Before Arrested Development And Archer: Young Jessica Walter, Then And Now

Entertainment | March 5, 2021

Left: Jessica Walter publicity portrait for the film 'Lilith', 1964. Right: Walter in 'Play Misty For Me.' Sources: Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images; IMDB

Actress Jessica Walter made hit movies in the Groovy Era, including Grand Prix (1966), The Group (1966), and Play Misty For Me (1971) -- though she's most famous today for playing a cynical matriarch on both Arrested Development (2003-2019) and Archer (2009-2020). She didn't exactly disappear during the intervening years -- she worked steadily in TV, with recurring roles on Trapper John, MD; Three's A Crowd; Aaron's Way; Coach; and Oh, Baby (it's ok if you don't remember all of those). Walter also cultivated a very successful career in voice acting, beginning with the Hanna-Barbera series Wildfire in 1986.

For the Arrested Development or Archer fans who've wandered onto this page out of curiosity, we have a satisfying answer to their question: What did Lucille Bluth/Mallory Archer look like when she was young? Answer: Total groovy babe!

Jessica Walter Had An Entertaining Father

Young Jessica Walter. Source: (Pinterest).

Jessica Walter was born on January 31, 1941 in Brooklyn. father was a musician with the NBC Symphony Orchestra as well as the NYC Ballet Orchestra; he played with Arturo Toscanini and cellist Pablo Casals. Her mother arrived from the Soviet Union just before the enactment of a law in 1924 that set limits on immigration to limit Jewish immigration.

Walter managed to lose her Brooklyn accent after she attended the High School for the Performing Arts, which is the school that inspired Fame. While there, she had to take speech lessons. After that, she studied at then the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. She got her first Equity card in 1959 at the Bucks County Playhouse in Neil Simon’s first play, One Shoe Off. When it went to Broadway, the play was renamed Come Blow Your Horn, and once it appeared on Broadway, Walter’s part was written out.

Jessica Walter Made Her Big-Screen Debut With Warren Beatty And Jean Seberg

With Warren Beatty in Lilith. Source: (Tumblr).

Walter's debut Broadway appearance was in 1963, in Photo Finish. She won the Clarence Derwent Award for Outstanding Debut Broadway Performance for the role, which required her to master a British accent. The accent came in handy for a later role in The Severed Head. In addition to her stage roles, at this early stage in her career, she started to appear on television. From 1962-1965, she played the role of Julie Morano in Love of Life. She also had additional television appearances, including the role of Lorna Richmond on one episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, entitled, “The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow,” Flipper, and The Fugitive. Her first movie role came in 1964, in Lilith, with Warren Beatty, Jean Seberg, and Gene Hackman. 

Poster for 'The Group,' featuring (clockwise from top) Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, Elizabeth Hartman, Shirley Knight, Joanna Pettet, Mary-Robin Redd, Jessica Walter, and Kathleen Widdoes. Source: impawards.com

Her big break then came in 1966, in the Sidney Lumet film, The Group, based on the book by Mary McCarthy. Walter played the role of Libby, a sharp-witted character, whose teasing transforms into barbs after she must contend with life-changing events. The character seems like the ancestor of her later role as Lucille Bluth on Arrested Development.  

1966 Was A Big Year For Jessica Walter

Jessica Walter with James Garner in 'Grand Prix.' Source: Pinterest

That same year The Group was in theaters, Walter also starred in Grand Prix, an auto-racing movie with James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Yves Montand and Francoise Hardy. Then, in 1968, she had a role in Bye, Bye Braverman, another Lumet film. By this point, she and Lumet had become friends and collaborators. In 1975, she filled in as a co-host on Good Morning America, and brought Lumet on to promote his latest film, Dog Day Afternoon.

Walter Played An Obsessed Fan In Her Most Famous Movie

In Play Misty For Me. Source: (IMDb).

After moving to Los Angeles and catching the eye of Clint Eastwood, who saw her in The Group, Eastwood cast her in the lead role for his 1971 directing debut, Play Misty for Me; in the role, she was a woman who stalks a DJ. Her character is a bit mercurial, transforming from sweet into an obsessed stalker rather quickly. The Village Voice critic Andrew Sarris wrote:

Although Donna Mills is more than adequate as the nice girl, Jessica Walter is nothing short of magnificent as the maddened woman scorned of which hell hath no fury like. Indeed, Jessica Walter emerges from the script ... as one of the first and foremost furies of women's lib, the vary dark side of our so-called sexual liberation.

Her performance in the movie led to a later “almost” job. They tried to use her to voice the character of Chucky in Child’s Play, because they noticed how well she delivered threats in the movie. In the end they went with Brad Dourif.

Jessica Walter Has An Emmy

In Amy Prentiss. Source: (modcinema).

She continued to appear on television, demonstrating her ability to sing in an episode of The Carol Burnett Show and in the made-for-tv version of Kiss Me Kate in 1968; incidentally, she taught herself to sing. In 1974, she received her only Emmy, for a show that did not last long: Amy Prentiss. After its two-hour pilot, it only had three additional episodes. She played the role of the title character in Amy Prentiss; her character was a young police detective whose husband died in a plane crash. In the show, Helen Hunt played her teenage daughter, and William Shatner and Jamie Farr had guest appearances.  

Jessica Walter Can Play A Dinosaur Really Well

As a dinosaur named Fran. Source: (TheTVDB).

In 1991 she provided the voice of Fran, an anthropomorphic puppet on Dinosaurs. More than 10 years later, At the age of 62, she was cast as Lucille Bluth in Arrested Development, although she almost didn’t get the part. However, her role as the martini drinking, winking, immoral matriarch has become iconic; although it didn't last longer than three seasons, it had developed a such a devoted following that Netflix brought it back for a short run.  Incidentally, that martini glass that is so much a part of her character contains water and an olive.  In 2009, Walter was then cast as Mallory Archer, a savvy CEO of a spy agency on the animated show, Archer.

Jessica Walter Loves A Good Character

As Lucille Blunt, with her martini. Source: (Screen Rant).

She told Elle magazine in 2019, that she takes character roles, and she does seem to be drawn to unusual characters and has played her share of nutty characters throughout the years; as she said, “If it's a good role, I don't care what the medium is, I take it." 

Tags: Jessica Walter | Ladies | Play Misty For Me | Then And Now

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Cyn Felthousen-Post


Cyn loves history, music, Irish dancing, college football and nature. Social media is also her thing, keeping up with trends and celebrities with positive news. She can be found outside walking or hiking with her son when she's not working. Carpe diem is her fave quote, get out there and seize the day!