“I’ll leave when I’m good and ready.” In Arrested Development, that line, spoken by Jessica Walter as conniving matriarch Lucille Bluth, completes a ribald, pun-based misunderstanding. Lucille has misheard her son’s order to “get rid of the Seaward”, referring to her other son’s boat, and thinks he’s calling her the rudest of curse words. It’s a funny line as written; it’s hilarious as delivered by Walter in an unblinking, undaunted reaction. Walter, a television, film, and stage actress, sadly left this world yesterday, dying in her sleep at her New York City home aged 80. We were not good or ready. But she left behind an impressive legacy, before and after the creation of what became her signature character.
Walter got her start on the New York stage, periodically dipping back into theatre as her Hollywood career took off. From the ‘60s and onward, she appeared on a variety of now-classic TV series including The Fugitive, Mission: Impossible, Columbo, Law & Order and Murder, She Wrote, where she played three different guest-starring roles over the years. In film, one of her earliest starring roles was also one of her most memorable: a troubled young woman stalking a disc jockey played by Clint Eastwood in 1971’s Play Misty for Me, sort of a proto-Fatal Attraction, and Eastwood’s first film as a director. She also did lighter material in romantic comedy The Flaming Kid (1984), campus satire PCU (1994), and coming-of-age dramedy Slums of Beverly Hills (1998).
For years, Walter was instantly recognisable both visually and vocally from her steady film and TV work. Later, some of her roles included voice performances like in puppetry-based sitcom Dinosaurs and the animated series Archer. But her experience and exceptional comic timing were most obvious when playing Lucille in the acerbic and lightning-paced Arrested Development, which she did for five seasons between 2003 and 2019.
The show placed Walter in a terrific ensemble, and her various co-stars paid tribute to her gifts on Wednesday. Jason Bateman, who played Lucille’s business-minded son Michael, tweeted: “What an incredible career, filled with amazing performances. I will forever remember my time with her, watching her bring Lucille Bluth to life. She was one of a kind.” Tony Hale, less-gifted son Buster, added: “She was a force, and her talent and timing were unmatched.” Will Arnett, the oldest child Gob, revealed that he knew Walter before their Arrested gig: “Jessica Walter was a deeply talented person. We first met on a pilot in ‘96 and I was instantly blown away. I’m fortunate to have had a front row seat to her brilliance for 25 years.”
Walter spoke out about a different dimension of the Arrested cast in 2018, when speaking to the New York Times about the behaviour of her on-screen husband Jeffrey Tambor. (Tambor was accused of sexual harassment by co-workers on another show.) Walter described an incident where Tambor verbally abused her on-set, displaying both strength and vulnerability addressing a difficult subject.
Thanks largely to the series’ slow-burning success – it was cancelled in 2006 before cult audiences forced a reboot seven years later – Walter was recently enjoying a late-career renaissance. In this influential sitcom, the rich and mostly corrupt Bluth family is thrown into further disarray when patriarch George (Tambor) is arrested, forcing Michael to attempt to keep the others in line and, as such, pitting Michael against nearly every member of his family in turn. Walter’s scheming, withholding Lucille was perhaps his greatest foe; she also performed a duet of dysfunction with clingy youngest son Buster.
As TV comedy’s cruelest mom, Walter struck a perfect balance of avarice, manipulation, and occasional cluelessness. The writing on Arrested Development was so fast and precise that it would be easy enough to surrender to the wit and turn its characters into one-liner machines. Though Walter was handed some of the show’s best lines, she always made sure Lucille was a coherent person. In fact, that could be why so many Lucille lines kill in the first place, and often linger in viewers’ memories. Perhaps owing to her rich and varied career up to that point, Walter could clearly convey the psychology behind the laugh line. Hence all of the online indices of Bluth dismissiveness, so specific to the show yet with so much utility in life outside of it: “Here’s some money; go see a Star War.” “It’s one banana, Michael. What could it cost, 10 dollars?” a perfect encapsulation of wealthy arrogance. And, of course, the all-purpose “I don’t understand the question, and I won’t respond to it.” Fans will be responding to Walter’s brilliant work for years.