Oh, that guy

So you never knew his name. But surely you remember the face of J.T. Walsh, whose angry, cowardly, inwardly wrecked characters scowled their way into our collective memory.

By Cintra Wilson
Published August 26, 2004 9:46PM (EDT)

You'd know him if you saw him.

He looked a little like James Spader, if Spader looked as though he had about 17 years' more bourbon, divorces and weird secrets in him. He was a little like William Hurt, if William Hurt had been through 'Nam or something equally character crushing that slapped that smug WASP entitlement off him.

The intrinsic weight of J.T. Walsh was greater than the sum of his roles -- he was a heavy, and not just in kilos -- an actor who could convey the kind of baritone-black moods that shook the ground like a Panzer with funk in the trunk and who could just as easily refuse to take himself seriously. His hair-raising scariness, when he felt like it, was the same machete edge that made his comic timing so deadly. Maybe he had a prescient sense that he wasn't going to live very long; maybe this gave him a kind of desperate need to be extra, 200 percent, alive and make all his better selves and demons wrestle right on the surface of his eyeballs when he was on-screen.

Jack Nicholson made a point of memorializing his friend J.T. at the Oscars, after Walsh died of a heart attack in 1998 -- one imagines that the two of them hosed a lot of blow and looked up Catholic schoolgirls' skirts together, but who knows? J.T. Walsh was a real enigma; the tapestry of intricate nastiness he projected in so many roles could have just been great acting. He might not have been a completely happy man, but as an actor, he was totally, piercingly effective. He may never have had a leading role, but he had, and still has, a devoted cult following and a truly impressive number of online memorials (here and here, for starters). He might be dead, but for a certain stratum of decadent, quality-dinge-loving cinéastes, J.T. Walsh is still in charge.

James Patrick Walsh ("J.T.," according to an obituary by Jim Emerson, was a typo that Walsh took and ran with) was born Sept. 28, 1943. He abandoned a series of half-hearted career efforts -- restaurant managing, journalism, social work, teaching -- before deciding to be a serious actor at the age of 30. He scored his first film role at 40.

Stuart Banks quotes Walsh in a Bubblegun interview about his childhood, where his father was a military man serving in Germany:

"I was surrounded by these guys who were spies right after World War II, when they were paranoid at the Russians ... I had school friends whose fathers I would see arrive home in uniform, and leave the next day in civilian clothes, and disappear for a month. Sometimes they would come home, and sometimes not..."

I asked the actor Richard Edson, who was also in "Good Morning Vietnam," if he'd known Walsh, and he sent this great character-sketch of an e-mail:

"Yeah, I knew J.T. Nice guy, a little strange. Started late, you know, acting. Was a school teacher, I think. He told me the story ... Something like always wanting to act but never having the nerve to take it seriously, then getting too depressed teaching, going nowhere, just giving it all up and taking the plunge. He was good company, not your typical self-absorbed actor type. Serious, somewhat preoccupied, and full of anger that he seemed to direct mostly at himself. He drank and smoked a lot. Also loved to eat. He got really big and seemingly unhealthy before he died. Heart attack, right? He was kind of young, no?

"He fell in love with a Thai princess in Bangkok. Well, I don't know if it was a real princess, but she was an aristocrat, that's for sure. He was trying to buy gems -- rubies and emeralds -- as a business/investment opportunity in Thailand, and had met her as someone who could help him. Rich Thai women are very proper, and he began spending a lot of time with her. I met her once and she was very beautiful but tight and proper and refined in that rich (Asian?) way. He'd tell me he was falling in love with her but that he was uncertain about her feelings towards him. It seemed like he was spending all his free time with her. He was so smitten and hopeful that I felt like I was witnessing this touching little love story being played out in front of my eyes, but, alas, nothing happened.

"I ran into him a couple of times after that here in L.A. Always sweet, smiling, but you could always sense something else going on, some preoccupation, something brewing inside. And he was always getting bigger and never without a cigarette. One after the other."

Walsh did seem to be a man with a cosmology; one that didn't outwardly appear to comfort him much, but perhaps informed some of his many sensitive takes on paranoia and other assorted horrors: "I personally don't believe in aliens," he told Banks. "But, I do believe that there is something out there that is accountable for all these mysterious things that are going on: I think it is a spiritual thing, not a material thing ... These phenomena that most people account for as alien, I can account for in terms of 'The Exorcist.'"

Walsh appeared in more than 50 films and a bunch of sci-fi TV before his untimely departure. Among his first handful of bit parts was the complicated role of the salesman mark who turns out to be a cop who turns out to be a con man in "House of Games" (1987) -- David Mamet's painfully acted and outrageously unnatural to the ear but psychologically irresistible con-man thriller. Walsh is the only actor in the film who seems to have been able to resist Mamet's "deliver your lines like you are teaching English as a second language on audiotape for the hard of hearing" direction and to speak with any immediacy or authenticity. He's great, especially in his sweaty first scenes -- a salesman who finds a briefcase full of money, facing his own moral weakness, his loathing for his own greed -- a weak man slithering into the posture of a beast.

