I Think About This a Lot: Jessica Walter Edition

Photo: Netflix

I Think About This a Lot” is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.

With her perfect comedic timing and willingness to stick to the bit, Jessica Walter was renowned for her over-the-top embodiment of the icy WASP mother. Perhaps best known for her roles in the dysfunctional family comedy Arrested Development and animated spy show Archer, Walter was also a talented character actress who made countless memorable appearances in her six-decade career. In honor of her passing yesterday at the age of 80, seven writers share the actress’s moments they … think about a lot.

“Winking Alcohol Suggestion”

My sense of humor hit its final form when I was in college, shaped in large part by Amy Sedaris and Absolutely Fabulous. The final part in the trifecta was Jessica Walter’s Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development, which premiered my freshman year. Walter’s delivery was always pitch-perfect, but the one moment that remains forever seared into my brain is when her character mistakes the “drowsy eye alcohol warning” on a pill bottle for a “winking alcohol suggestion.”

It’s one of Lucille’s smaller moments, but that perfect wink at the pill bottle and grin afterward always sent me. Many of Lucille’s mannerisms and quotes have made their way into my personal vernacular, and I’d use that particular wink to signal to friends to get me another $3 beer at the bar or tell them we should head elsewhere. During that time, one of the greatest gifts I received was a winking Hello Kitty notepad; when my friends gave it to me, they crooned “winking alcohol suggestion” in unison. It was perfect. Kerensa Cadenas

That 2018 New York Times Cast Roundtable

Photo: Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SiriusXM

As the Bluth family matriarch, Lucille Bluth could slice a man in half with her tongue and chuckle at his emasculation, especially if it were one of her own brethren. So it was painful to learn that, while starring as Lucille on Arrested Development, Jessica Walter was the one made to endure verbal assaults, in at least one “blowup” castmate Jeffrey Tambor said he’d had with her on set.

When the subject was brought up by a New York Times reporter at a cast roundtable in 2018, Walter’s male castmates — Jason Bateman, Tony Hale, David Cross, and Will Arnett — each took turns explaining how Tambor has learned and atoned; how Hollywood is so “weird” and “amorphous” and everyone has “a process.” It’s the only other woman in the room, Alia Shawkat, who says that that kind of working environment shouldn’t be acceptable; the only one who validates that Walter might have feelings about being on the receiving end of Tambor’s anger; that she might find it unacceptable and have some anger of her own.

I get angry just listening to the audio the New York Times released, a rare opportunity to hear just how emotional Walter is when she finally speaks, shaking and with audible tears. Her upset is palpable — a situation that she’s endured is being spoken about and spun right in front of her by people she’s come to know as friends and co-workers, if not family.

Yes, he harassed her; yes, he apologized; but, she goes on: “In like almost 60 years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set. And it’s hard to deal with, but I’m over it now.”

Sometimes I wish Jessica Walter would have channeled Lucille Bluth in that interview and said something that could have cut through their male-bravado bullshit, something like: “I won’t hear it and I won’t respond to it.” But she wasn’t Lucille; she was a real person with her own pain and vulnerabilities. And she spoke up anyway. Even if she truly got over her anger, I’ll still hold on to it for her. Trish Bendix

Playing a Proto-Lucille in Slums of Beverly Hills (1998)

Photo: 20th Century Fox/Alamy Stock Photo

Few actors are better at playing pompous patricians than Jessica Walter. Her pursed lips and wide-eyed glares might as well be grenades. Before Arrested Development, Walter was a sort of Lucille Bluth-lite in the 1998 gem Slums of Beverly Hills. Wielding a long cigarette and wearing head-to-toe pink, she portrayed Alan Arkin’s new girlfriend, Doris — a possible ticket out of the pennilessness that keeps him and his three children bouncing from one dingy apartment to the next.

Doris is the type of retiree who stitches her own seat covers and really does not want you to spill on them. In one of the best scenes, she hosts a dinner party where 14-year-old Vivian (Natasha Lyonne) gets her period mid-meal. Doris comes to the rescue, offering Vivian an enormous pad that requires an old-fashioned “menstrual belt.” Later, as Doris clears the table, she lifts a napkin Vivian left draped across her chair, discovering a red stain. Walter’s poise shatters. She drops a wineglass, flings her hands into the air, and shrieks. Then comes the line I think about whenever a little unwanted gore appears. Gasping like a child who’s just encountered a snake, she howls, “Blood! Blood on my needlepoint! Blooooood!” Even the most regal suffer meltdowns. — Matthew Jacobs

Her Musical Number in The CW’s 90210 Reboot

I don’t remember much about The CW’s 90210 reboot. At the time, I was making the jump from Disney Channel tween to risqué CW preteen. I hadn’t been led toward Arrested Development yet, or anything else Jessica Walter was in, for that matter.

What I do remember about 90210 is a plotline where the drama club puts on a production of the still relatively new musical Spring Awakening. I remember the pretty-girl-in turn Annie Wilson (Shenae Grimes) getting the lead. And I remember her fabulous, grande dame grandmother Tabitha (Jessica Walter) attempting to direct it.

