Jessica Walter had a rare Hollywood career, which spanned over five decades. Aside from notable exceptions like Meryl Streep, Judi Dench, and Helen Mirren, women in Hollywood so often “age out” in middle age, losing the opportunity for meatier work. But Walter, who died on Wednesday at the age of 80, would get her most significant roles over 30 years into her career, showing what can happen when Hollywood lets women have their moment to shine later in life. Walter’s stardom only grew bigger as she grew older.
Walter excelled in dramatic roles from the beginning. Her portrayal of the titular character in 1970s police drama Amy Prentiss earned her an Emmy, and she received a Golden Globe nomination for her second feature film, Grand Prix, in 1967. But Walter would become most beloved for her comedic chops. As Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development, the actor transformed into a meme queen and symbol of the out-of-touch 1%, becoming a significant part of millennial humor online.
It says a lot that upon the announcement of her death, thousands paid tribute to her by sharing screencaps of her Arrested Development character’s best quotes as the show’s delightfully cold-blooded matriarch. The series has one of the most talented sitcom ensembles, including Alia Shawkat, Michael Cera, Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Tony Hale, David Cross, Portia de Rossi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Liza freakin’ Minnelli. But most of the show’s biggest moments were Walter’s, with the actors giving their best performances bouncing off her impeccable timing. Not even casual fans can forget lines like “It’s one banana, Michael. What could it cost, $10?” and “I don’t understand the question, and I won’t respond to it.” In recent years, Twitter’s gotten mileage out of the GIF of Lucille saying, “Good for her.” Lucille isn’t meant to be likable—she plays mind games with her children and only cares about herself—but Walter’s portrayal is comforting. Her fabulosity is aspirational; nobody looks as sophisticated drinking a martini as Lucille, not even 007 himself. Despite being faced with the risk of losing her lavish lifestyle, Lucille never changed her way of living.
The best thing about Walter’s time on Arrested Development is that you can see how much fun she has playing Lucille. She’s so good in the role that it’s difficult to believe that Walter almost didn’t get cast as the iconic character. In a 2013 interview with Vanity Fair, she said series creator Mitch Hurwitz wouldn’t even see her for an audition, but she “got past the producers.” After catching the attention of the studio executives, Walter still had her doubts:
I said to my agent, ‘I can’t do it. There’s got to be something better out there for me,’ never dreaming that Arrested Development would have trouble casting Lucille and finally call me to be seen. That’s how it happened! I was at the bottom of the list. I was on the C list!
After seeing her audition tape, Hurwitz flew Walter out to Los Angeles to meet with the network and ended up offering her the role on the spot. There was no time to return to her home in New York City, as rehearsals were starting the next day. (Walter hadn’t even taken a fresh pair of underwear on the trip.) But the network gifted her a measly $300 to buy basic necessities, ushering her into her new life as Lucille Bluth, a character that’d stay with her till the end of her career.
While her fanbase recognizes her incredible work as Lucille, it was painful to see her mistreatment by her Arrested Development co-star Jeffrey Tambor. In an infamous 2018 interview with The New York Times, members of the Arrested Development cast were brought together to promote the show’s new season, and reporter Sopan Deb brought up Tambor’s tumultuous history with Walter on set. While Tambor talked about putting the past behind them, Walter teared up and said, “Let me just say one thing that I just realized in this conversation. 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.” She added that in her “almost 60 years of working, [she had] never had anybody yell at [her] like that on a set.” Throughout the interview, Walter’s other male co-stars tried to do damage control, but they came across as not being supportive of her. Jason Bateman and Tony Hale extended apologies to her after being called out by fans for caring more about Tambor’s feelings than Walter’s.
It became a distressing moment for fans. How could they stomach watching the series while knowing that Walter wasn’t being respected by her co-workers? It was a harsh reminder that no matter how long a woman has worked in the industry and how much she’s proven yourself, she often comes second to her male co-star. But the situation also served as a wakeup call for Bateman, Hale, and David Cross to see how much they were taking Walter for granted, and how much fans deeply care about her.
Her Arrested Development TV family may not have been the best off-screen, but Walter found a welcoming group when she joined the cast of Archer in 2009, voicing the titular character’s mother, Malory, the head honcho of the spy agency. Lucille and Malory aren’t far off from each other; Walter told The A.V. Club in a 2012 interview that besides the fact that Malory has gray hair (Lucille would never be caught dead with a silver strand), they mirror each other as “mothers from hell.” Despite the similarities, Archer fans got to see a new side of Walter’s acting. Unable to rely on her physical comedy as she did in Arrested Development, Walter instead focused on her quick-witted delivery, turning Malory into a fan favorite, as well. The character’s quotes may not have become pop culture staples like Lucille’s, but it was still such a joy hearing her berate Archer and her employees.
One of the biggest thrills of Walter voicing Malory for 11 seasons is that the character’s always been a big part of the story, and you can tell that creator Adam Reed and the show’s cast adored working with her. In fact, Walter was cast because Reed envisioned Malory as a character similar to Lucille, sending out a copy for auditions that said, “Think of the type as Jessica Walter from Arrested Development.” As luck would have it, Walter was interested, and it became her longest-running continuous role. A friend of Walter’s told Deadline that she “loved that show so much and was grateful for it every day.” And viewers will get to hear her as Malory one last time in season 12.
While her contemporaries like Mary Tyler Moore are recognized by a younger generation for opening doors for women in the television comedy landscape, Walter achieved something different: She became an older TV figure that millennials adopted as their pop culture icon. Although many of her younger fans may not have seen Walter in Amy Prentiss, Grand Prix, Play Misty For Me, or Columbo, for many millennials, it’s been an honor to have grown up watching Walter create pure comedic magic, dismantling the mentality that comedy should be a boys club. Farewell, Seaward.