It felt like a gut punch. It felt like so many things that I love had died at once. It felt like losing a sharp, foul mouthed family member. It came in a tweet. Things like this always do in this day and age. Jessica Walter, an integral part of my comedy enjoyment over the past two decades had passed away today at the age of 80.
Walter’s career spanned seven decades. Her TV career predates steaming. It predates cable. It even predates the proliferation of color television. Walter starred in memorable television shows over the decades such as FBI, Mannix, Love American Style, The Love Boat, Trapper John MD, and Murder, She Wrote. She won an Emmy in the 1970’s for her role in the show Amy Prentiss.
She was even the mom on Dinosaurs!
But more importantly, she was Mallory Archer.
And EVEN MORE IMPORTANTLY than that, she was Lucille Bluth.
Arrested Development was a proto-Office, in the sense that it survived because the fans of the show were zealots for it. Unlike The Office, though, Arrested Development didn’t overstay it’s welcome (Netflix reboots notwithstanding). While the show was loosely based around Jason Bateman’s Michael Bluth, Walter as family matriarch Lucille Bluth was the true sun that the entire show and cast revolved around. In a show that was memorable for it’s deadpan one liners, Lucille was the Michael Jordan of the dry wit. Walter delivered every line in such a cutting way that you could feel it even as you laughed.
Jessica Walter’s brilliance in Arrested Development is that she always seemed to be over the top at just the perfect time. Used in just the right way. She could spend 90 percent of an episode setting you up for the perfect moment to drop that great line. Check out this super cut of great Lucille moments. If you love the show, it feels like a warm fox shawl that’s missing it’s foot.
Shows that last ten seasons usually have around a 10 minute “funniest moments” video. Walter alone has 10 minutes worth in a show that only lasted five seasons! This show should have had a longer shelf life, but failed while mind numbing shows like Two and a Half Men survived for a good reason: Arrested Development didn’t cater to everyone. The show picked it’s lane, and stuck with it. That lane was to take great character actors, let them own their characters, and have the smartest written show on television. The show was smart while only feeling like they were punching down intentionally just to show that they could.
Whether it was trading barbs with Jeffrey Tambor, or belittling sons Tony Hale and Will Arnett, Walter took the character and made her a beloved crank. The mastermind of the family who always seems to be one step ahead, she was able to be both understated and over-the-top, operating with a level of subtlety in the role.
If her role as Lucille was like a fine wine, her role as Mallory Archer was a Four Loko shot out of a t-shirt cannon, and I mean that in the best way possible.
Archer was the polar opposite in terms of lambaste and pomp and circumstance. The animated series felt largely improvisational, following H. John Benjamin as womanizing secret agent Sterling Archer. Again though, the show is consistently stolen by a family matriarch who the show revolves around, played by Jessica Walter. Mallory Archer was Lucille Bluth, only cut throat, murderous, and constantly cranked to 11. The cutting remarks feel more brutal, like watching someone lob a grenade at a group of penguins.
Even in this role, though, Walter never felt out of place. She was just that good at what she did. Jessica Walter is on my Mt. Rushmore of non-comedian funny people. She may have been playing roles, but she did so with such style and success that the shows somehow feel like they couldn’t possibly survive without her. It feels like a loss personally because these shows are so important to me, personally. Streaming these shows is relaxation. It’s my way of picking up a great book and re-reading it. The loss feels more so because I can’t imagine my favorite things existing without Walter in them.
Comedy is a forever changing and evolving thing. There will always be a next thing. Always a next show. Next movie. Next TikTok. Next actor. Next actress. Arrested Development and Archer feel like shows that will live on forever. In that sense, so will Jessica Walter. The decades of acting ensure that multiple generations have a memory of her, a favorite thing they saw her in. She transcended genres and endured in a fickle business. Her legacy will live on forever.
But damn, this left me feeling really empty inside. Like losing someone close to me. Who always made mean remarks about my weight.