Jessica Walters Dies at 80 Years Old


“Arrested Development” actress Jessica Walter dies at 80 years old. (Courtesy of Twitter)

Emma Diede, Contributing Writer

The iconic, hilarious, award-winning actress Jessica Walter died at 80 years old last week in her Manhattan home. Walter had an illustrious career that spanned decades, beginning with small parts in television series such as “Love of Life,” “Naked City” and “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.”

Walter was a New York native, born in Brooklyn to a musician and a teacher. She grew up in Queens and attended the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan. Her feature film debut was “Lilith” in 1964, where she starred alongside Warren Beatty and Gene Hackman. She demonstrated her abilities as a dramatic actress in the 1971 film “Play Misty For Me,” directed by Clint Eastwood, for which she received critical acclaim and a Golden Globe nomination.Walter won an Emmy for “Amy Prentiss,” a police drama that aired for one season. 

In addition to the big and small screen, Walter was an accomplished stage actress in both New York and Los Angeles. She starred in “Tartuffe with her late husband Ron Liebman as well as the Tony Award-winning Broadway revival of “Anything Goes.” 

She was an active member of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) as both an elected member to the SAG board of directors and as its second national vice president. Rare, especially for women in Hollywood, was Walter’s continued popularity and increased success as she aged. She is perhaps best known for her role as Lucille Bluth, the scathing, elegant, hysterical matriarch of the dysfunctional Bluth family on “Arrested Development.” The cult comedy aired for five seasons, first from 2003 to 2006, then revived in 2013 for its fourth season and in 2019 for a fifth. 

Among an incredible cast, Walter shone. Her one-liners, quick quips and legendary wit created a self-absorbed character that was somehow completely unlikable while also being unequivocally beloved by the audience. Her delivery elevated the already well-written jokes to another level of hilarity.

Lucille Bluth was consistently critical of her family, signed her son up for the army (then threw him a party to spite him for leaving), was glaringly unaware of how much a “Star Wars” or a banana cost, would rather be dead in California than alive in Arizona and refused to respond to any criticism of her person, veiled or otherwise. She was a tipsy, cold-hearted, privileged elitist. In response to this, all the audience ever had to say was, “good for her.” Her catty remarks only made us love her more, and there’s really only one explanation for that: Jessica Walter. It is impossible to hate a character portrayed by someone with such obvious comedic timing and pure, unadulterated talent.

“Lucille was a terrific character. She was a great, strange, complicated person. I’m just so grateful I had the opportunity to do it,” Walter said in an interview with AV Club of the character people “love to hate.”

Her on-screen family paid tribute to her over social media. Alia Shawkat, who played Walter’s granddaughter on “Arrested Development,” posted a photo of Walter to Instagram with the caption “love you Gangie,” the nickname her fictional grandchildren called her on the show. David Cross, who played the son-in-law of Walter’s character, took to Twitter, writing, “I consider myself privileged and very lucky to have been able to work with her. Lucille Bluth is one of TV’s greatest characters.” 

Ron Howard, the narrator and executive producer of the show, tweeted, “What a brilliant, funny, intelligent and strong woman. RIP Jessica Walter, and thank you for a lifetime of laughs and for sharing your incredible talent on our show and with the world.”

Walter’s character on “Arrested Development” was often compared to her character on the animated comedy “Archer,” for which there is still one more series to air. The creator and executive producer of the program, Adam Reed, wrote, “ Jessica was a consummate professional, an actor’s actor, and the exact opposite of Malory Archer — warm, caring and kind, with an absolutely cracking sense of humor — and it was both a privilege and a true honor to work with her over these many years. She will be greatly missed, but never forgotten.”

When casting for “Archer,” prospective actors were told to strive for a Jessica Walter-type, leading Reed to cast Jessica Walter as his first voice actor for the show, excited to work with the blueprint rather than an imitation. 

Other friends and peers shared their condolences across social media following the announcement of her death. “Knowing her mostly from dramatic work in films like ‘Play Misty For Me’ just made the comic genius of her turn in ‘Arrested Development’ even more delightful,” wrote director Edgar Wright. “You can watch her reactions shots on a loop. Lucille Bluth Forever.”

Lynda Carter, who worked with Walter on 1977’s “Return of the Wonder Woman,” shared on Twitter, “Though we battled each other on-screen, in real life she was one of kindest, warmest, funniest women I’ve ever met. Jessica, I will always remember your sage advice on and off the set fondly. We will all miss you.”

Walter is survived by her daughter Brooke Bowman, the SVP Drama Programming at Fox Entertainment and her grandson Micah Heymann. “Her greatest pleasure was bringing joy to others through her storytelling both on-screen and off,” wrote Bowman in a statement. “While her legacy will live on through her body of work, she will also be remembered by many for her wit, class and overall joie de vivre.”