The Greatest Actor You've Never Heard Of
J. T. Walsh: 1944-1998
(March 3, 1998) You may not know this, but the movie business lost a great man over the weekend. He wasn't a Darling Director, churning out effects-heavy blockbusters for holiday time. Nor was he a Box Office Buddha, shooting bad guys on the fly and spouting one-liners. He wasn't a High Drama Honcho, doing four-hour Shakespeare films or Jane Austen festivals. He was, however, one of the hardest-working actors in the business, and, even if you didn't know his name, you sure as shooting knew his work, and you knew his work to be superior.
J.T. Walsh died of a heart attack on February 27th, but through his 15-year film career, he leaves a body of work behind that is larger than many "above the title" actors. Walsh never got his name above the title. He never "starred" in any movie he was in. He was always a back player, somebody critical to the plot of the movie, somebody you knew instinctively that you had to pay attention to, but he was never the lead. He probably could have played a lead easily, and with some gusto, but, it almost seemed like he preferred the hit-and-run of being a supporting actor. Get in, steal scenes, get out.
I was with four or five friends, having dinner, when we heard the news. Somebody at the table asked me if I had a favorite Walsh performance. I gave it a lot of thought and had to answer "no," because the man had so many fine performances, it would almost be wrong to single out one in particular. Naturally, the reply to that was, "Well, name more than one."
So I did. I told them about his work in Sling Blade, dragging that wooden chair across the floor, causing that infinite mindless shriek of wood on tile. I told them about the raving lunatic Danforth "Buster" Keeton in Needful Things. I reminded them about his quirky movie producer Allen Habel in The Big Picture, and the nasty little "alumni supporter" Happy in Blue Chips, and the proud but fearful Lt. Matt Markinson, so anxious to do the right thing in A Few Good Men. How about his smooth prosecuting attorney in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street or the evil trucker in Breakdown? Or his ice-cold stare in Nixon, as fellow conspirator John Ehrlichman? Or his sleazy little smile as Alderman Marty Swayzak in Backdraft, selling off the safety of firemen and the community for a nice little profit? Or his stuffy, sputtering Sgt. Major Dickerson, trying in vain to control Robin Williams in Good Morning, Vietnam?
Personally, I thought he was at his best in a role that was, ironically, in a movie made for HBO. He played a high-shooting con man Frank Griffith in The Last Seduction, and played the part to perfection. As Wendy tells Frank's story in flashback, we see Frank at the height of confidence, a smiling, swaggering hustle artist. Gradually, through the scene, Frank's personality begins to crumble under the pressure of working the "big con," and he is left a crying, screaming shell of himself. In that one brief flashback scene, Walsh gives us a full performance, one to be studied and praised. The master at the top of his domain, through his fall back to earth, and the resulting slam when he hits rock bottom. The character is essential to the movie's storyline, yet has no immediate effect on the evolving plot.
As I went through this list, I watched my friend's eyes light up time and time again as they remembered the performances. More than once, They said, "That was him? Oh, he was great in that movie."
J.T. Walsh had more fine performances than the ones I spoke about that night, but rather than continue listing them, I let my friends remember him in their own favorite roles. And, somehow, I think it was better that way. J.T. Walsh spent his entire movie career on the bench, waiting to pull off the sweats, run in and do what had to be done. And when he got the chance to run with the ball, he ran with the best of them.
Mr. Walsh's passing is a sad loss for all of us movie fans. Think back to some of the roles I mentioned that night, and watch for him when you settle in for an old favorite. He was a fine actor, no doubt about that. You may not always remember him, but you'll never forget him.