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M. Emmet Walsh, actor who shined in seedy, menacing roles, dies at 88

Mr. Walsh brought his unmistakable face and unsettling presence to films including “Blood Simple” and “Blade Runner.”John Shearer/John Shearer/Invision/AP

M. Emmet Walsh, a prolific supporting actor who excelled in seedy and menacing roles, among them a comically deranged sniper in “The Jerk,” a double-crossing private eye in “Blood Simple,” and Chevy Chase’s uncomfortably thorough exam-room doctor in “Fletch,” died Tuesday at a hospital in St. Albans, Vt. He was 88.

The cause was cardiac arrest, said his manager, Sandy Joseph.

In a career spanning more than a half-century and 200 film and television parts, Mr. Walsh was credited with elevating even the most mundane comedies and dramas with his convincing turns as troubled everymen, crooked authority figures, sadists, intense weirdos, and outright maniacs. A typical M. Emmet Walsh character, USA Today film critic Mike Clark once wrote, was “a cesspool in a flowered shirt.”


With his paunchy physique, retreating hairline, ruddy hangdog face, and flat but chilling cadence, Mr. Walsh straddled a line between the commonplace and the memorably off-kilter. His skill, in often fleeting roles, was to jolt the plot forward, then return to his place in the background of the action.

In the process, he became one of the most sought-after and recognizable supporting players in Hollywood. Opposite such charismatic stars as Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Julia Roberts, Denzel Washington, Gene Hackman, and Will Smith, Mr. Walsh said he tried to energize the moment without seeking to outshine the star.

“What makes it interesting for the audience is that I hit the ball and the other person returns the ball and you keep hitting it harder and harder and the heads go back and forth,” he told the Houston Chronicle.

“Whether it’s Mr. Redford or Pacino or Hackman, once they see that I’m there, they aren’t going to let me win that tennis match,” Mr. Walsh continued. “We hit the ball very hard. That’s why I’m brought in. These guys get up and start hitting, and I hit, and suddenly you’ve got a scene that works.”


After spending years acting onstage and in bit parts on-screen, Mr. Walsh had a significant boost playing a vicious parole officer to Hoffman’s ex-con in the crime drama “Straight Time” (1978).

The next year, in “The Jerk,” he played the rifle-wielding crackpot who chooses his victims based on his dislike for their names. He literally targets Navin R. Johnson, a guileless gas-station attendant played by Steve Martin, but has such rotten aim that he continuously strikes tins of motor oil, prompting Martin’s line, “He hates these cans!”

Mr. Walsh was a cynical sportswriter in “Slap Shot” (1977), was a strict swim coach in the Oscar-winning family drama “Ordinary People” (1980), played Harrison Ford’s police chief in the futuristic sci-fi thriller “Blade Runner” (1982), was a boogie-woogie pianist in “Cannery Row” (1982), and was the head of Kerr-McGee’s plutonium plant in “Silkwood” (1983).

Mr. Walsh took a noticeably small role in “Reds” (1981) as a member of the Liberal Club who introduces Warren Beatty’s left-wing journalist John Reed. “I did it because I wanted Warren to have the experience of working with me!” he recounted to the Austin American-Statesman. “I told him, ‘I want you to know I’m here, because Jack Warden’s not always going to be available.’”

During a three-week break in the filming of “Silkwood” in Dallas, Mr. Walsh flew to Austin to make a low-budget independent noir drama by two novice filmmakers, Joel and Ethan Coen. The movie was “Blood Simple” (1984), in which he played the unctuous private eye hired by a Texas roadhouse owner (Dan Hedaya) to kill his cheating wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz).


Mr. Walsh (right) with Dan Hedaya in "Blood Simple."STF/BPI

Mr. Walsh portrayed the Southern sleuth, under a sweaty cowboy hat and mustard-colored leisure suit, as an homage to the obese 1940s character actor Sydney Greenstreet, who specialized in greedy and untrustworthy schemers. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael described Mr. Walsh as the film’s “only colorful performer. He lays on the loathsomeness, but he gives it a little twirl — a sportiness.” The movie won the Sundance Film Festival’s grand jury prize and launched the Coen brothers as filmmakers.

