M. Emmett Walsh, character actor who always stood out, dies at 88

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By journalsofus.com


M. Emmett Walsh, a headstrong and prolific character actor whom critic Roger Ebert called “the poet of vulgarity” for his naturalistic portrayals of disgusting lowlifes and scoundrels, died Tuesday in St. Albans, a small town in northern Vermont. Done. He was 88 years old.

His death in a hospital was announced by his manager Sandy Joseph.

Mr. Walsh’s most enduring praise also came from Mr. Ebert: he coined the Stanton-Walsh rule, which stated that “No movie starring Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmett Walsh in a supporting role can be completely bad.”

In the 1978 film “Straight Time,” featuring both Mr. Stanton and Mr. Walsh, Mr. Walsh played the parole officer who mentors Dustin Hoffman’s vulnerable ex-con. Mr. Walsh’s performance caught the attention of two brothers who aspired to be writers and were writing their first feature-film screenplay.

Unknown Joel and Ethan Coen wrote the key role of a detective in “Blood Simple” for Mr. Walsh. He was surprised, and despite being offered compensation little more than a per diem stipend, he accepted the role.

Reviewing “Blood Simple” for The New York Times in 1984, Janet Maslin said that Mr. Walsh “has captured a mischievous something that is perfect for the role.” Writing in Salon on the occasion of the release of the digital restoration of the Janus films in 2016, Andrew O’Hehir praised Mr. Walsh’s portrayal of a “stupid, obnoxious and deeply disturbing private detective”.

He enjoyed harassing budding directors on the set. According to a 1985 Times article, Joel Coen recalled him saying, “Let’s cut out this secondary stuff, it’s not NYU anymore.” “One time I asked him to do something just to make fun of me, and he said, ‘Joel, this damn movie is just to entertain you.'”

After the film’s critical success – Mr. Walsh won the first Independent Spirit Award for Best Performance by an Actor – the Coen brothers brought Mr. Walsh back for a cameo in their second film, “Raising Arizona.”

That film, in addition to Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter, also starred John Goodman, who became a Coen Brothers regular – while Mr. Walsh did not. With Mr. Goodman, Mr. Walsh said in an interview for the Janus Films version of “Blood Simple,” “Their casting needs no longer included me.”

Michael Emmett Walsh was born on March 22, 1935 in Ogdensburg, NY. His father, Harry Maurice Walsh Sr., was a customs agent on the Vermont–Quebec border; His mother, Agnes Katherine (Sullivan) Walsh, ran the household.

Mr. Walsh was raised in rural Swanton, Virginia, and attended nearby Clarkson University in northern New York state, earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration while working in stage productions.

“I had a good faculty advisor there who said, ‘Why wait until you’re 40 to think about whether you should have been an actor? Get rid of it now, or find out!'” Mr. Walsh said in 2011 in Los Angeles. “So I went to New York,” he said in an interview at a silent movie theater in Los Angeles.

He received acting education at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and also, less formally, at the New York Theatre. Unable to purchase tickets, he would sneak into the crowd during intermission.

“There was always a seat vacant. And you see everything!” He said. “I saw Anne Bancroft do ‘Miracle Worker’ with Patty Duke probably 40 times; ‘Raisins in the Sun’ with Sidney Poitier. And I just kept looking at them.”

Deaf in his left year since a mastoid operation when he was 3, and in a clipped Vermont accent, Mr. Walsh said, “It was clear I wasn’t going to do Shaw and Shakespeare and Molière — even my speech. That’s just how bad it was.”

“People go and try to be the next Pacino,” he continued, “or the next Meryl Streep or something – they don’t want that. They want something new, something different – ​​they want you! And the actors. It’s hard to figure that out. So I had to figure out who I am and what I can do that no one else can.”

He performed in regional theaters throughout the Northeast for nearly a decade, then appeared in “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” Made his Broadway debut in . (1969), starring Al Pacino.

Bit parts in television commercials led to an uncredited role in “Midnight Cowboy” that same year. He then got the role of the angry and incomprehensible Group G Army sergeant in Arthur Penn’s screen adaptation of the Arlo Guthrie song “Alice’s Restaurant”.

Then came nearly 120 film roles over the next five decades, and even more television parts. Critics noticed: he was an “eccentric small-town sports writer” in “Slap Shot” (1977), a “bonkers sniper” in “The Jerk” (1979), a “hard drinker, slacker and hooligan police veteran.” ” Were. in “Blade Runner” (1982) and an “unsympathetic swimming coach” in “Ordinary People” (1980).

In a 2011 profile for LA Weekly, critic Nicholas Rapold called Mr. Walsh “an accomplished old whiz in the second-banana business.”

“My job is to come in and carry the story forward,” he said in a silent movie theater interview. “Stars don’t perform… so I come in with Redford or Newman or Dustin or somebody else, and I throw them the ball, and they throw it back, and it starts to become a tennis match, on and on. And back, and that’s what creates the dynamics of the whole thing.”

He added, “And I’m taking the film forward.” “They don’t want Emmett Walsh. They need a bus driver. They want a policeman. They don’t want Emmett Walsh policeman. I just try to elevate myself and go out there and do it.”

Mr. Walsh was confident in his efficiency and knew how valuable it was to troubled filmmakers. “You’re casting something, and you’ve got 12 problems; If they’ve got me, they’ve only got 11 problems.”

He said directors sought him out because of his ability to elevate inferior material. “They’ll say, ‘This is terrible nonsense – grab Walsh. At least he makes it believable.’ And I got a lot of those jobs.

The reviews reflect this. Mr. Walsh was singled out in often forgettable films – for a “good individual performance” in “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh” (1979), as a “reliable talent” in “The Best of Times” (1986).

That doesn’t mean he never missed; His performance in “Wild, Wild West” (1999) led Mr. Ebert to consider the Stanton-Walsh rule “invalid.”

In 2018, Mr. Walsh’s “Blade Runner” co-star, Harrison Ford, inducted him into the Character Actor Hall of Fame. At the same ceremony, he was awarded the Chairman’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

He continued acting in recent years, including in the 2019 film “Knives Out” and a 2022 episode of the Showtime series “American Gigolo.”

Mr Walsh left no immediate survivors. He lived in St. Albans and Culver City, California.

Of his work, he told comedian Gilbert Gottfried on a 2018 episode of his podcast: “There’s a lot of stuff out there. They are not all ‘Hamlet’. But I have no shame in it.”

“All the parts are your children,” Mr. Walsh said in a 1989 interview with the trade newspaper Drama-Log. “They will be my epitaphs when they throw the last shovelful of soil.”

Alex Traub Contributed to the reporting.

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