Then there was "Good Morning Vietnam" (1987), in which Walsh plays Sgt. Maj. "Dick" Dickerson, a humorless, evil bastard who is such a zealot that he hates all human life and embraces only protocol. This role was pretty dumb, an obvious, two-dimensional villain to pit against the plucky, innocent, nimble-tonsiled Robin Williams. It's not that the lines were bad; he actually gets some pretty good ones: "If you toy with me, I'll burn you so bad, you'll wish you'd died as a child." (There's something so chillingly antiseptic about this threat -- it's all the more dangerous, satanic and awful for the fact that it contains no profanity.) But Dickerson is so wholly unredeemable, it would be very difficult to make him breathe. Walsh kick-starts the role by delivering some deep and genuine hatred; he made the monster live by giving it a dismal, intolerant brain. His eyes are ringed black with the insomnia of a tortured conscience. Walsh found a wretch to inhabit in a way that was chillingly plausible -- a lesser actor would have just hacked or hammed it up and directed all the character's aggression outward, at Robin Williams -- Walsh knew that someone that abusive to others was certainly most abusive to himself.

"Tequila Sunrise" (1988) is, I think, a chick-flick disguised as a guy flick. Kind of the drag king of chick flicks. It's kind of a "Tango and Cash" affair, with a lot of squalling, David Sanborn, dry-ice 1980s neon saxophones, and Kurt Russell with hair that looks molded out of Brut-flavored Jell-O playing a big L.A. cop loving, protecting, chasing Mel Gibson, a big L.A. drug dealer. Walsh plays agent Hal Maguire of the DEA, a wimpy fed in a gray suit and wiretap earpiece, a cop so zealous that he hates all human life and embraces only protocol. He really wants to nail Mel, even though Mel has "retired" as a drug dealer and now drives a forklift. Tough-ass Russell forbids Walsh to arrest Mel because he and Mel are old high school buddies, hence, dramatic conflict.

It's funny to see Walsh across a table from Russell, letting Kurt Russell out-heavy him -- sort of like watching a particularly nice German Shepherd roll over and take it while a 2-year-old baby beats it around the ears with a plastic phone. That, to me, is a real hallmark of acting chops: Walsh could turn off his gravity when he felt like it, something his cohorts like Nicholson never really bothered to learn how to do. Most heavy guys always come off like the big dog, even when they are supposed to be playing the smaller dog.

Walsh played journalist-biographer Bob Woodward in the John Belushi biopic "Wired" (1989), a very serious contender for the title of Worst Movie Ever Made. Really, really, really, unwatchably bad, like, rip the video from the VCR and pull out and hit each square inch of the tape with a hammer for its own good -- that kind of bad. Exposition never felt so much like a poke in the eye. Walsh has nearly nothing to work with as Woodward, an unfunny reporter trying write an unfunny bio about a funnyman's life. He is supposed to be investigating Belushi's wife's tooth-grindingly dumb idea that Belushi's death was suspicious because "John hated needles."

"I can't believe it! I've always wanted to meet that guy! Hey! Bob Woodward! Wow!" barks Michael Chiklis as the disembodied spirit of John Belushi, pointing out Woodward as he drives around earth in a taxi with Ray Sharkey, his absurd Al Pacino in Scarface Latino stereotype guardian angel, "Angel."

"He's jour biographer."

"My biographer? Bob Woodward? I'll go down in history!"

"He gonna do for jou what he did for Nixon. He gonna call it 'Wired.' He gonna trash your name from here to..."

"I'm fucked."

But not so fucked as Woodward, at least at the hands of this screenplay (based on Woodward's own book).

Woodward is presented as Mr. Naive, a childlike goody-two-shoes with no clear idea whatsoever about drugs or the wicked ways of the men in the entertainment industry. Walsh is so subdued he barely exists, except as a vehicle for wretched, soap-operatic magico-realism fantasies in which Woodward grills the dead Belushi on-screen while Belushi lies around sweating.

"If you hated needles so much, what were you doin' stickin' them in your arm, huh, John? Answer me, John? ... What was so painful that you couldn't even close your eyes at night without drugs?" Walsh seems exasperated, more by the hopeless duncery of the film than by Belushi's unregenerate ways.

"I can't breathe. Breathe for me, Woodward," gasps Belushi, at the last.

Oh for fuck's sake.

Not even J.T. Walsh could salvage his part in this abortion. If devil cocaine didn't piss all over Belushi's grave and embugger his memory, this movie certainly did.

