Mommy Dearest: Jessica Walter

Photo: Nigel Parry

Anyone can play a bitch. The trick is to play a bitch we can root for. In the first season of Fox’s Arrested Development, Lucille Bluth, the family’s matriarch brought to life expertly by Jessica Walter, delivered cold quips like an ice pick to the gut, all the while careful not to spill her triple martini. Most often, her victims were her children, as though she were bent on a slow-drip campaign of infanticide. When her beleaguered daughter, Lindsay, finally complained about her mother’s criticism, Lucille replied, “I’m not critical. Though if you’re worried about criticism, sometimes a diet is the best defense.”

It was a funny line from a funny woman on a very funny show, one that returns for a third season next week, having once again received an improbable reprieve after once again staring down cancellation. While the second season built deliriously on the antics of the first, Lucille acquired … something else. Not a conscience, exactly. Maybe it was just more screen time. But the venom-spewing shrew underwent a Grinch-like transformation, writ small: Her tiny, shriveled heart grew half a size. She fell in love, sort of, having an affair with her husband’s dope-smoking twin brother. She dealt with the anguish of having her son nearly shipped to Iraq, a circumstance made all the more difficult by the fact that, in a fit of matronly pique, she’d enlisted him in the Army herself. She also sang a spirited rendition of Petula Clark’s “Downtown.” No wonder Walter earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, one of eleven nominations for the show.

“I don’t think Lucille is a bad person,” says Walter, looking very un-Lucille-like herself: no sandblasted makeup, no Cruella De Vil smile. “I think she’s just desperate. And that can be a justification for all kinds of behavior.” At a sunny park on the Upper West Side, Walter, wearing large sunglasses of the type always stylish with older uptown New Yorkers and, of late, favored also by the Olsen twins, looks more like a theater grande dame on a day off, which is more or less what she is. She lives with her husband, the actor Ron Leibman, in an apartment on the Upper West Side. She takes the dog out for walks and vacations in a summer home in Pound Ridge. “Three acres. Gorgeous. And less than an hour away. So much for the Hamptons, people,” she says.

And this coming Sunday night, a day before the premiere of Arrested’s third season, she’ll find out if she’ll collect her second career Emmy, exactly 30 years after the first. That one came back in 1975 for her lead role in the lady-cop drama Amy Prentiss, a spinoff of Ironside. After that, she worked steadily, playing a number of memorable roles, though most people knew her as Evelyn Draper, Clint Eastwood’s psychotic stalker in 1971’s Play Misty for Me. She also logged a lot of TV movies, played Morgan LeFay in Dr. Strange, and did a year on One Life to Live. “I must confess I took a couple or three jobs just for the money,” she says. “Some movie I was in, I forget which one, some awful little movie, and a reviewer said, ‘What is Jessica Walter doing in this movie?’ And I said to Ron, ‘Hello? Trying to make a living?’ ”

Win or lose on Sunday, the Emmy ceremony will feel something like redemption—if only for the dress she wore when she won the first time around. “I was pregnant with my daughter. I wore a maternity dress. I burned it the moment she was born, it was so horrible,” she says. “But that was a long time ago. I still have that old statue hidden somewhere in my country house. I’ve been waiting for my bookends.”

Mommy Dearest: Jessica Walter