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Character actors, those talented enough to get noticed and remembered playing the same type of character while most cinemagoers recognise them instantly but can’t place the film or name them. More likely to etch out a living without ever having their name above the marque some have become famous for being character actors. J.T. Walsh was one, looking back over his career you’ll often fine one common streak. He was the antagonist, we loved to hate him and like all good actors he probably wanted to or even sought out playing characters we’d like but there was something about him that made him such a good asshole. Sometimes he was sleazy, sometimes he was macho, often he was authoritarian and sometimes he was deceptive. It took chops to pull that off, maybe as time went on he would have been allowed to move into other roles but as it was he died of a heart attack in 1998 aged 54. Image result for j.t. walshJack Nicholson dedicated his third Oscar to him. He left behind an impressive body of work and son John West who himself has done a variety of work in film most prominently as a production assistant.

He made his film debut in 1983 as ‘Man in Bar’ in Eddie Macon’s Run and in 1999 saw the final film he did released after his death called Hidden Agendas.

In between he blocked a variety of stars trying to complete their character’s arcs.

Image result for j.t. walshAs Sergeant Major Phillip Dickerson he caused the most trouble for Robin William’s Airman Second Class Adrian Cronauer in Good Morning Vietnam not even secondary to bomb explosions or getting lost in enemy held jungle. Cronauer can get away with mocking Second Lieutenant Hauk but as Dickerson points out “Don’t call me Sir, I work for a livin!” and proves he is somebody not to fuck with making their last scene together even more satisfying.

Image result for j.t. walsh backdraftThere is similar satisfaction in Backdraft when Billy Baldwin repeats J.T.’s Alderman Marty Swayzak’s words back to him after he’s been making life difficult throughout the movie.

Image result for j.t. walshThere were other times he went toe to toe with the heroes, Nick Nolte in Blue Chips, Image result for j.t. walshbacking up smarmy Tommy Lee Jones against Susan Sarandon’s tough lawyer in The Client Related imageor pushing Kurt Russel to shake with fear and anger if anything has happened to his wife in Breakdown. Image result for j.t. walshEven a small part in Sling Blade where he is finally put in his place shows the nature of the arc of Billy Bob Thornton’s lead character. I mean the guy even had it in for Santa being cast as lawyer Ed Collins in the remake of Miracle on 34th Street where Mr Collins is charged with proving the rather ludicrous assertion that there is no Santa Claus. Related image

There were other roles and a desire as the years went on that the long time theatre actor wanted to play different notes. No doubt in the decades since his death he would’ve gotten his chance. Image result for j.t. walshIn A Few Good Men he is bottled up with guilt and loyalty as Lt. Col. Matthew Markinson and sure as Big Bob in Pleasantville he was the closest to a villain you could get in that story but there was nuance there. Image result for j.t. walsh pleasantvilleSomething under the surface waiting to spring forth. He certainly seemed to be enjoying himself in The Grifters, one of his films I’m yet to see.

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There are many, what were you favourite performances of his, what made him such a good actor to you?

Thanks for the memories Mr Walsh.

-Lloyd Marken

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  1. Much like his namesake M. Emmet, J.T. Walsh was a good un. It’s sad he died so young, as you say, who knows what direction his career might have taken.

    1. Stephen Tobolowsky was on my mind when thinking about J.T. Stephen I think got to play more than types in the past decade often in television. James Rebhorn and Kurtwood Smith got to play Dads. That would have been nice to see him play some of those notes but death is always a loss.

  2. One of those character actors I can actually name, he gave some memorable performances, in mainly secondary roles. Nice to see ‘Sling Blade’ get a mention. One of my favourite modern American films. Also ‘The Grifters’, a marvellous modern noir that you must see soon.
    Thanks for another great tribute, Lloyd.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  3. I have watched and enjoyed Walsh’s performances for years without knowing his name. Like so many character actors, the movies would have far less without him. Thanks for the posts and its photographs.

  4. Really a wonderful character actor who throughout his too brief career brought whatever support needed to flesh out the role and give the film whatever boost needed by cast. Personally, loved his collaborations with Kurt Russell, BREAKOUT as you noted, as well as his beautifully smarmy DEA agent in TEQUILA SUNRISE (who I highlighted in my look back piece a few years ago, in case you’re interested). Great spotlight, Lloyd.

      1. Walsh, before his untimely death, was doing voice over work. Found this out by pure happenstance when I discovered he was performing the VO for a documentary I was watching. Can’t recall the name, but it was one of the endurance sports docs. Miss his work.

      2. Prolific. I like the first photo here from his early theatre work because I think he could do different stuff and I always like to lead with a photo where the actor is less recognizable.

  5. Do love these posts, as you well know by now. You always put up such thoughtful posts! For me, probably A Few Good Men, but you’ve reminded me how great the choices are.

    1. Thank you Jay, that is a great choice. That character is complex and still waters run deep in that performance. A great indication of his range and subtlety and quite the memorable outcome.

    1. I guess he’s one of the big character actors of my youth and his death got him a bit of media focus on the breadth of his work. These were the early days of the internet.

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