In Memoriam: Jessica Walter
Jessica Walter was one of the great actresses of any medium, both because of her acting talent and an incredible voice. In a career that spanned over seven decades, she was memorable in just about everything she did, drama, comedy, or animation. Her resume consists of nearly every major or minor television series you can possibly name, from The Defenders to The Love Boat, Ironside to The Streets of San Francisco, Murder, She Wrote. She was even given a few series of her own to lead — an Ironside spinoff called Amy Prentiss.
With her brusque, authoritative tone, she also had a voice that animation made good use off. I remember her work as Lady Diabolyn on the shortlived Saturday morning cartoon Wildfire and her work as Fran, the matriarch of the Sinclair family on Dinosaurs.
But unlike so many of the actors who have passed just this year, Walter is thought of perhaps most highly by my generation. This is because of her work in two of the most extraordinary comedy series of the new Golden Age, one that just couldn’t stay cancelled and one of the most marvelous animated adult series in history.
Arrested Development, even after the scattershot success of the two seasons that aired on Netflix, has to rank as one of the greatest comedy series of all time. It certainly had perhaps the greatest cast of comic actors ever assembled. Jason Bateman, Portia Del Rossi, Will Arnett, David Cross and Tony Hale are some of the greatest comic actors imaginable and its stunning to the think that the character with the smallest role — Michael Cera — has become perhaps the biggest star of all. ‘Here’s the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had to keep it all together.” I don’t think I have ever laughed harder or long at some of the throwaway lines of dialogue, the pratfalls so many characters did and the frigging narration by Ron Howard was part of the fun. And by any calculation, I may have missed eighty percent of the in-jokes that so many of the fans loved.
To name any single cast member as the funniest member of the Bluth family is ludicrous — the writers went out of their way to make sure everybody got a great joke. But its fair to say that the world loved Lucille, the character that Walter played so flawless, with a martini glass always ready in her hand and an acerbic comment always ready to be deployed. One of the better ones: “I love all my children equally.” Flashback: “I don’t particularly care for Gob.” There seemed something perfect about everything she did, the way she cheerfully pitted her children against each other, how she gleefully lied about the affair she was having with her husband’s twin brother, and her eternal battle with Lucille 2 (Liza Minelli) — at least in her mind anyway. Any other actress would have made this unpleasant, but just as all the other actors were perfectly cast to make their flaws hysterical, Walter was just at making everything as much fun.
When Arrested Development ended its network run, Walter continued to work. Then in 2009, FX came a calling with an animated series that a voice role that you could imagine anyone other than Walter doing. Archer is one of the most enduring and hysterical animated series of any era, featuring one of the great voice casts around: H. Jon Benjamin, Aisha Tyler, Chris Parnell, Judy Greer, and at the head of their agency (I’ve never been entirely sure whether calling it ISIS was a deliberate bad joke or just bad timing) was Mallory Archer, voiced impeccably by Walter.
There was little difference in behavior between Mallory and Lucille; she was always drinking, always berated her son and employees (who, to be fair, were mostly very incompetent) and not really caring about the government she worked for. (Halfway through the series run, we would learn that ISIS was, in fact, not affiliated with the government and had been committing treason all this time.) Part of what has made Archer so successfully during its long run is that unlike other certain animated series (hint, hint) Archer was never afraid to change the game. Halfway through its run, Archer and crew began running cocaine and doing Hollywood Security. When Archer fell into a coma, it was excuse for the series to go inside his mind and embrace different genres — noir, adventures series, and outer space. The cast took on different roles, but Walter was always at the lead making things bad for everybody. In a way, few actress have either played — or voiced — such memorable messy matriarchs.
Walter will be missed by the lion’s shares of fans of both series, but at least Archer will have a chance to give a fitting goodbye. Animated series can often do surprisingly moving tributes to voices they’ve lost — The Simpsons remembered Marcia Wallace fondly and Family Guy was particularly movie after the passing of guest voices Carrie Fisher and Adam West. It will be hard to say goodbye to Walter — it’s hard to imagine if Archer will even continue without her — but somehow, I have a feeling Walter would want it that way. Not Mallory, though.