That didn’t stop her from appearing in films and particularly television as the ’60s became the ’70s. Walter memorably guest-starred on Columbo and picked up an Emmy for her work in the short-lived detective series Amy Prentiss in 1975, but she could just as often be found on The Love Boat, Wonder Woman, or Trapper John, M.D. (where she had a recurring role). She even played the villainous Morgan le Fay in the 1978 TV movie of Dr. Strange.
Walter continued to work steadily up until the ’90s, but there’s a difference between working steadily and getting a part like Lucille Bluth, the sort of role that can push a career into a new act and introduce an actor to a new generation of fans. As Lucille, Walter gets the series’ first big laugh when, complaining about the gay activists protesting the Bluth yacht, she says, “Everything they do is so dramatic and flamboyant, it just makes me want to set myself on fire.” Walter delivers the line with the absolute conviction of a woman who knows she’s right then punctuates it with a pained blink, as if her (sorely misplaced) sense of grievance encapsulated the world’s decline.
Arrested Development’s scripts kept giving her plum lines and memorable scenes and Walter kept finding ways to improve on them with frowns, disturbing winks, and other gestures that made her work a font for GIF-makers. She also conveyed, in glimpses, the sense of vulnerability beneath Lucille’s steely glare. She loved her husband and her children, even if that love sometimes took twisted form. (Would, for instance, Buster’s life have been half as warped if he weren’t being used to satisfy Lucille’s need to be needed?) Usually, however, she kept the facade intact, playing Lucille as a woman perpetually exerting her will and need to control those around her, whether by undercutting her daughter Lindsey’s confidence at every opportunity or joining the others to mock Michael with the Bluths bizarre approximations of how a chicken behaves.
Jessica Walter and David Cross on Arrested Development, 2018.Courtesy of Saeed Adyani for Netflix
That she delivered such unfailingly on-point comedic work seems all the more remarkable now that we know she was working under trying conditions. A 2018 New York Times profile of the Arrested Development cast, conducted after co-star Jeffrey Tambor had been accused of sexual misconduct on the set of Transparent, turned into a tense session that found a tearful Walter reliving Tambor shouting at her on set, explaining that she had “to let go of being angry at him” even if in “almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set and it’s hard to deal with, but I’m over it now.”
That’s the sort of sentiment expressed by a professional, someone committed to getting the job done no matter what nonsense they have to deal with from others — even if they’re unable to turn a blind eye to abuse. It’s also, in its ability to maintain focus in the service of a clear goal, an extremely Lucille Bluth attitude to adopt — even if, by all accounts, Walter otherwise shared little of Lucille Bluth’s sharpness. When news of Walter’s death broke, co-stars were quick to offer warm and effusive praise. Aisha Tyler’s tweet, calling her “a queen in every way,” summed up the sentiments. Tyler co-starred with Walter on the animated series Archer, whose producers originally set out to fill the role of demanding spy boss Malory Archer with a “Jessica Walter type.” Instead, they got Walter herself. That’s lucky. There really wasn’t anyone like her.