For some reason, even though he was in the movie only for about seven minutes, one of Walsh's most memorable roles was as Cole, Annette Bening's long-con mentor in "The Grifters" (1990), who lures unsuspecting Texas oilmen into what they think is a crooked stock-market deal. His manic pathology is the thing to watch here. "How do we do it? Machines!" Walsh shouts, every inch the cufflinked yuppie alpha male. "It is bee-yootiful!" He exuberantly leaps from the couch and flings open the door to a fake office, excited to give his mark a look at his beautiful roomful of state-of-the-art supercomputers -- actually an unfinished cavern of broken plasterboard, conduit wire and garbage bags. Walsh plays a seamless pathological liar -- someone so completely deranged by his own fabrications, he starts to believe he can turn water into gin. Bening tells how Cole eventually "retired" to Atascadero, a facility for the criminally insane; Walsh is shown in the flashback crawling around a bed on all fours, surrounded by mirrors, clutched by paranoia, arching his back like a baboon, gibbering, "I can't move I can't move, I can't move, I can't move..." He crawls backward up the 1980s ersatz-deco padded headboard and screeches at Annette, with the whirling pupils and jackknifing nerves of someone who has grappled with irrational fear and maybe lost a few times.

Walsh got a good break being cast in "A Few Good Men" (1992) as Lt. Col. Matthew Markinson. OK, I know what you're thinking, formula moviemaking with an A-list cast, Rob Reiner, the military, Tom Cruise, Demi Moore -- I was skeptical, certainly -- and yeah, Demi clonks out each line like she's unloading industrial air conditioners -- but hoo, whadda tight script! Tight as warm vinyl over underage porn stars! It moves like a cheetah. Really, it's the kind of DVD that has you yelling advice at the TV set in the middle of the night and not even feeling pathetic about it.

Walsh gets to show some range -- he isn't just a paranoid schizo or a venal military bastard -- in this one he's a nervous wreck, for reasons of morbid sensitivity, cowardice and moral failure. He also gets to be demoralized and abused by Jack Nicholson, which must have endeared him to Nicholson forever. It all sits on the eyes with Walsh, and in this film, you see pain under duress under ethics under duty. When it comes to mixing the emotional hard stuff, Walsh is the bartending equivalent of Tom Cruise in "Cocktail" -- it's a little role but one full of internal stunts.

Walsh returns to paranoia in "Needful Things" (1993) as Danforth "Buster" Keaton III. It's a low-grade piece of Steven King, comic-book Satan schlock, so Walsh has some fun with it and swerves some hilariously over-the-top snark into his performance as a desperate, cigar-chomping Northeasterner on the verge of ruin who sells his soul for some inside tips at the horse races.

But there is a prime J.T. moment. We watch him as if we were watching him from behind the mirror at a bar.

He locks eyes with the mirror, with us, with juicy, creedling paranoia -- he never breaks his stare, even when a guy kicks the jukebox behind him so loud they use gunshot foley.

"Y'know, Henry?" he asks the bartender. "You know what they do? They do it at night. They come in, they take out the mirrors, and they put in a piece of one-way glass, and they stick a camera on the other side of it, and they watch ya, and they laugh at ya. And they take down every single word you say."

He licks his upper lip and looks sideways at the bartender as if he is imparting some great, cool, conspiratorial knowledge, some deep spook information, in the classic way of the paranoiac. Paranoid people do this -- they think they're holding it together. They think they're being reeeeeal cool about all this terrible action taking place against them, and when they tell you these things, some weird part of them is trying to impress you. J.T. nails it, ka-pow.

At the end, he gets to devolve into ridiculous, screaming scenery chewing, and kill his annoying wife with a hammer, and scream on his knees, "Oh please, Goh-haw-hawd, just let me die!" and risible bathos of the like, but the whole script has no more plausibility than an eighth-grade haunted house full of peeled-grape eyeballs, so his irreverence is appropriate. Ed Harris tried to subvert the comedy by committing wholeheartedly to the hopeless lines in the thing, like, "The devil is in Castle Rock. I need your help to get rid of him." (The film, incidentally, was distributed by Castle Rock. Coincidence?) But when the actors try to do a respectable job here, the film gets more clunky and self-defeating than orthopedic stilts -- J.T. had the right approach.

Another favorite among J.T. fans was his minor role in "The Last Seduction" (1994) as Linda Fiorentino's sleazy lawyer, Frank. I think people liked this role because the lawyer is the cat who understands Linda, the sociopathic femme fatale, and on some objective level appreciates what a reptile she is. "Has anyone checked you for a heartbeat lately?" he chuckles. I think, for boy fans, this role suggested that J.T. possessed an imperviousness to the evils of feminine guile.

