As news of Jessica Walter’s passing traveled across social media, fans of the sharp-tongued, icy, hard-hearted, boozy Lucille Bluth — the Mommie Dearest of “Arrested Development” — responded with GIFs including some of her best quips. “I don’t understand the question and I won’t respond to it.” “Here’s some money, go see a Star War.” “I’d rather be dead in California than alive in Arizona.” “Get me a vodka rocks… and a piece of toast.” “Sometimes a diet is the best defense.” “It’s one banana, Michael, what could it cost? 10 dollars?”
While Lucille will always be Walter’s most iconic character — not only due to her amazing comic timing and throaty delivery — there was so much more to her impressive six-decade career.
She was terrifying in Clint Eastwood’s directorial debut, the 1971 thriller “Play Misty for Me.” A genre precursor to “Fatal Attraction,” Walter impressed in her first major film role as a mentally unstable fan obsessed with Eastwood’s radio DJ. The unhinged performance earned her a Golden Globe nomination. Always with a keen eye for talent, Roger Ebert instantly clocked Walter’s star power. In his review, Ebert wrote that Walter played the character “with an unnerving effectiveness.” He goes on: “She is something like flypaper; the more you struggle against her personality, the more tightly you’re held.”
After receiving pedigree acting training at the Neighborhood Playhouse, she began a prolific career on Broadway. She won a Clarence Derwent Award in 1963 for her work in Peter Ustinov’s well-reviewed “Photo Finish.” She was part of the original 1988 cast of Neil Simon’s “Rumors,” a farce bolstered by performances from Christine Baranski, André Gregory, and Walter’s late husband, actor Ron Leibman. (A Tony winner for playing Roy Cohn in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America,” Leibman died in 2019.)
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 Lucille Bluth sharpness to Mrs. Evangeline Harcourt, the snobbish and overbearing mother to Laura Osnes’ clueless ingenue Hope Harcourt. The production starred Sutton Foster as Reno Sweeney and Joel Grey as Moonface Martin, and won that year’s Tony Award for best musical revival.
It’s no surprise that Walter, a master of deadpan comedy, also had a great voiceover career. For 11 seasons of FX’s “Archer,” she played yet another snarky and emotionally distant mother, Malory Archer. She received several Annie Award nominations for her work in the critically beloved series.
One of her most courageous performances didn’t occur onscreen, but on the record. In a 2018 interview conducted by The New York Times with the cast of “Arrested Development,” Walter spoke candidly — and quite unexpectedly — about her experience working with Jeffrey Tambor, who played Lucille’s husband George Bluth. Tambor had recently been accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women he worked with on Amazon’s “Transparent,” eventually costing him the job playing a trans woman that earned him two Emmys. (Tambor denied the allegations.) As “Arrested Development” headed into its long-awaited fifth season, creator Mitch Hurwitz and Netflix stood by Tambor, releasing the first half of the fifth season with Tambor still in it.
As the cast assembled to promote the new season, ostensibly prepared to weather questions about Tambor, Walter took the brave step of speaking out about an on-set outburst that left her rattled.
“I have to let go of being angry at him. He never crossed the line on our show, with any, you know, sexual whatever. Verbally, yes, he harassed me, but he did apologize. I have to let it go,” Walter said, through tears. “But it’s hard because honestly — Jason [Bateman] says this happens all the time. In like almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set.”
Clearly unprepared for such honesty, “Arrested” fans were shocked when Walter’s male co-stars, in particular Jason Bateman and David Cross, interrupted, minimized, and tried to refute Walter’s account. Only “Arrested” star Alia Shawkat, the only other woman in the interview, spoke up in support of Walter. The blowback was so swift that Bateman issued an apology, tweeting that he was “incredibly embarrassed and deeply sorry to have done that to Jessica.”
This was a crucial moment in Hollywood’s reckoning with sexism, misogyny, and harassment. It illustrates the culture of misogyny in Hollywood that leads stars to think they can harass women — whether sexually, physically, or verbally — is so insidious that even an award-winning actress with six decades of experience was nearly silenced from calling it out, and the men doing the silencing didn’t even know they were doing it.
Along with all the laughs, indelible one-liners, and a performance for the ages, Jessica Walter gave us this turning point in the ongoing reckoning with Hollywood sexism. As if the GIFs weren’t enough.