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. Jack 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.
As 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.
There were other times he went toe to toe with the heroes, Nick Nolte in Blue Chips, backing up smarmy Tommy Lee Jones against Susan Sarandon’s tough lawyer in The Client or pushing Kurt Russel to shake with fear and anger if anything has happened to his wife in Breakdown. Even 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.
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. In 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. Something 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.
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.