — to instantly convey tone, context and intent — you must be able to hear it the instant you see it, even without sound. And that’s what Walter accomplished, episode after Arrested Development episode, by consistently delivering some of the greatest line readings in sitcom history."
    • Walter became the patron saint of sh*tty mothers thanks to Lucille Bluth: "Motherhood is a cult of demanding sacrifice that never measures up, but Lucille doesn’t even try to play the game," says Sonia Saraiya. "It’s awful—tragic!—and such a release too, to see the perfectly polished Walter ignore or manipulate her children to serve her own needs. Can you imagine Lucille changing diapers? Breastfeeding? Wiping spit-up off of a baby’s mouth? Never! Darling, you pay people for all of that. Nothing gets in the way of cocktail hour at the club. As the product of a difficult mother who is now a mother myself, I’m too familiar with how fraught those feelings are, both as the child and as the parent. What I love about Lucille is how she transmutes the angst into comedy; with her every gesture, she makes the concept of bad mothers something we can all cope with, and maybe even laugh at. It’s often pointed out that even when antiheroes swept television, no female character could survive the scrutiny of being a crappy mom. Except for Lucille, who sucked on broadcast television, and everyone loved her for it. There’s guilt wrapped around every decision that goes into being a mom, and yet here’s Lucille, shame-free, sipping a martini poolside. How effortlessly she flips the script."
    • Walter's 2018 New York Times interview comments about Jeffrey Tambor helped Hollywood reckon with sexism, misogyny and harassment: "As the cast assembled to promote the new season, ostensibly prepared to weather questions about Tambor, Walter took the brave step of speaking out about (Jeffrey Tambor's) on-set outburst that left her rattled," recounts Jude Dry. "...Clearly unprepared for such honesty, Arrested fans were shocked when Walter’s male co-stars, in particular Jason Bateman and David Cross, interrupted, minimized, and tried to refute Walter’s account. Only Arrested star Alia Shawkat, the only other woman in the interview, spoke up in support of Walter. The blowback was so swift that Bateman issued an apology, tweeting that he was 'incredibly embarrassed and deeply sorry to have done that to Jessica.' This was a crucial moment in Hollywood’s reckoning with sexism, misogyny, and harassment. It illustrates the culture of misogyny in Hollywood that leads stars to think they can harass women — whether sexually, physically, or verbally — is so insidious that even an award-winning actress with six decades of experience was nearly silenced from calling it out, and the men doing the silencing didn’t even know they were doing it. Along with all the laughs, indelible one-liners, and a performance for the ages, Jessica Walter gave us this turning point in the ongoing reckoning with Hollywood sexism. As if the GIFs weren’t enough."
    • Walter had 160 TV and film credits, so it's funny that she found her career-defining role late in life: "Jessica Walter worked," says Alan Sepinwall. "She worked in the literal sense, in that she was rarely without an acting job from the time her career began in the early Sixties, with a role as Julie Murano on the CBS daytime soap Love of Life, all the way through this past February, when her guest appearance on ABC’s American Housewife aired, just weeks before Walter died at the age of 80. Her IMDb page lists 160 film and TV projects, and many series that brought her back repeatedly in different roles, particularly Sixties and Seventies mystery shows like F.B.I., Mannix, and The Streets of San Francisco. Which brings us to the other way in which Walter worked over decades before she improbably found her career-defining role as pickled matriarch Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development: People kept hiring Jessica Walter not because she was famous, but because she was good. In any role, in any genre, from cop dramas to family sitcoms, you could trust her to show up and provide exactly what was needed for the character in question — with her performance often adding more life than there was on the page. Walter’s reliable professionalism and late-in-life success only made it funnier that she finally found her niche on Arrested, and as the voice of Malory Archer on FX’s animated spy comedy Archer, playing sarcastic, past-their-prime drunks. Walter was the exact opposite of an overnight success. Rather than exploding from obscurity, she just leveled up year after year in roles that made her a familiar, even welcome, face in the living rooms of people who probably didn’t know her name. She waited nearly a lifetime to find a role that fit her like a designer glove, then got to live to enjoy more lifetimes in the business over the 18 years since. Even without Arrested and all it did for her, Walter would have had an interesting career. After leaving Love of Life, she was a fixture on the small screen, guest-starring on iconic shows like The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, and Columbo."
    • Lucille Bluth made Walter relevant to an entire new audience: "Arrested Development wasn’t just contemporary; it was light-years ahead of its time, too niche to last long on broadcast but popular enough in its afterlife to fuel the rise of Netflix, which shrewdly saw a revival as a shortcut into subscribers’ hearts," says Alison Herman. "And Walter was key to its success. The bitchy grande dame is a classic archetype, but Walter carried it into an era of shaky, handheld cameras and layered, meta in-jokes, years before 30 Rock or The Office...Affection for Lucille led directly to Walter’s next starring role—the longest-lasting of her entire career, and one that technically still continues. The character description for Malory Archer, the acid-tongued boss (and progenitor) of the animated FX comedy’s namesake secret agent, told prospective players to 'think of the type as Jessica Walter from Arrested Development.' Naturally, Walter was the first voice actor cast by creator Adam Reed; why settle for a type when the inspiration herself was happy to sign on? Over 11 seasons, Malory would become the go-to source for the lewdest, funniest lines on an already over-the-top show. Freed from the strictures of network TV, Walter could lean even further into her newfound specialty."
    • Walter made mean mom jokes an art form: "I never thought much about why I loved the character of Lucille Bluth so much," says Emma Spector, "but the news of Walter's death has made me realize how much it meant to me to see a mother figure on TV who wasn't perpetually warm or nurturing. I come from a long line of funny, slightly mean women, starting with my mother's mother, who was ... well, more than slightly mean; to be fair, she had a hard life, but like Lucille, she drank heavily, had four kids—her least-favorite changed almost every week—and right up until she died, she could absolutely annihilate you with a tossed-off insult in either English or Italian. In contrast, my own mother is a genuinely kind person, but her blonde bob, fondness for white wine, and occasionally barbed bon mots have earned her many comparisons to Lucille over the years. (On the plus side, this meant I could usually wriggle out of trouble with a good-enough joke.) Like my grandma and my mom, Lucille wasn't perfect—what parent is?—but she showed up, and she was funny, and that was enough."
    • Archer Season 12, airing later this year, will feature Walter's voice, as she recently wrapped production
    • New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman: Walter requested that I not use her as my Twitter avatar
    • Watch Walter look back at her career as TCM's guest programmer in 2005

    TOPICS: Jessica Walter, Archer, Arrested Development, Retro TV