As an aspiring filmmaker, I have a short list of great unsung actors I want to rescue from obscurity and/or typecasting. One of them, sadly, died on February 27. J.T. Walsh was 54; he had a heart attack. He'd been typecast as a stock whitebread villain because of his looks and voice; having seen some of his more courageous performances, I knew he was capable of more.
You may not know J.T. Walsh by name, but you've seen his face. Perhaps the most successful (in terms of box-office $) movie he was in was A Few Good Men (92), where he played Jack Nicholson's toady. You may also have seen him in Good Morning, Vietnam (87), Backdraft (91), The Client (93), Nixon (95), Executive Decision and Sling Blade (both 96), or Breakdown (97). These are only the best-known of the 56 films he did in the last fifteen years. He did his best work in films you may not have heard of. Let's fix that now.
For J.T. at his darkest, your best bet is The Babysitter (95), an overlooked De Palma-esque thriller with Alicia Silverstone in the title role. J.T. leaves his two kids with Alicia and goes to a party with his wife, but he's preoccupied with erotic daydreams of Alicia. In his most absurd fantasy, J.T. catches Alicia soaping herself in the tub, then joins her -- fully clothed! The movie builds to a disturbing climax in which J.T. and two other guys come after Alicia, obsessed with their fantasies of her. J.T. is unforgettable as a middle-aged horndog who gives himself over to his most decadent fantasies; he's both funny and scary.
For a lighter J.T., check out Christopher Guest's brilliant The Big Picture (89), where he's hilarious as a smarmy studio head who suggests "improvements" on Kevin Bacon's script. Great movie, funnier than The Player in my humble op.
For balls-to-the-wall J.T., rent Needful Things (93), an underrated Stephen King movie that improves on King's bloated novel. J.T. is a selectman, "Buster" Keeton, one of many people in Castle Rock driven mad by Max von Sydow. As in The Babysitter, J.T. loses control of his shit, becoming little more than an animal. If you've seen a few of J.T.'s whitebread, stick-up-the-ass performances, it's a shock to see him devolve so thoroughly here. He's the movie's twisted heart and soul.
Director John Dahl recognized J.T.'s genius, casting him in his Red Rock West (93) and The Last Seduction (94), the latter of which only offers a tiny bit of J.T. They're both great little noirs, but Red Rock West is J.T. at his most shady as a bar owner who mistakes Nicolas Cage for a hit man.
Then there was J.T.'s last really striking turn, as the pervert who gleefully shares sexual-abuse stories with Billy Bob Thornton in Sling Blade (96) -- reprising his role in the short film Some Folks Call It Sling Blade (93).
Unfortunately, most directors used J.T. in the most obvious and boring way, as a rigid bureaucrat or politician -- or a robot, like his soporific Bob Woodward in Wired (89). At his best, J.T. could play human monsters who aroused our revulsion and sympathy in equal measure. Far more than the '90s Jack Webb he was typecast as, he was a ballsy actor who could hold his own alongside the most flamboyant actors in the business: Nicholson, Robin Williams, Anthony Hopkins, Nicolas Cage -- he could play with the best because he was in their league.
Vaya con dios, J.T. You'll be missed.