As the girls sing the opening number, “Mama Who Bore Me,” Tabitha stops and does what Jessica Walter did best: She takes over. In a giant misinterpretation of the song, Jessica goes broad. Jessica sings off-key. Jessica tells the girls they “gotta move from the hips and claim the stage.” But as wrong as it is, Jessica makes it hers. Because when she took over, it wasn’t wrong anymore.

It’s a small moment, but one that has stuck with me. This moment introduced me to Spring Awakening, but more importantly, it was my first glimpse at what made Jessica Walter such a titanic comedic talent: her conviction and determination in making a bit work. — Jorge Molina

Lucille Bluth’s Love for Gene Parmesan

Is private detective Gene Parmesan the only reliable source of joy in Lucille Bluth’s life? I think he might be. Everything else — her family, her neighbor, the insufferable dilemma of plate versus platter — disappoints or bores her. But Gene, for some reason, delights every time. It’s one of the show’s best running gags: He removes a clumsy disguise, and she screams with glee when she recognizes him. Everyone else in Lucille’s life knows Gene is a buffoon, so why does she adore him? Why does this guy meet her exacting standards?

Maybe it’s just that he tells her what she wants to hear. He found no evidence her husband was cheating on her (which instantly convinces her middle son, Michael, of Gene’s incompetence). But I think Gene functions in Lucille’s life the way truly pure and hilarious internet phenomena functions in mine. Last week, I must have played the Wendy Williams burp-fart clip a dozen times in a row. I bet Lucille wishes she could make Gene knock at her door in a bear costume a dozen times in a row. How nice to be momentarily snapped out of your dull little life and your dull little routine. He got me again!!! — Melissa Dahl

Star War

There is a little bit of Jessica Walter that will live forever rent-free in the minds of all Arrested Development fans. Lucille Bluth, the shady, drunk matriarch of the selfish, risible Bluth family, is not only the show’s vodka-preserved heart, but the one who delivers so many of its best lines. Walter had such impeccable timing and such an uncanny knack for capturing a much larger feeling in one simple quote. “It’s one banana, Michael, what could it cost? Ten dollars?” is such a neat skewering of not just the Bluths’ but of all rich people’s distance from reality.

However, for me, there is one special moment that, like so many of her perfectly timed lines, is clipped just short enough to be pristinely absurd while encapsulating so much more. In the season two episode “¡Amigos!” Lucille turns to her adopted son Annyong and says, “Here’s some money. Go see a Star War,” to get him out of the way. In that instant she does so much: Again, she demonstrates just how out of touch Lucille Bluth is — there hadn’t been a Star War out for quite some time, or a couple of years if you count Attack of the Clones, which I don’t. But it takes on another layer, too — in that moment, Lucille is every grandparent trying to talk about something you care about but not really giving enough of a shit to get it right. She’s my granddad getting Star Trek and Star Wars mixed up and not noticing my clenched fists of rage. Whenever I think of Star Wars, which is a lot, I instinctively call it a “Star War” without even registering where I got that phrase from. I, a nerd, willingly say something wrong in homage to Jessica Walter — that’s how great her impact is. — Marianne Eloise

Playing a Femme Fatale in Play Misty for Me (1971)

I consider all women who are considered “villains” in erotic, psychological, and psychosexual thrillers personal heroes. (Are they “obsessive” or just passionate? Are they “psycho” or just sick of fuckboys?) And frankly, there would be no Swimfan, The Crush, or Fatal Attraction without Jessica Walter as Evelyn in Play Misty for Me. 

Before she was Lucille Bluth, Walter played a total ’70s babe femme fatale, psycho bitch for the ages in the 1971 classic psycho-thriller. Clint Eastwood plays a radio DJ with a boring name (Dave) and Walter is Evelyn, the die-hard fan with the sexy voice who calls every night and asks him to play the song “Misty” for her. She’s obsessed, with good reason — it’s Clint Eastwood. They finally meet IRL, she makes him a steak, they bang, it’s bliss, until he follows the standard Man in an Erotic Thriller playbook: ghosts, gaslights, and then aggressively breaks up with her, because he’s decided to get back together with his ex, Tobie.

Evelyn, a hero who won’t take no for an answer, goes to fight for her man by tricking Tobie into thinking she’s just some woman, a new friend to share tea and gossip with, until Evelyn reveals she’s actually the other woman. When Tobie realizes what’s going on (Dave is a jerk, Evelyn a jilted lover, Tobie in danger), Evelyn has no sympathy. “God, you’re dumb,” she says in that famously withering Jessica Walter tone, while brandishing a knife and making pure crazy eyes. It’s genius. Gorgeous. The vibe I want to live in. And there is no actress who can more convincingly or more correctly identify some dumb behavior and deliver an insult with more burning acid than Jessica Walter. Because she’s right, as usual — we all are so dumb for stanning for straight male DJs. — Allison Davis

I Think About This a Lot: Jessica Walter Edition