Thursday, August 15, 2013

In Character: J.T. Walsh

When most people think of J.T. Walsh, they recall the numerous menacing sons of bitches he played. The murders, the thieves, the liars and the assholes – no one could play mean quite like Walsh. But upon digging deeper, it’s clear that Walsh was capable of so much more than depicting scumbags. He had compassion, charm, wit and panache. He was an actor’s actor, a working man, an invaluable day player who we lost far too soon to a heart attack in 1998.

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.”

Five Essential Roles
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.

Breakdown (1997)
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 (1998)
Big Bob
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)
Inspector Niebaum
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)
Creepy Inmate
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
In Hoffa
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
House of Games (1987)
Tequila Sunrise (1988)
Misery (1990)
The Grifters (1990)
Backdraft (1991)
Hoffa (1992)
Red Rock West (1993)
The Last Seduction (1994)
Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Blue Chips (1994)
The Client (1994)
Nixon (1995)
Outbreak (1995)
Persons Unknown (1996)
Executive Decision (1996)

12 comments:

  1. Oh God ... his character in Sling Blade. He only had two short scenes, but he was creepily unforgettable.

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    1. Sooo fucking creepy, and so quickly too. He has about 7 minutes of screentime and he is so memorable. A great command, that man had.

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  2. I was going to mention Pleasantville if you didn't. His Patton-esque speech framed against a bowling scoreboard (instead of an American flag) was also a highlight of his from the film.

    And I remember the Oscar ceremony after he died. Back then people still clapped in memory at each image, rather than waiting until the end like they ask them to do now. Some people would get huge ovations, while others, including Walsh, just got subdued, polite clapping. Jack Nicholson was apparently a friend of his because when he came out to present an award he went off-topic at first and made a short tribute of his own to Walsh. It seemed that he didn't care for the lack of appreciation of Walsh from the audience.

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    1. I remember that Oscar moment as well. Very moving. He and Walsh were such good buddies, and I'm glad he took time during his speech to acknowledge him and a few other people as well.

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  3. Dude is truly one of the most underrated actors out there. I love the guy and miss him very much. Pleasantville was my favorite performance of his. He has this sense of charm in that scene in the bowling alley where he just ensures everyone that things will be fine.

    I also love him in The Negotiator (underrated film), Breakdown (also underrated), Red Rock West, and another film that I think mentioned before but not many people have seen. Persons Unknown w/ Joe Mantegna, Naomi Watts, Kelly Lynch, and Jon Favreau. He has a great character in that film. Smarmy yet full of charm.

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    1. Smarmy yet full of charm is pretty much the perfect way to describe most the characters he played. A real son of a bitch, but one with style. I miss this guy too, such an underrated talent.

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  4. I loved his brief turn in Pleasantville, but I've forgotten his performance in Sling Blade. That's one I definitely need to rewatch.

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    1. Sling Blade is such a good movie, one of my all time favorites. Walsh bookends the flick with two creepy ass monologues. A real freak.

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  5. i miss jt he was excellent actor one of those guy's who always seem to play the scumbag. I was lucky enough to meet him on holiday and he helped me with my broken down car took me to a nearby place which was pretty and showed me the sites
    so kind realy and nothing like the characters he played nothing that's why they are called actors :D
    he was a superb actor Loved his performance in ''hope'' u forgot to mention that even though ray was a sort of racist but he seemed deep down a quite nice fella toward the end
    red rock west is my favourite film of walshy's!
    he was awesome and not enough big roles he was always the bad guy the villan miss you jay :)
    i used to call him that and he smiled :)
    R.I.P. Big fella! gracie he used to call Me

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    1. Wow, what a story! You're a brave soul from taking a broken-down-car ride from JT Walsh! Haha, but really, I'm sure he was a great person, far from the scumbags he played so well on film. I'll have to seek out his work in Hope right away. Thanks for that recommendation!

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  6. i was engaged to him in real life he left his girlfriend fiancee for me and we had 2 children we lost baby chris and ella jayne left us! i think they are keeping daddy bear company hope was amazing movie :)

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    1. Thank you so much for this comment. I'm so truly sorry for your losses over the years.

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