Another plum in the Walsh repertoire was the bourbon-swilling dad who pervs around, pathetically flirting with Alicia Silverstone in "The Babysitter" (1995), a film about male sexual fantasies that will scare straight anyone considering having a teenage daughter. He fantasizes, driving with his frumpy wife to a party, that he is driving Alicia home. He's smoking, with his hair moussed into a teen Fonzie wedge; Alicia's teenage breasts heave toward his driver's seat. His wife sneers, "I'm almost positive that the last time [the babysitter] sat for us, she used our bathtub and took a bath. I mean, can you imagine that?"

It is evident by the suddenly serious look on his face that J.T. is imagining it so clearly that it is difficult for him not to wrap the car around a pole.

As he drinks at the party, his fantasies get creepier -- busting in on Alicia as she screws her boyfriend on his couch, terrorizing them. Catching Alicia in his bathtub and getting in with her, fully clothed, in his suit. It's a grotesque, tragicomic tour de force -- these odd parts were where J.T. really knocked the ball out of the park.

Walsh took things seriously again as John Ehrlichman in "Nixon" (1995), Oliver Stone's pounding-it-into-the-ground, Psych 101 treatise that states, over and over again, that Nixon was a squirmingly insecure troll who grew up poor and ugly in a rich man's game, and constantly took it out on the world that he wasn't an Ivy League pretty boy like JFK. Walsh does a fine job as Ehrlichman, a quietly horrible bureaucrat with a hideous comb-over; his sonorous voice is the reasonable emotional counterpoint to the shrill circus of character-actor combat taking place all around him.

"Breakdown" (1997) is an amusing film -- rather like Spielberg's classic "Duel." J.T. plays Redd Barr, an evil trucker who terrorizes Kurt Russell, and it's good to see J.T. finally get to terrorize Kurt Russell.

"Negotiator" (1998) was one of Walsh's final films; it came out the year he died. He plays Niebaum, a crooked, shifty-eyed Internal Affairs guy who is trying to frame star cop and hostage negotiator Samuel L. Jackson for the embezzlements he's been committing against the Chicago P.D. pension fund. J.T. doesn't look so hot -- he looks fat, toxic and pasty, as though he put a lot of poisons in his body and they didn't come back out. You know it's an action film, because the foley track is so loud and so Echoplexed that when Jackson is shoved against a file cabinet, it sounds like a Hyundai being chucked down an elevator shaft, and when there are extreme closeups of cigarettes being lit with a Zippo, the logs of tobacco ignite with a howling wind-tunnel effect. Niebaum is another morally bankrupt dud role, devoid of any human angle, which mainly consists of seething and scowling, which is why I like to remember J.T. Walsh's last film as "Sling Blade" (1996).

Walsh gets to bookend "Sling Blade" with some wonderful, skin-crawly monologues. Billy Bob Thornton, before he became a narcissistic glitz fiend all strung out on blow jobs and cosmetic enhancement, was a really fine writer -- he had a relaxed, funny way with language, kind of like a Southern Sam Shepard. J.T. starts out like an innocent crazy in the psychiatric hospital, shuffling around in his robe, dragging a chair around, flubbering his lips. He smiles at Billy Bob. He wants to talk. He wants to share.

"Mercury is a real good car. That was the car I was drivin' that day. I have a lot of cars." (He's lying, like a little kid, looking down, fidgeting with his fingers. His eyes are soft and innocent. His cheeks look babyish. He sighs.) Yeah. Different kinds. Lot of different kinds of cars. (He was sweetly trying to impress the grunting retard Billy Bob. Now he slowly starts dripping on the icky, drip, drop, drip.) She was standin', this girl, on the side of the street where there was this chicken stand ... and I pulled up the Mercury right up alongside, there, and I rolled down the window, see, by electric power. (A great tiny moment -- Walsh's big blue eyes light up, and he looks to connect with the underbiting Billy Bob, as if cuing Billy Bob to turn his big shaved head and say, 'Electric power? Well, aren't you the cosmopolitan!') And, uh, she had this leather skirt on, and she had a lot of hair on her arms, and I like that, I like that a lot, it means she has a big bush and I like a big bush. Heh!"

Walsh's gorgeous, careful evolution from harmless crazy to incredibly creepy sex offender ticks like a time bomb and gets a little more dangerous every second he's on camera. He plays the excellently juicy, weird lines like a Bösendorfer:

"You gotta make something explode to truly understand it. I mean, you gotta examine all those little tiny particles while they're still on fire," Walsh says intently, nodding, as if he were explaining to the mute Billy Bob a singular intellectual pleasure of molecular biology. It's pure sick pleasure.

This was a thoughtful man, this J.T. Walsh. I feel he invested a lot of atomic weight in his work: His life may have ended, but he was so committed, so present, so explosive, the little scattered impressions of himself that he left on film are still on fire.

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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