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Arguably one of the best character actors of the 20th century, M. Emmet Walsh delivered consistently nuanced and believable turns in a wide and storied body of work on film, ranging from "Straight Time" (1978) and "The Jerk" (1979) to "Ordinary People" (1980), "Blood Simple" (1985), "Clean and Sober" (1988) and "A Time to Kill" (1996). Effortlessly versatile in all manner of roles, Walsh could be convincingly funny in broad comic turns, as well as chilling in cold-blooded roles like his star-making turn as a vicious private eye in "Blood Simple." Over the course of four decades in the business, Walsh escalated from familiar face to scene-stealer and, on more than one occasion, a film's saving grace. Audiences simply accepted that Walsh was telling the truth whenever he appeared on screen, which elevated him to the pantheon of much-loved character performer, a status that he proved over and over in over 150 films.
Michael Emmet Walsh was born March 22, 1935 in Ogdensburg, NY, the son of customs agent Harry Maurice Walsh, Sr., and his wife, Agnes. Raised with his brother in Swanton, VT, he received a world-class education at the prestigious Tilton School in New Hampshire and later at Clarkson University, where he roomed with fellow future actor William Devane. After receiving his bachelor's degree in marketing, he moved to New York City, where he developed an interest in acting. After receiving his training at the Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1961, he performed in summer stock and regional theater throughout New England and the Northeast. By the end of the decade, he had worked his way back to New York, where he appeared in various productions before making his Broadway debut opposite Al Pacino and Hal Holbrook in "Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?" (1969).
That same year, Walsh began appearing in features and on television. After bit and uncredited parts in projects like "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), he began landing character roles. Walsh's burly frame and ruddy visage made him a natural for low-grade authority figures, like his Army sergeant in "Alice's Restaurant" (1969) or prison staffers in "Little Big Man" (1970) and "The Traveling Executioner" (1970). He was also a go-to for working-class types and low-level functionaries - a sanitation worker in "They Might Be Giants" (1971), or a baffled military aide in "Escape from the Planet of the Apes" (1971). Walsh's poker face was also put to fine use in comedies, most notably Peter Bogdanovich's "What's Up, Doc?" (1972) and "The Sandy Duncan Show" (NBC, 1972) as a motorcycle cop who appointed himself Duncan's protector.
By the mid-'70s, Walsh had earned a reputation for being innately believable in any role, and shuttled between independent features like "Kid Blue" (1973), "The Gambler" (1974) and Elaine May's "Mikey and Nicky" (1976) and major Hollywood productions like "Airport '77" (1977). The quality of his performances increased the size of his roles, and he earned his first solid notices as ex-con Dustin Hoffman's cruel parole officer in Ulu Grosbard's "Straight Time" (1978). The following year, he made an impression on comedy audiences as a psychopath who randomly selected Steve Martin's naïve country boy as his target in "The Jerk" (1979). Walsh was soon one of the industry's busiest character actors, with appearances opposite Robert Redford in "Brubaker" (1980), as Timothy Hutton's unsympathetic swimming coach in Redford's "Ordinary People" (1980), as Harrison Ford's boss in Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" (1982) and opposite Meryl Streep and Cher in Mike Nichols' "Silkwood" (1983).
After almost two decades in the film business, Walsh earned his breakout role with Joel and Ethan Coen's modern noir, "Blood Simple" (1985). Cast as an amoral private eye hired by a jealous bar owner (Dan Hedaya) to spy on and eventually murder his wife (Frances McDormand) and her lover (John Getz). Walsh's performance - alternately bone-chilling and fascinating - earned him rave reviews, as well as the first Independent Spirit Award for Male Lead. More importantly, it brought him out of the character actor's realm of "familiar face but unknown name," and into something resembling a star's spotlight. His ascent was underscored by a much-publicized quote by critic Roger Ebert, who stated that any film that featured Walsh or fellow character actor Harry Dean Stanton was worth watching, no matter how terrible the premise or execution.
The popularity of "Blood Simple" led to Walsh's ubiquity in features and on television in the late 1980s. He was frequently called on to make a brief but memorable appearance, like Nicolas Cage's motor mouthed co-worker in the Coen Brothers' "Raising Arizona" (1987) or the proctologist who blithely administered a prostate exam to Chevy Chase in "Fletch" (1985). More often than not, he carried out the character actor's key duty - to make the lead look smart, heroic or funny - with effortless skill in all manner of features, from the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle "Back to School" (1986), or opposite Robin Williams and Kurt Russell in "The Best of Times" (1986). On occasion, the part gave Walsh a genuine chance to shine, like Michael Keaton's experienced and supportive sponsor in the addiction drama "Clean and Sober" (1988).
The 1990s saw Walsh's schedule of three or more films per year continue unbroken, with occasional forays into television, most notably as Tim Allen's military-minded father-in-law on "Home Improvement" (ABC, 1991-99). He also contributed memorable cameos as an eccentric witness in "A Time to Kill" (1996), as the Apothecary who sold Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo his fatal poison in Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet" (1996) and as the father of Julia Roberts' secret crush in "My Best Friend's Wedding" (1997). Walsh also returned to the stage during this period, first in a 1999 production of Tennessee Williams' "Sweet Bird of Youth" at the La Jolla Playhouse, and later in Arthur Miller's "All My Sons" at Washington, D.C's Arena stage in 2000.
As he approached his eighth decade, Walsh appeared to show no signs of slowing down, though his features drifted more towards the independent side of the business. He was a forgotten screenwriter living out his days in a retirement home in the festival favorite "Man in the Chair" (2007), and an offbeat cab driver who aided janitor Thomas Haden Church in solving a murder in the thriller "Don McKay" (2010). That same year, he co-starred alongside such equally beloved character actors as Steve Buscemi, Mary Kay Place and Fred Willard in "Youth in Revolt" (2010), based on the cult novel by C.D. Payne.
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