Jessica Walter, who died yesterday at the age of 80, played a vast array of roles on the stage and screen during her five-decade acting career. She was a radio listener turned stalker in Play Misty for Me. She guest-starred on practically every 1970s crime procedural that existed until she got an Ironside spinoff of her own, Amy Prentiss, which didn’t last very long but still won her an Emmy. She was the voice of an allosaurus on Dinosaurs, the snobby Mrs. Harcourt in a Broadway revival of Anything Goes, and the voice of the overbearing mother and retired spy on Archer. And that only scratches the surface of the surface.
But the Walter role that looms largest today is Lucille Bluth, the boozy, self-absorbed, anti-maternal matriarch on Arrested Development. Actors are often praised with comments like “No one else could have played this role,” and usually that is an exaggeration. In this case, it’s true. Walter was perfect for the role of Lucille, the privileged, blunt, uncaring mother whose delivery of every snarky comment was drier than the martinis she sipped at every conceivable hour of the day. “Jessica Walter never missed,” John Levenstein, a writer for Arrested Development, tweeted today. “If she didn’t get a laugh, there was a problem with the script.”
Arrested Development featured a stockpile of eccentric characters, from never-nudes to wannabe magicians, and had a cast filled with comedy all stars. So it’s saying something that Walter’s Lucille has become the show’s most quoted, most revered, and most iconic — yes, that word gets tossed around too liberally, but dammit, it’s warranted in this case — figure. Not a day goes by on Twitter without the appearance of a GIF or image of Lucille rolling her eyes, telling her adopted son Annyong to go “see a Star War,” or dropping this always-applicable gem: “I don’t understand the question, and I won’t respond to it,” a line that’s even funnier in the context of the actual episode in which it appears. (Lucille says this with a combination of disdain and disinterest after a server at a restaurant called Klimpy’s has the audacity to ask, “Plate or platter?”)
Great performances should not be assessed on the number of memes they generate. Still, the fact that so many of Walter’s moments on that series stood out enough to be digitally memorialized tells you something about why that performance was so phenomenal: because Walter didn’t waste a single second of it. It would have been very easy to ham up every scene and make a meal out of Lucille’s out-of-touch ridiculousness, and there are certainly times when Walter deliberately went in that direction — her bizarre yet somehow elegant take on the Michael-mocking chicken dance comes to mind. But what makes her Lucille so sharp is her sense of control and the nonchalance with which she makes truly brutal statements. “You’re my third-least-favorite child,” she tells Jason Bateman’s Michael in the season-one episode “My Mother, the Car,” a line delivered as though it’s a dart lightly dipped in arsenic, then casually thrown directly into her son’s eyeball. It’s brilliant, and it’s not even the most comedically genius thing she does in that scene. That honor goes to her explosion at her son Buster (Tony Hale) — “Get away from that stove, you’re going to light your hair on fire!” — which she immediately follows with the dark, wry observation: “He’s weak.”
Even when Lucille was called upon to be silly, Walter did it with blasé panache. For one example, report to season two’s “Afternoon Delight,” when a high Lucille drives her car into the middle of a crowd and runs over her son-in-law Tobias. As the car slowly ker-thunks over his body, she says, with only mild curiosity, “What the hell was that?” The thing that made Lucille so consistently funny was the way her emotional responses were completely at odds with whatever situation she encountered. She was either outraged about something minor or barely out of sorts after nearly committing vehicular manslaughter or cackling maniacally at her joke about hospitals (people hate them because there are no bars there) while her son Gob — fourth-least-favorite child — was actually in the hospital. Walter understood that the dissonance between what was appropriate and whatever Lucille was doing in any given moment drove the character, and that became her comedic lodestar.
Given that Arrested Development is about morally bankrupt rich people and that Lucille is the kind of woman who today would absolutely wind up playing the Karen in a viral video, it’s remarkable that so many people like Lucille so much. But viewers really liked her and still do. That’s partly because she’s so blunt and so blatantly entitled, which are terrible qualities in a regular human but very funny ones in a sitcom character. But it’s also because Walter so obviously relished playing her. In a statement about her death, her daughter Brooke Bowman mentioned her mother’s “overall joie de vivre,” and Lucille Bluth had that, too. As dark and acidic as she was, she sometimes just got a huge kick out of life, especially when life involved private investigator Gene Parmesan popping up in unexpected places.
All of this is extra remarkable when one remembers that, in an interview with the New York Times, Walter broke down in tears as she recalled how verbally abusive her co-star Jeffrey Tambor had gotten at one point on the set with her. Her honesty about that experience was a reminder that actors often have pressures and tension swirling around them, but still must try to give the kind of performance that … well, that someone will write an entire article about once that actor is gone. Jessica Walter didn’t just do a remarkable job of embodying Lucille Bluth; she apparently had to do it, on at least some occasions, with other issues in the way. She still nailed every moment, with sly finesse, a martini glass in one hand, and a nice, big wink. Good for her, indeed.