Jessica Walter was beloved as one of TV’s most privileged Californians, Lucille Bluth, but in real life she was the quintessential New Yorker.
The actress died Wednesday at age 80 at home in New York. She was born in Brooklyn and raised in Astoria, Queens.
“My husband and I are mostly in Pound Ridge [Westchester], but we do love the hustle and bustle in the Upper West Side,” she told The Post in 2018 of her pied-à-terre. “Every day is an adventure here.”
Walter’s own adventure began with her first glimpse of showbiz at none other than the iconic Rockefeller Center. Her dad, a bass violinist with the NBC Orchestra and later for “The Tonight Show” with Steve Allen, would regularly take his little girl into the studio.
“We used to watch the rehearsals,” she told Seth Meyers on “Late Night” in 2019. “It gave me a lot of connections.”
That’s how a young Walter got an early gig in the “peanut gallery” of the kid’s show “Howdy Doody,” which was also filmed in the famous Midtown building.
The budding actress caught the bug here and still didn’t hightail it West right away. She attended the High School of Performing Arts (from the movie “Fame”), located on Sixth Avenue back then, and later trained at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre.
Watch her in 1971’s “Play Misty For Me” — the first film Clint Eastwood ever directed — as Evelyn, an unstable woman who stalks a DJ, played by Eastwood. “You’re nothing!” she yells at him from the doorway of her apartment. “You’re not even good in bed! I just felt sorry for you — that’s all!”
What you see is not the indifferent acting of a Hollywood baby who knows in her DNA how to just be pretty (she was), learn the lines and hit her marks; this is the psychologically committed, off-the-rails tirade of an actress who studied with Sanford Meisner and had already been on Broadway in plays written by Peter Ustinov (“Photo Finish”) and produced by David Merrick (“A Severed Head”).
Walter gradually did less and less film and stage and became a mainstay of television instead, appearing in countless series from the 1970s up until just last year. But her most iconic and acclaimed role was as the acid-tongued mother of the Bluth family in “Arrested Development” — Lucille. She’s the sort of lovable monster Eugene O’Neill might’ve come up with had the playwright pursued stand-up comedy.
“I love all my children equally,” Lucille once said, before a quick-cut to her hours later, loose-lipped with a martini. “I don’t care for Gob.”
Mitchell Hurwitz’s brilliant Fox comedy was, of course, set in Southern California. However, looking back on the cold zingers, dismissive laughs, free-flowing clear liquor and — good God — her rivalry with Liza Minnelli, Lucille was more of an Elaine Stritch than a Florence Henderson. She was, at heart, a New Yorker.
In life and in love, Walter always came back to Broadway. In 1983 she married the Tony Award-winning actor Ron Leibman (“Angels in America: Millennium Approaches”), who died in 2019. Early in their marriage, they starred together in Neil Simon’s Broadway farce “Rumors,” set in upstate New York. But Walters’ final role on the Great White Way was as a tart-tongued mother — go figure — in the musical “Anything Goes” in 2011.
To quote its great composer, Cole Porter: Bon voyage.