Working again with the Coens, on the film “Raising Arizona” (1987), Mr. Walsh took a small role as Nicolas Cage’s machine shop co-worker who pops pink bubble gum as he recounts finding the head of a friend after a car wreck: “There’s this spherical object a-restin’ in the highway. And it’s not a piece of the car.”

In addition to his work in the comedy-mystery “Fletch” (1985), he was a diving coach in the Rodney Dangerfield comedy “Back to School” (1986), John Lithgow’s father in “Harry and the Hendersons” (1987), Michael Keaton’s Alcoholics Anonymous counselor (a rare decent-man role) in “Clean and Sober” (1988), and a murderous US government operative who tries to impede the investigation of a Caribbean police chief (Washington) in “The Mighty Quinn” (1989).


In 1996, Mr. Walsh was a defense psychologist in the courtroom drama “A Time to Kill” and played the apothecary in director Baz Luhrmann’s Shakespeare tragedy adaptation, “Romeo + Juliet.” Film critic Roger Ebert posited the Stanton-Walsh Rule — “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad” — but conceded that not even Mr. Walsh could save the misfire that was “Wild Wild West” (1999), a western with Smith.

For Mr. Walsh, the beauty of being a high-profile character actor was that he pulled down a generous salary — he once said he made more than the president — while avoiding the pressure of carrying a film.

“It’s a good life being a character actor,” he told the Orange County (Calif.) Register. “I’ve been around stardom. I’ve been around Redford and Hoffman, and it’s scary. That drive for stardom is like the greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit. By the time he catches him, he’s too tired to run anymore, and you’ve got to shoot him.”

Michael Emmet Walsh, known as Mike to his family and friends, was born in Ogdensburg, N.Y., on March 22, 1935, and grew up in Swanton, Vt. His father was a US customs agent, and his mother was a homemaker.

He graduated from the private Tilton School in New Hampshire. At his father’s behest, he majored in business administration at Clarkson College of Technology (now university) in Potsdam, N.Y., barely passing his classes while excelling as a varsity golfer and appearing in student plays.


He graduated in 1958, but not before the dean of students called him, he said, to inform him that the school ranked him among the least-promising degree-holders in recent memory. Dreading an office career, he enrolled in a two-year program at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York.

To make connections, he played in the Broadway softball league. In one game, the then largely unknown Redford was his first baseman, and playwright Neil Simon covered second. “I’m a guy out of acting school,” he told the Arizona Republic, “and I’m yelling, ‘Come on, Simon, bend your ass.’”

After graduating from the academy, Mr. Walsh worked as a prop man at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pa., and spent the next decade appearing off-Broadway, in summer stock and in commercials.

He made his Broadway debut with a small role in “Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?” (1969), a short-lived play about drug addicts that earned a Tony Award for newcomer Pacino. Over the next few years, Mr. Walsh had background roles in era-defining films such as “Midnight Cowboy,” “Alice’s Restaurant,” “Little Big Man,” “What’s Up, Doc?,” “Serpico,” and “Bound for Glory.”

Mr. Walsh’s voracious appetite for roles of every genre continued through his twilight years. He acted on regional theater stages from Washington to San Diego, appearing in works by Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller, and in 2004 he won acclaim for his performance in a revival of Sam Shepard’s “Buried Child” at London’s National Theatre.

Mr. Walsh leaves no immediate survivors.

“I have more fun playing 10 different people than I do playing the same person 10 different times,” he told the Houston Chronicle. “One time it’s a garbage collector, and the next time it’s the president of Princeton. Princeton’s not too happy, sometimes, but I have a good time finding out what I can get away with.”