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The Enduring Allure of Jessica Walter

The ‘Arrested Development’ and ‘Archer’ performer’s career spanned six decades but found fresh acclaim in her later years, inspiring a new generation

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When an older actor passes away, the response often leans closer to fond nostalgia than acute shock. Death is always a tragedy, but when it’s not considered untimely, it becomes an occasion to look back on a body of work that’s largely in the past. Montages and best-of lists start to make the rounds, reminding admirers of previous peaks and offering neophytes an easy way in.

This was not the case with Jessica Walter, the performer who passed away this Wednesday in her New York City home. When the news broke on Thursday, the reaction on social media was swift and sorrowful. Notably, many of the mourners included younger fans who knew her not from her early performances in films like Grand Prix or series like the original Mission: Impossible, but far more recent roles. In a true rarity for a woman in Hollywood, Walter’s most iconic work arguably came in the final decades of her career. It speaks to her vitality that for many, the first response to the news was incredulity—after all, she still felt so present.

Walter was in her early 60s when she took on the role of Lucille Bluth, the hard-drinking matriarch of the dysfunctional Bluth family in Arrested Development. Walter would become so synonymous with Lucille’s caustic hauteur it’s hard to believe she wasn’t even asked to audition when creator Mitchell Hurwitz first assembled the cast. (She eventually landed the part on such short notice that her husband at the time, actor Ron Leibman, had to FedEx her medication to L.A.) But in just three seasons on Fox, Walter would deliver enough one-liners to furnish a lifetime’s supply of GIFs, a fundamental cornerstone of the show’s enduring appeal. Her personal favorite was “I want to cry so bad, but I don’t think I can spare the moisture.”

By the time Arrested premiered in 2003, Walter had already earned an Emmy for her performance as a trailblazing detective on the short-lived Amy Prentiss, in 1975. But the cult classic Bluth sitcom would introduce her to an entirely new audience. Arrested Development wasn’t just contemporary; it was light-years ahead of its time, too niche to last long on broadcast but popular enough in its afterlife to fuel the rise of Netflix, which shrewdly saw a revival as a shortcut into subscribers’ hearts. And Walter was key to its success. The bitchy grande dame is a classic archetype, but Walter carried it into an era of shaky, handheld cameras and layered, meta in-jokes, years before 30 Rock or The Office.

The career renaissance wasn’t all positive for Walter; after costar Jeffrey Tambor was accused of sexual harassment on the set of Amazon’s Transparent, she revealed in an astonishing group interview that he’d accosted her verbally while shooting Arrested. “In … almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set,” she admitted through tears as Tambor sat in the same room. (In the same interview, Walter said she’d since forgiven her colleague.) The outrage that followed seemed to stem not just from the gravity of the incident itself, but fans’ affection for Walter. How dare Tambor belittle the best thing about his own show?

Affection for Lucille led directly to Walter’s next starring role—the longest-lasting of her entire career, and one that technically still continues. The character description for Malory Archer, the acid-tongued boss (and progenitor) of the animated FX comedy’s namesake secret agent, told prospective players to “think of the type as Jessica Walter from Arrested Development.” Naturally, Walter was the first voice actor cast by creator Adam Reed; why settle for a type when the inspiration herself was happy to sign on? Over 11 seasons, Malory would become the go-to source for the lewdest, funniest lines on an already over-the-top show. Freed from the strictures of network TV, Walter could lean even further into her newfound specialty.

Walter would argue that there were some important distinctions between the two women: “Lucille would never have her hair gray. And Malory is not a martini drinker.” But the roles were united in their glamour, narcissism, and flagrant bitchiness—a far cry from the unassuming, and often nonexistent, roles typically found for women over 45. In real life, Walter’s only vice was the occasional glass of Chardonnay. Through Malory and Lucille, she got to play women who did what they pleased, however ignorant or selfish. No wonder they struck a chord with the internet.

A lifelong New Yorker, Walter grew up in Queens before getting her start onstage. To a younger generation of fans, however, Arrested Development was an introduction in itself. (“It exposed me to a demographic of people who thought I was sick or dead,” she once cracked to the Associated Press.) In the late aughts, quips like “I don’t care for Gob” became a shibboleth, signaling you enjoyed a hip, dry humor Walter became the unlikely, if perfectly suited, face of. It’s less surprising that Walter took these roles so late in her career—taste is taste, no matter the age—than that Hollywood made them available in the first place. Still, it says something that younger admirers are taking her loss so hard. They see her as one of their own.