Character actor M Emmet Walsh, dies at 88

Walsh appeared in more than 100 films, including stand out performances in Blade Runner and Blood Simple.

Walsh appeared in more than 100 films, including stand out performances in Blade Runner and Blood Simple. Photo: Getty

M Emmet Walsh, the character actor who brought his unmistakable face and unsettling presence to films including Blood Simple and Blade Runner, has died at age 88.

Walsh died from cardiac arrest on Tuesday at a hospital in St Albans, Vermont, his longtime manager Sandy Joseph said.

The heavy-set Walsh often played good old boys with bad intentions, as he did in one of his rare leading roles as a crooked Texas private detective in the Coen brothers’ first film, the 1984 neo-noir Blood Simple.

Joel and Ethan Coen said they wrote the part for Walsh, who would win the first Film Independent Spirit Award for best male lead for the role.

Critics and film geeks relished the moments when he showed up on screen.

Roger Ebert once observed that “no movie featuring either Harry Dean Stanton or M Emmet Walsh in a supporting role can be altogether bad.”

Walsh played a crazed sniper in the 1979 Steve Martin comedy The Jerk and a prostate-examining doctor in the 1985 Chevy Chase vehicle Fletch.

In 1982’s gritty Blade Runner, a film he said was gruelling and difficult to make with perfectionist director Ridley Scott, Walsh plays a hard-nosed police captain who pulls Harrison Ford from retirement to hunt down cyborgs.

Born Michael Emmet Walsh, his characters led people to believe he was from the American South, but he could hardly have been from any further north.

Walsh was raised on Lake Champlain in Swanton, Vermont, just a few miles from the US-Canadian border, where his grandfather, father and brother worked as customs officers.

He went to a tiny local high school, then to Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, and the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

He acted exclusively on the stage, with no intention of doing otherwise, for a decade, working in summer stock and repertory companies.

Walsh slowly started making film appearances in 1969 with a bit role in Alice’s Restaurant, and did not start playing prominent roles until he was in his 40s, getting his breakthrough with 1978’s Straight Time, in which he played Dustin Hoffman’s smug, boorish parole officer.

In 1982 Walsh got the offer for Blood Simple from the Coen brothers, then-aspiring filmmakers.

“My agent called with a script written by some kids for a low-budget movie,” Walsh told The Guardian in 2017. “It was a Sydney Greenstreet kind of role, with a Panama suit and the hat. I thought it was kinda fun and interesting. They were 100 miles away in Austin, so I went down there early one day before shooting.”

Walsh said the filmmakers didn’t even have enough money left to fly him to New York for the opening, but he was stunned the first-time filmmakers had produced something so good.

“I saw it three or four days later when it opened in LA, and I was, like: Wow!” he said. “Suddenly my price went up five times. I was the guy everybody wanted.”

He was still working into his late 80s, making recent appearances on the TV series The Righteous Gemstones and American Gigolo.

His more than 100 film credits include director Rian Johnson’s 2019 family murder mystery, Knives Out and director Mario Van Peebles’ western Outlaw Posse, released this year.


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