The timing of this BREAKDOWN airing also proved to be fortuitous, as it turns out last Wednesday was the 10th anniversary of Walsh's sudden passing of a heart attack at age 54. Walsh has finished three films before passing away (THE NEGOTIATOR, PLEASANTVILLE, and something called HIDDEN AGENDA), so his loss was felt throughout the 1998 movie year and at the time it seemed like folks were genuinely sad to see him go (even Jack Nicholson remembered him in his '98 Oscar acceptance speech). But as it is with most character actors, he has been seemingly forgotten by most, despite a pretty solid 10-year stretch of supporting roles in some major motion pictures that still run on the TV (GOOD MORNING, VIETNAM; A FEW GOOD MEN; BACKDRAFT). He was the go-to guy for assholes, corperate jerks or government blowhards, though that thankfully wasn't all he did; he was great as the mental patient in SLING BLADE, Annette Bening's first con partner in THE GRIFTERS, Linda Fiorentino's lawyer in THE LAST SEDUCTION (also great in John Dalh's RED ROCK WEST, for that matter), and especially his wonderfully dry comic turn as a studio exec in Christopher Guest's THE BIG PICTURE. On top of that, he was a Mamet regular for a while, even appearing in the original production of Glengary Glen Ross (man, I would have given anything to have seen that), and he knew his way around great dialog of all kinds. He came across as the ultimate authority figure (especially one who was on the verge of losing his cool, as his characters often did) and it was very difficult to mask his intelligence, though he had a number of roles where arrogance defined the character more. He never really played fathers or priests (OK, would have been weird), so we never got to see what he could do beyond the roles he had, but there was no denying Walsh was a massive talent. Like Kenneth McMillan, another favorite character actor of mine, he was headed towards an eventual Oscar nomination, or even the award itself, but that never transpired, though I think we all know it would have sooner or later.
What I find especially remarkable about J.T. Walsh wasn't so much that he was great at playing villains and assholes, but that he played these in such a manner that ever seemed routine or like he was phoning it in. Never once did I roll my eyes when he showed up onscreen, never once did I think, "Oh, here's J.T. Walsh, doing his jerk bit again". He was a magnetic performer, charismatic, but not in the standard way. You watched and followed him even though he wasn't the hero or even the sidekick because he seemed so smart and because it seemed like he was going to do something important that would change the course of the movie. It may not be the definitive J.T. Walsh movie, but his role in BREAKDOWN probably shows him off to his best advantage; evil, cunning, but one step ahead of everyone else for most of the running time, until his pride finally does him in. And does he get his? Oh yeah, does he ever, and you really want it to happen, too, the mark of a great movie villain. J.T. Walsh is truly missed from the movie landscape. There was so much he could have done, so much he had coming to him, but there's still so much of him to appreciate out there that he'll never be gone in a way. He was probably the best jerk the movies ever had, and yes, that is meant as a massive compliment.