Remembering J.T. Walsh
He looked as if he could have been a glad-handing salesman, or the guy whose name you can’t remember at the college reunion, or merely someone gray and pleasant ahead of you in the ATM line — until you got in close and saw the deadness in his eyes. J.T. Walsh appeared in almost 50 movies, but the source of his unsettling on-screen power was that he looked nothing like a star. The character actor died at 54 of a heart attack on Feb. 27, near San Diego. The movies will be less dangerous without him.
Walsh preferred to call his villains ”ethically challenged,” a clue to the actor’s gift for banal malevolence. There was the small-town politico shaking hands with the devil in Needful Things, humorless military creeps in A Few Good Men and Good Morning, Vietnam, the pervert whispering nasty secrets into Karl Childers’ ear in Sling Blade, John Ehrlichman in Oliver Stone’s Nixon. Most promisingly for Walsh’s career, there was his whey-faced trucker in last year’s Breakdown, blandly befriending yuppie Kurt Russell before burying the man’s wife alive.
He learned how normal monsters could be at an early age. Born James Patrick Walsh (he went by his initials to avoid confusion with another actor — the P was subsequently misheard as T at a casting call, and it stuck), he landed in post-WWII Germany when his father went to work as a civilian for the U.S. occupation forces. ”Dad had us learning about the death camps and the atrocities,” Walsh later recalled. ”I believe I’ve used it quite a bit.” He worked in a variety of jobs before hooking up with playwright David Mamet, whose Glengarry Glen Ross finally brought Walsh, in his 40s, to Hollywood’s attention.
Over time, he became prized by directors for his professionalism while growing frustrated at being stuck in the box labeled ”Bad Guy.” ”He wanted what Gene Hackman and Tommy Lee Jones had graduated to,” says his girlfriend, HBO exec Jeanmarie Murphy-Burke (the actor is survived by a 23-year-old son from an early marriage). His premature death robs him, and us, of that chance. J.T. Walsh goes down in movie history as just another face in the crowd. But it’s the one that stops you cold.