JT Walsh, in many ways the definitive supporting character actor, passed away suddenly in 1998. He succumbed to a heart attack at the relatively tender age of 54, but left behind a quite astonishingly varied and accomplished body of work, despite never being nominated for anything other than a Primetime Emmy and a couple of SAG cast awards. If nothing else, this amply demonstrates that far too often, real talent goes unrewarded and although (of course) not every0ne can be lavished with awards and in any given year the same performance is likely to hoover up every award going, the fact that Walsh never received an Oscar, Golden Globe or SAG award (or even a solo nomination) is a glaring omission. He certainly invested the time, energy and talent. Consider the evidence:-
To much greater success (and more universal acclaim) than the similarly themed Dead Poets Society, Good Morning Vietnam managed to anchor Robin Williams’ freewheeling improvisation to an important and affecting story and a thoroughly appealing and sympathetic protagonist. For JT Walsh there was, as was so often the case, the relatively thankless role of the stick-in-the-mud, the uptight superior standing in the way of freedom, comedy and truth. The butt of several of Robin Williams’ more biting digs (“in more dire need of a blow job than any white man in history”), Walsh’s Sergeant Major Dickerson manages to kick back against the insults and insubordination with ferocity and genuine impact, elevating what might have otherwise been a one-dimensional role (spoiling Williams’ fun) to something much more meaningful and memorable. Quite the polar opposite of Cronauer, Dickerson believes in what he is doing and sees no place for flippancy or casualness amidst the carnage he is witnessing. As General Taylor rightly notes, Dickerson is mean rather than crazy, but it is to Walsh’s enduring credit that Dickerson is fully-formed as a character, acting consistently and aggressively whilst finally succeeding in running Cronauer out of town. As his actions ultimately lead to his own relocation, the look of bewilderment on his face lingers with us. A real sense of “but what did I do wrong?” amidst the lunacy of Vietnam.
JT Walsh has never really been a leading actor. His skills are more subtle than that and he has tended to excel by going toe to toe with better known (though often less accomplished) stars in ancillary scenes in ensemble films. A case in point would be Backdraft, Ron Howard’s under-rated fire-fighter film, wherein Walsh plays a corrupt politician whose decisions are presenting grave consequences for Chicago’s firemen. He comes across as predictably sleazy and compromised in his few scenes and although the pyrotechnics are on display in the film’s many exhilarating fire-fighting sequences, there is a memorable heft to Walsh’s scenes with (amongst others) Kurt Russell, Billy Baldwin and Robert De Niro. A Few Good Men represents another case in point. All of the kudos went to Jack Nicholson’s grand-standing General and his protestations of inability to truth-handle, but JT Walsh’s turn was, while less conspicuous, all the more affecting for its sense of moral conflict. In Red Rock West we see Walsh in full-on rage mode, squaring off against Nic Cage. A phenomenal sense of danger leaching through the pores of an actor who often plays stiff characters.
Breakdown was perhaps the closest Walsh came to a lead role, although of course the lead credit was Kurt Russell’s exasperated and desperate everyman. Breakdown seems to rarely attract as much attention as it warrants, but it is an intelligent and invigorating film, with Walsh’s antagonist providing the perfect degree of ambiguity against Russell’s tireless search for his wife and the truth regarding her disappearance. Although we’ve seen menace and villainy from Walsh plenty of times, when he blankly tells the State Trooper, “I’ve never seen this man before in my life”, we genuinely believe him and it gives the film its effectiveness. A more obvious and less subtle actor in the role and the game would have been blown.
Outbreak is a peculiar film with interesting casting choices all over the place. Dustin Hoffman seems ill-suited as the protagonist, but his skill as an actor wins through. Donald Sutherland is suitably slippery and Morgan Freeman slots in alongside him as his more conflicted, less self-assured colleague. JT Walsh crops up in a scene where a final decision is being made as to whether to completely destroy the town carrying the (now air-borne) virus in order to eradicate it and despite it being tempting to go with histrionics and over-acting, Walsh instead delivers a fierce, but contained speech, keen to ensure that when the fall-out arrives from the President’s unenviable decision, no-one is left hung out to dry and also, wanting to raise the issue of constitutionality, an important and worthwhile exploration amidst the carnage taking place in Cedar Creek, CA.
What more can we say? In Walsh’s case, plenty. Ace turns in The Negotiator (another slippery bureaucrat, yet imbued with a personality), Miracle on 34th Street (a more conventional villain, but again toned perfectly in the circumstances), The Last Seduction (if there is any genre that he seems most effortlessly suited to, it would be neo-noir – see also Red Rock West), Misery and The Grifters. There is an ambiguity about his best characters, which one cannot help but feel would not be there if the roles had been left to less accomplished actors. As variously noted above, Walsh consistently steers clear of cliché and predictability, bringing life and depth where it is needed. With 74 acting credits to his name, it seems wholly unfair that he has not received one single award, but perhaps with much of his best work lining up against more obvious, “award-friendly” competition it was destined to be thus. It is difficult to think of another contemporary character actor who can be relied on to fill these sorts of roles to such great effect. A great loss to the film industry and a worthy resident of The Overlooked Hotel.