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Jessica Walter — Her Life and Career, From Broadway To ‘Arrested Development’ and Beyond!

Read about the woman who brought Lucille Bluth to life

Whether she had a starring role or a guest appearance, Jessica Walter was as comfortable on the stage as she was on TV shows and movies. With her first acting appearance on the stage in Photo Finish, Walter won a Clarence Derwent Award in 1963 for Outstanding Debut Broadway Performance.

Blunt, honest and confident, Walter worked with some of Hollywood’s greatest – Sidney Lumet, Alfred Hitchcock, Clint Eastwood, Neil Simon – and moved seamlessly between drama, sci-fi and comedy, more recently finding a new, younger audience as devious matriarch Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development.

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Jessica Walter, 2013
Jessica Walter, 2013Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Jessica Walter put in the work to be a star of TV shows and movies

Born Jessica Ann Walter on January 31, 1941 in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Queens, she attended the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. After her Broadway debut, Walter moved to television and played Julie Muranoon on the soap opera Love of Life from 1962 to 1965.

Never one to have grass grow under her feet, Walter simultaneously acted on other popular TV series, including Naked City, East Side/West Side, Ben Casey, Route 66, The Doctors and the Nurses, The Defenders and was lauded for her role as Lorna Richmond on the “Ordeal of Mrs. Snow” episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.

Jessica Walter, 1966
Jessica Walter, 1966Dove/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

She also had a supporting role as William Shatner’s wife on the legal drama For the People in 1966 and made a number of television show guest appearances between 1964 and 1966.

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Jessica Walter, 1966, actress of the stage, movies and TV shows
Jessica Walter, 1966Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images

Jessica Walter forays into film

Walter thought it time to throw her hat into the feature film ring, and did it in a big way with Sidney Lumet’s The Group in 1966, portraying the brash Libby. Considered risqué at the time with its progressive themes of sexuality, alcoholism, mental illness, abortion, class and gender politics, the film still feels fresh today.

Lumet and Walter hit it off and remained friends and collaborators up until his death. He cast Walter in the arthouse comedy Bye Bye Braverman in 1968.

Along came Clint Eastwood in his directorial debut, 1971’s Play Misty for Me. Eastwood had seen Walter in The Group and thought her perfect for the role of Evelyn, the unhinged, dangerous and manipulative stalker role in his movie.

Jessica Walter, Clint Eastwood, Play Misty for Me, 1971
Jessica Walter, Clint Eastwood, Play Misty for Me, 1971Screen Archives/Getty Images

Evelyn was a woman obsessed with Eastwood’s Dave and begins to stalk him, calling into his radio show nightly to request he play “Misty” for her. One moment she’s a coy sweetheart of a woman, but when wronged, watch out!

Walter received a Golden Globe nomination for this role, setting the tone for a genre precursor to future woman-wronged and vengeful roles – Fatal Attraction anyone?

Other film credits from the 1960s include Lilith (1964), Grand Prix (1966) and Number One (1969).

I lost more parts than I’ve ever had, but you realize quick that you have to be like a terrier with a bone,” she told Elle in 2019. “So I did the circuit. My God, I did the circuit. If it’s a good role, I don’t care what the medium is, I take it.”

Jessica Walter, The Group, 1966
Jessica Walter, The Group, 1966United Artists/Getty Images

With that mantra, Walter has been in Tony-winning Broadway plays (Anything Goes), starred in the aforementioned legal drama with pre-Star Trek William Shatner and so much more.

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Television work

She received her only Emmy for the short-lived series, Amy Prentiss, a spin-off of Ironside. Due to her no-nonsense approach to acting and undeniable talent, Walter was asked to return to various series as multiple characters: four on Murder, She Wrote, six on The Love Boat, four on Mannix and six on The F.B.I.

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Jessica Walter, circa 1975, actress of the stage, movies and TV shows
Jessica Walter, circa 1975Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

By the 1980s, Walter had turned increasingly towards comedy, both on the big screen (1984’s The Flamingo Kid) and the small (1984’s Three’s a Crowd). That doesn’t mean she was one to shy away from other genres, whether playing an EarthGov senator on the cult sci-fi series Babylon 5 or providing the voice for Fran Sinclair in the animated sitcom Dinosaurs (1991).  

She also appeared on Just Shoot Me as Eve Gallo, the mother of Maya and the ex-wife of magazine publisher Jack Gallo. At the Los Angeles Theater Center, she co-starred in the 1986 production of Tartuffe, opposite Ron Leibman, to whom she was married from 1983 until his death in 2019.  

Ron Leibman and Jessica Walter, 2005
Ron Leibman and Jessica Walter, 2005Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic/Getty Images

Jessica Walter takes on Lucille Bluth

Then, along came Arrested Development, where Walter appeared in a regular role from 2003 to 2006 as the scheming alcoholic socialite, “Mommy Dearest” matriarch, Lucille Bluth. Audiences were convinced that Walter’s off screen persona mimicked Lucille’s or vice versa, but Walter begged to differ.

I’m nothing like Lucille,” she said in a 2005 interview with Entertainment Weekly. “Nothing. My daughter will tell you. I’m really a very nice, boring person.”

Jessica Walter, Arrested Development, 2003, actress of the stage, movies and TV shows
Jessica Walter, Arrested Development, 2003HarperSeven/MoviestillsDB

So convincingly did she play Lucille that she received a nomination for the Primetime Emmy Award in 2005. Fox cancelled the show after three seasons, but fans lobbied for a fourth and didn’t stop until Netflix revived the series and Walter reprised her role for season five, premiering in 2018 on Netflix.

The fans were just die hard, just die hard,” she told Elle in 2019. However, in May of 2018, Walter became part of an on-set controversy regarding harassment she said she received from co-star Jeffrey Tambor, who played her husband.

Cast of Arrested Development, 2004
Cast of Arrested Development, 2004Jim Spellman/WireImage/Getty Images

In almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set,” she told The New York Times. “And it’s hard to deal with, but I’m over it now.” In fact, the two agreed to work together again on any future projects.

Jessica Walter had continued success on Broadway, TV shows and movies

Following the cult-turned-blockbuster success of Arrested Development, Walter returned to Broadway for the 2011 revival of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. She brought her Arrested character’s sharpness to Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt, the snobbish and overbearing mother to her clueless ingénue Hope Harcourt. The play won that year’s Tony Award for best musical revival.

Walter played Tabitha Wilson on the first season of 90210 (2008-2009) until the character was written off halfway through. Guest starring roles during this time included Rules of Engagement, Law & Order: SVU and, from 2011 to 2012, her starring in the TVLand sitcom Retired at 35 alongside her Bye Bye Braverman co-star, George Segal.  

Jessica Walter, 2018, actress of the stage, movies and TV shows
Jessica Walter, 2018Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM

It’s no surprise that Walter, who was a master of deadpan comedy, also provided her voice for 11 seasons and 127 episodes of FX’s Archer, playing another irreverent and emotionally distant mom, Malory Archer.

Sadly, Jessica Walter died in her sleep on March 24, 2021 at the age of 80. She might always be remembered as the hard-hearted, icy, drunk Lucille Bluth, but there was so much more to Walter’s outstanding six-decade career.

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