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Jessica Walter’s Star Shines on at the Emmy Awards

Death can't dim the work of an actress who was so vibrant in life.

Jessica Walter

Jessica Walter

David Buchan/Variety


Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in the sky, with prime placement within the constellation of Orion. It takes 640 years for the light from the red supergiant to reach Earth, meaning that for humans, its starlight will burn on long after its death.

In a way, the same is true of certain people. There are some individuals whose light shines so brightly during life, that it can’t help but radiate after they’re gone, providing comfort and beauty that long outlasts their lifespan.

When Emmy nominations were announced July 13, among them was a nod for Jessica Walter, nominated in Outstanding Character Voice-Over Performance for her work as Malory Archer on FXX’s long-running animated series “Archer.” It was the fifth Emmy nomination of her career — she won in 1975 for her work on “Amy Prentiss” — but the first for her memorable work on “Archer.” It came nearly four months after her death on March 24.

A star in every sense of the word, it’s unsurprising that Walter’s vibrant work continues to be appreciated in her absence and with her work on Season 12 completed, fans have even more brilliance to look forward to when “Archer” returns August 25.

It’s easy to appreciate Walter’s performance on the series: all derision and witticisms, an acid-tongued taskmaster, vain and boozy, as deadly in her spy craft as she is in her insults. Though a huge departure from the actress herself who, by all accounts, was a kind and gregarious colleague, it feels impossible that the role could have been filled by anyone else. And for good reason.

“When we sent out the casting calls to all the voice agencies, we we had a little description of each character,”  “Archer” creator Adam Reed said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “After Malory’s character description, in parentheses, we just put ‘think Jessica Walter,’ as sort of, you know, an ideal.”

The next day, the actress’ agent reached out wondering if Reed would be interested in the actual Jessica Walter.

“We just ran around the office yelling and throwing papers in the air,” Reed said.

Even though Walter was always the platonic ideal for the role, that doesn’t mean she didn’t bring her own spin to the character immediately.

“When we recorded the pilot, I was just like, ‘So she’s screaming at Archer here’ and she said, ‘Can I just try it quietly?'” the creator said. “And I was like, ‘Yeah, whatever. That’s not what we’re gonna do. But go ahead’ and then her reads, quiet, were so menacing, that it was way scarier and better than her yelling at somebody.”

“The yelling was was more infrequent and Mallory became sort of this quiet threat.”

ARCHER -- "Identity Crisis --Season 12, Episode 1 (Airs Wednesday, August 25) Pictured: Malory Archer (voice of Jessica Walter). CR: FXX

Malory Archer (voice of Jessica Walter)


Reed also fondly recalled Walter’s dedication to her work, how she would arrive to recordings with her scripts highlighted and Post-it notes throughout, earmarking questions and points of clarification, some of which would lead to slightly awkward conversations.

“We had a lot of real and made-up-for-the-show slang terms for sexual perversions or whatever. And because she wanted to know how to say a line, she would say, ‘Now what is this?’ and I would have to go, ‘OK, this is when this person does this to this other person,'” Reed said. “The first time that I had to do that there was this long pause and she just went, ‘Oh, Adam.’ But then she just nailed it. You know, like a longshoreman.”

Longshoreman or no, Walter was special and where Malory always had a barb, the actress always had a kindness.

“The main thing about Jessica was that she was really our grande dame,” “Archer” star Aisha Tyler said of Walter, “the person that we tended to really center and exalt when we were together. She was obviously older than the rest of us and was very much like the den mother. So we just took a lot of time and put a lot of energy into making her feel special, because she was always making us feel special.”

Animated series like “Archer” can be unique experiences, with the casts rarely interacting and performances recorded separately. According to both Reed and Tyler, full cast gatherings were often limited to press events and conventions, after which everyone would gather for dinner.

“She had amazing, amazing stories about her long career in Hollywood and these would come out when we would all get together,” Reed said. “Somebody would bring something up and then she would find herself telling these amazing stories about jet-setting around the globe filming ‘Grand Prix’ or parties at Wilt Chamberlain’s house. It was one story after another and she would have a whole table of jaded actors and writers just with their jaws on the table. Like, did you really do that?”

This divide between who Walter was — a warm, innately funny, comic talent — and the characters she grew most beloved for — dotty alcoholic and narcissist Lucille Bluth on “Arrested Development,” vicious alcoholic and narcissist Malory Archer — could not have been more of a departure, making her performances all the more remarkable.

“We all really, really loved her very much. And I I mean, I think sometimes people say they have a colleague that they miss or that they really enjoyed working with but we just adored her in every way and she’s really going to leave a very big hole in all of our lives,” Tyler said.

For as much grief exists in Walter’s death, the warm glow of her life continues and will for years to come. In this, there is a comfort, knowing that such a talent existed and there is time still to bask in its glory.

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