A prolific and versatile character performer who excelled at playing the heavy, actor J.T. Walsh was once dubbed "everybody's favorite scumbag" by Playboy magazine and enjoyed a fruitful career until his life was cut short in 1998. Walsh came up in the theater world and had successful turns in several of David Mamet's plays before making the jump to the screen with antagonist roles in "Tin Men" (1987) and "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987). He played con men in "House of Games" (1987) and "The Grifters" (1990), and stepped up to blockbusters with Ron Howard's "Backdraft" (1991). After delivering a fine turn in "A Few Good Men" (1992), he had one of his best performances as a salesman who makes a pact with the devil in "Needful Things" (1993). Walsh followed up by playing an attorney prosecuting Santa Claus in "Miracle on 34th Street" (1994) and Watergate co-conspirator John Erlichman in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (1995). Poised for greater recognition, Walsh triumphed as an evil trucker in the taut thriller, "Breakdown" (1997), but was unable to enjoy the fruits of his success when he died of a heart attack early the next year. His last films, "The Negotiator" (1998) and "Pleasantville" (1998), were dedicated to his memory, all of which left friends and fans wondering what could have been.
Born on Sept. 28, 1943 in San Francisco, CA, Walsh was raised with his three siblings, Christopher, Mary and Patricia in Germany, Ireland - where he attended a Jesuit boarding school - and later Newport, R.I., thanks to their father serving in the U.S. Army. Having settled in Rhode Island, Walsh later attended the University of Rhode Island, where he earned a bachelor of science in sociology, and went to work variously as a social worker, journalist, teacher and restaurant manager. But at age 30, Walsh was adrift as a salesman and decided to quit his job to become an actor in New York. He made his first performance in the Manhattan Theater Club's production of "Yucca Flats" (1973) and went on to appear in a number of off-Broadway productions, including David Mamet's "American Buffalo" (1976). Walsh co-starred opposite Al Pacino in "Richard III" (1979) and Glenda Jackson and Jessica Tandy in "Rose" (1981) before reuniting with Mamet to star in the playwright's explosive "Glengarry Glen Ross" (1984) for the Tony-nominated production on Broadway.
Though it took him a solid decade, Walsh made his onscreen debut with a bit part in the action thriller "Eddie Macon's Run" (1983), starring Kirk Douglas and John Schneider, before landing a more substantive role in the socially conscious crime drama, "Hard Choices" (1986). Right away, Walsh began landing character parts in varied movies, often playing calculating executives, law enforcement officials and white collar workers. He had memorable turns in two Barry Levinson films, playing Danny DeVito's boss in "Tin Men" (1987) and an Air Force sergeant annoyed with his new radio deejay Adrian Cronauer (Robin Williams) in "Good Morning, Vietnam" (1987). Walsh had roles as The Businessman in Mamet's "House of Games" (1987) and DEA Agent Hal Maguire in "Tequila Sunrise" (1988), before portraying intrepid journalist Bob Woodward in the unsuccessful adaptation of "Wired" (1989), a biopic of sorts on the late comedian John Belushi. After a small role as the mentor to a beautiful con artist (Annette Bening) in Stephen Frears' neo-noir "The Grifters" (1990), starring John Cusack and Anjelica Huston, Walsh was an alderman bucking for mayor in Ron Howard's hit "Backdraft" (1991), which marked the first of several large budget studio films for the actor.
Over the years, Walsh flew under the public's radar even while delivering strong noteworthy performances in acclaimed films like Rob Reiner's "A Few Good Men" (1992), in which he was a would-be defense witness who is silenced by his own code of honor, and "Hoffa" (1992), in which he played former labor leader Frank Fitzsimmons. Reportedly, Jack Nicholson was so impressed with Walsh's work in the former film, he insisted he be cast in the latter, in which he starred and Danny DeVito directed. Walsh was perhaps best remembered during this time for his turn as Danforth "Buster" Keeton, a yacht salesman who makes a pact with the devil (Max von Sydow) in the Stephen King adaptation "Needful Things" (1993). He continued to provide insightful performances in roles as varied as a cynical legal adviser in John Dahl's "The Last Seduction" (1994), the attorney prosecuting Santa Claus in the remake of "Miracle on 34th Street" (1994), and the head of the Memphis FBI in Joel Schumacher's hit legal thriller, "The Client" (1994). In "Outbreak" (1995), he had an uncredited role as the White House Chief of Staff dealing with a worldwide contagion, after which he portrayed Watergate co-conspirator John Erlichman in Oliver Stone's "Nixon" (1995) and appeared as a senator advising the president on a hostage situation in "Executive Decision" (1996), starring Kurt Russell.
In the latter half of the 1990s, Walsh's film career really began taking off, starting with his small, but memorable turn as a fellow inmate to mentally challenged Karl Childress (Billy Bob Thornton) in the Oscar-nominated "Sling Blade" (1996). He delivered one of his most notable bad-guy turns, playing a supposedly friendly trucker who kidnaps the wife (Kathleen Quinlan) of a man (Kurt Russell) whose car breaks down in the New Mexico desert in "Breakdown" (1997). But the taut thriller happened to be the last movie released in Wash's lifetime. The actor died on Feb. 27, 1998 from a heart attack while vacationing at a San Diego-area resort hotel. He was just 54 years old. Later that year, he was seen in two high-profile movies that undoubtedly would have led to a wider array of character roles in an already prolific career. Walsh was a Chicago detective whose role in an embezzlement scheme is revealed in "The Negotiator" (1998), starring Kevin Spacey and Samuel L. Jackson, and next played Mayor Big Bob, who sees morality being eaten away in his black-and-white 1950s sitcom town "Pleasantville" (1998). Both films were dedicated to him, while near the time of his death, friend Jack Nicholson dedicated the Oscar he won for "As Good As It Gets" (1997) to his memory.
Cast (Feature Film)
Writer (Feature Film)
Misc. Crew (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
Quit job as salesman and began acting at age 30
First collaboration with David Mamet, an Off-Broadway production of "American Buffalo"
TV-movie debut, "Little Gloria . . . Happy at Last" (NBC)
First film apearance, bit part in "Eddie Macon's Run"
First screen role, a deputy in "Hard Choices"
Breakthough stage role in Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross"
Appeared in Mamet's feature directorial debut, "House of Games"
Co-starred in "Good Morning, Vietnam"
Appeared in the feature "A Few Good Men"
First collaboration with John Dahl, "Red Rock West"
Featured in Dahl's "The Last Seduction"
Played John Erlichman in Oliver Stone's "Nixon"
TV series debut as regular on NBC's sci-fi-themed "Dark Skies"
Final film appearances in "Pleasantville" and "The Negotiator"