Perhaps Walsh’s good friend and collaborator, Billy Bob Thornton said it best: “A real actor doesn’t try to make yourself look good all the time. Because the job of an actor is to portray the character that’s written, and portray it with all your might. J.T. did that everytime he did anything. If J.T. was in a movie that just plain sucked, he never did. He was always perfect.”
Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Sgt. Major Dickerson
“You stay out of my way, there’ll be no problem. But toy with me, and I’ll make you wish you’d died as a child.”
That says everything you need to know about Sgt. Major Dickerson, the cankerous commander of Robin Williams’ ceaselessly sarcastic Adrian Cronauer. Dickerson is a straight shooter – a military commander ensuring that his duties in the Vietnam War are handled as professionally as possible. But Cronauer isn’t a professional. He makes room for choice and laughter, things that don’t exist in Dickerson’s world. Needless to say, the two never get along, which lends itself to some of the most scathing fire and brimstone Walsh ever delivered. Good Morning, Vietnam is designed for us to root for its protagonist, but I promise that you’ll love to hate Sgt. Major Dickerson.
A Few Good Men (1992)
Lt. Col. Matthew Markinson
Taking a minor step away from the brutish men Walsh often played, Lt. Col. Markinson is one of the few men suggested in the title of Rob Reiner’s excellent film. As the only apparent Marine on Guantanamo Bay with intelligence and a healthy conscience, Markinson feels compelled to speak out against his commanding officer’s recent misdeeds. But in order to do this, he must hide in plain sight. He must dress as a civilian, hiding in the back of cars, chain smoking cigarettes in crappy hotels. Markinson is a welcome breath of hope late in A Few Good Men. If only he’d held out a little longer.
Warren “Red” Barr
When we meet Red Barr, he has kindly pulled his 18-wheeler over to offer Jeff (Kurt Russell) and his wife, Amy (Kathleen Quinlan) a hand with their broken down Jeep. No one can get the car to work, so Red offers to drive them to the closest telephone. Jeff and Amy quickly resolve that Jeff will stay with the car while Amy goes with Red, shortly to return with help.
The second time we meet Red, Jeff and a police officer are frantically questioning him as to where Amy is. She never came back, and Red was the last person to see her. Red denies ever having met Jeff and Amy, and, much to Jeff’s horror, the officer allows Red to go on his way.
No need to divulged more but just know, as mentioned, Walsh is no novice to playing men of loose morals, and damn if Red Barr isn’t the meatiest among them. Close to being the best performance of Walsh’s career.
Pleasantville is a simple town. Simple rules, simple people; everyone gets along because they know no other way. Ornery Pleasantville Mayor, Big Bob, is one chief facilitator of such calm order, so when a few new kids come strolling into town and mixing things up, Big Bob ain’t at all pleased.
Pleasantville is a none-too-subtle allegory for American Civil Rights. On its most basic level, the film is about a bunch of white people letting color into their lives. It’s a charming movie full of heroes, but with every film of its kind, there needs to be at least one strong oppressor for balance. And who better to be in charge of moral oppression than a J.T. Walsh character? His final, heated moment as Big Bob is the highlight of the film. From black and white to Technicolor, all in one passionate rant.
The Negotiator (1998)
When I initially drafted the list of Walsh’s best performances, I didn’t consider his turn in The Negotiator as an option. Thankfully, I went back and rewatched this perfectly decent action thriller, and found myself utterly taken away by Walsh’s deceit.
In the film, Lt. Danny Roman (Samuel L. Jackson) is accused of killing his partner, so he holds a few people hostage, including Walsh’s Neibaum, to clear his name. Now, because this is a Samuel L. Jackson-playing-the-good-guy movie, we know Roman is innocent. Roman’s chief suspect in the crime is Internal Affairs Inspector Niebaum (or someone working for Niebaum) so, as a by-product of our innocence for Roman, we assume Niebaum is guilty. And the beauty of Walsh’s work here is that he doesn’t try to convince Roman (or the audience) otherwise. In short, we never know how to feel about Niebaum. He could be to blame, he could be a patsy, or he could just be having a very bad day. It was always hard to tell with Walsh.
The Best of the Best
Sling Blade (1996)
In Sling Blade’s opening scene, we watch as an ice cold inmate in a mental institution slowly drags his chair across the room, placing it next to Billy Bob Thornton. From there, J.T. Walsh sits down and delivers a monologue of sheer dread. He recalls a time when he picked up a woman off the street for sex, only to soon discover she was a he. Walsh delivers this haunting exchange in one single shot, and usually with a smile on his face.
Then the film does something very interesting. It cuts to two young female reporters, arriving at the institution to interview an inmate known as Karl. When the film cuts back to Walsh and Thornton, Walsh is now describing how and why he abducted and killed a woman some years ago. Cut back to the girls preparing for the interview. Back to Walsh, and so on.
This is classic movie juxtaposition: anyone who knows anything about movies knows that the two girls are there to interview either Thornton or Walsh’s character. They are there to speak to Karl, yet, if you haven’t seen the film, you actually have no idea which of the men Karl is. The warden of the institution slowly makes his way into the room where Walsh and Thornton are speaking. The warden instructs Karl that he has a visitor, and we wait in baited breath to see which man stands up. Thornton stands, and we let out a sigh of relief.
Just imagine if Karl was the other guy.
Other Notable Roles
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
House of Games (1987)
Tequila Sunrise (1988)
The Grifters (1990)
Red Rock West (1993)
The Last Seduction (1994)
Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Blue Chips (1994)
The Client (1994)
Persons Unknown (1996)
Persons Unknown (1996)
Executive Decision (1996)