The Big Picture
September 28, 1943 - February 27, 1998
An appreciation by Jim Emerson
J.T. Walsh appeared in two 1998 movies released after his death: as
the scummy hostage in The Negotiator and as the characteristically unpleasant
mayor of Pleasantville. Both films are dedicated to him. His final
exit, abruptly rushing offscreen in Pleasantville after having seen his real face
in the mirror, leaves us with the feeling that he's gone too soon...
James Patrick Walsh (a typo gave him "J.T."; he took it and ran with it) was
a journalist, teacher, social worker, salesman, and restaurant manager before he decided,
at age 30, to dedicate himself to acting. He didn't make his first movie (a bit part in
the Kirk Douglas vehicle Eddie Macon's Run, which also marked John Goodman's
debut) until he was 40, but he left an indelible impression on moviegoers -- usually as a
venal WASP bureaucrat, a scummy lawyer, or a crooked politician. Yet there was always some
warmth, or at least some humor, in his portrayal of these jerks. Even as the disturbed and
disturbing sexual pervert who accosts Billy Bob Thornton with salacious tales of his
exploits in Sling Blade, Walsh always displayed the brains, wit, and
charisma that kept him from being a cardboard cutout villain. He played a lot of small
parts, but like Steve Buscemi or William H. Macy (a fellow David Mamet favorite), he was
something of a good luck charm for some of us. No matter how bad the movie, at least it
had Walsh in it -- and the most damning thing you could say about it would be that it
didn't give him enough to do.
He was born in San
Francisco, and graduated from the University of Rhode Island. On the stage, Walsh
co-starred in Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross and American Buffalo,
and Al Pacino's Richard III. He had two movies in the can when he died
(apparently of a heart attack) at age 54: Gary Ross's Pleasantville with
Joan Allen, Jeff Daniels, Reese Witherspoon, and William H. Macy; and F. Gary Gray's The
Negotiator with Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Spacey, and David Morse.
J.T. Walsh was:
- The shifty lawyer who dispenses phone advice to Linda Fiorentino's scheming femme fatale
in John Dahl's The Last Seduction. "Still a lawyer, Frank?" she
asks. "Still a self-serving bitch?" he replies. And later, when he asks,
"Anybody check you for a heartbeat lately," it's with the (self-)loathing of
someone who truly admires just how low she'll go.
- The studio executive in Christopher Guest's The Big Picture -- probably
the most accurate and devastatingly funny movie ever made about the way the Hollywood
studio system really works -- who offers suggestions to first-time feature director Kevin
Bacon in his Southwestern theme park of a decorator office (suggesting the Silver Pictures
bungalow on the Warners Burbank lot). "What if..." he says about the director's
script about four middle-aged people in a mountain cabin, "... it took place in the
summer... on the beach!" Hey, it's just an idea. Click here for a
video clip of this scene (from my Christopher Guest multimedia feature
interview on Cinemania).
- Wayne, the sherrif/bar owner who hires Nicholas Cage to kill his wife (Lara Flynn Boyle
) -- and then double-crosses him in John Dahl's Red Rock West.
- Kurt Russell's truck driver nemesis Red Barr in the Duel-like box-office hit, Breakdown.
- John Ehrlichman, the president's left-hand man (with James Woods' Bob Haldeman on the
right) in Oliver Stone's Nixon.
- Sgt. Major Dickerson, army superior (and villain) to Robin Williams' manic Armed Forces
Radio DJ Adrian Cronauer in Barry Levinson's Good Morning, Vietnam.
- Another bad guy military officer, Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Markinson, in Rob Reiner's
stilted and card-stacked A Few Good Men, which nevertheless offered a whole
host of character actors -- including Walsh, Kevin Bacon, Matt Craven, Christopher Guest,
James Marshall, Wolfgang Bodison, Noah Wyle, Kiefer Sutherland, Xander Berkeley, Cuba
Gooding Jr., J.A. Preston and others -- to have a field day, while Jack Nicholson and Tom
Cruise yelled melodramatically at each other.
- With Mamet and William H. Macy again (and, yes, Jim Emerson
in a, uh, non-speaking as one of Lila Kedrova's medical students) in Mamet's
shot-in-Seattle House of Games, as the nameless businessman at the heart of
the scam in which Joe Mantegna involves Lindsay Crouse.
- As the hotel manager, again with Mamet, Macy, and Mantegna (and another favorite of mine
-- and Mamet's -- Ricky Jay, so funny as the kvetching cinematographer in Boogie Nights),
in Mamet's delightful low-key comedy, Things Change, where the subtle
chemistry between mobsters Joe Mantegna and Don Ameche (in his last memorable role, and
one of his best) is priceless.
- Danforth (Buster) Keeton, the corrupt politician who makes a deal with the devil (Max
von Sydow) in Stephen King's Needful Things.
- As Bob Woodward in the disastrous John Belushi bio-pic Wired, which was
based on Woodward's book about Belushi's drug use. Interesting, though, that he played
Woodward in this picture and later played Nixon's Ehrlichman -- one of
Woodward's journalistic prey in the Watergate scandal.
- Wing, boss of Danny DeVito's team of Tin Men (1950s aluminum siding
salesmen), who include Bruno Kirby, Jackie Gayle, and Stanley Brock. His counterpart in
this second of Barry Levinson's nostalgic Baltimore comedies, is Michael Tucker's Bagel (a
holdover from Diner), whose team includes Richard Dreyfuss and
more great character actors: John Mahoney, Seymour Cassel, Richard Portnow, and Alan
- Federal drug enforcement agent Maguire in Robert Towne's Tequila Sunrise,
opposite Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell, and Michelle Pfeiffer.
- Annette Bening's sleazy mentor in Stephen Frears' The Grifters.
- An uncredited cameo as a park ranger in Rob Reiner's movie of Stephen King's Misery.
- The Memphis FBI chief in Joel Schumacher's film of John Grisham's The Client.
- A one-scene, scenery-chewing tantrum (again unbilled) as an official who warns of the
dangers of the Outbreak, in Wolfgang Peterson's movie.
- The aforementioned predatory sex offender who savors telling Carl (Billy Bob Thornton)
about his exploits with young girls in Sling Blade.