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Heroes of J.T. Walsh

Oftentimes, I’ll be watching a movie where some ham actor is ruining a perfectly good villain, and I’ll think to myself that this is a role J.T. Walsh should have played.

Walsh, who was only 54 when he died in early 1998, never got the mass attention he deserved as a villainous supporting actor, mostly because he never overacted with Dennis Hopper-like zeal. Walsh was more like a Jack in the Box; he had the look of a man who would wrong you. It was only a matter before his venomous nature sprung forth.

Walsh appeared in some 65 movies in the 1980s and 1990s, and a few are not particularly notable. But the highlights are sublime. In Christopher Guest’s The Big Picture (1989), Walsh used a slightly pompous air and the ingratiating phoniness of a politician at election time to perfectly portray a manipulative studio head. It was a brilliant, subdued performance in a sometimes razor-sharp satire.

Throughout the 1990s, Walsh was one of the best character actors in film–the kind of guy James Lipton would have had a field day interviewing. Walsh played a master con artist in Stephen Frears’ The Grifters (1990), Linda Fiorentino’s bastard lawyer in John Dahl’s The Last Seduction (1993), and a vicious redneck trucker in Joshua Mostow’s Breakdown. He also had strong supporting roles in Narrow Margin (1990) and A Few Good Men (1992), not to mention an outstanding, passionate cameo in Outbreak (1995).

The key to Walsh’s success was doing the little things well, including having one of the best scowls in the business. His work in The Grifters and The Last Seduction, though limited, is exemplary because it sets the attitude of both movies. Walsh was like the swirls of smoke in a film noir classic-he set up a mood that lasted throughout.

Those two movies featured him maybe for a combined 10 minutes, but Walsh demonstrates his ample gifts. In The Grifters, Walsh shows a carnival barker’s confidence that adds to the movie’s aloof cool. His scene urging cowboy investor Charles Napier to take a look at an empty room full of high-tech computers is so engaging, because Walsh tackles his dialogue with carefree aplomb.

In The Last Seduction, Walsh plays the lawyer role with an indifferent, casual air, and his conversations with Fiorentino’s scam artist are priceless in how routine they are. When Walsh asks Fiorentino if she’s ‘still a self-serving bitch,’ the line is funny because Walsh says the line (and all of his lines) like he’s talking to a friend, not a manipulating, greedy woman.

Walsh also shone in the underrated Breakdown, one his larger roles, playing a truck driver who kidnaps an upper class wife. It was an excellent movie, highlighted by a fascinating plot and a typically coiled Cobra performance by Walsh.

J.T. Walsh left a legacy of outstanding work, where substance truly mattered over a style. The movies listed below, in my mind, show him at his finest.

The Big Picture (1989)
The Grifters (1990)
The Last Seduction (1993)
Outbreak (1995)
Breakdown (1997)

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