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M. Emmet Walsh, Actor in ‘Blood Simple’ and ‘Blade Runner,’ Dies at 88

M. Emmet Walsh, the wily character actor who became an audience favorite for his deliciously despicable performances in such films as Blood SimpleBlade RunnerBrubaker and The Jerk, has died. He was 88.

Walsh died Tuesday in St. Albans, Vermont, his longtime manager, Sandy Joseph, told The Hollywood Reporter. The cause was cardiac arrest.

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With his distinctive lumbering form and droll delivery, Walsh was an ideal supporting player. A master of off-kilter comic delivery and dogged edginess, he excelled at roles that dwelled in the darker corners of humanity. No matter whom he played, he made a colorful impact.

“A consummate old pro of the second-banana business, Walsh has left his mark on 109 movies and counting, with the grin of that big bastard who stands between you and something else — and knows it,” Nicolas Rapold wrote in a 2011 profile of the actor for L.A. Weekly.

In the same piece, Walsh — who wound up with more than 230 credits listed on IMDb — summed up his philosophy toward acting: “I don’t want you to see an M. Emmet Walsh. I want you to see a garbage collector or a president of Princeton or whatever. … I do everyman. And also I play hard.”

With his imposing stature, Walsh often was cast as someone in authority. He played an army recruitment sergeant in Alice’s Restaurant (1969), a prison guard in Little Big Man (1970), a doctor in Airport ’77 (1977), Dustin Hoffman’s belligerent parole office caught with his pants down in Straight Time (1978), a corrupt lumber merchant in Brubaker (1980), the police chief in Critters (1986), a governor in The Milagro Beanfield War (1988) and a sheriff in Bitter Harvest (1993).

Walsh also is fondly remembered for his winning performances as the humble sportswriter Dickie Dunn in Slap Shot (1977), as the relentlessly demented sniper determined to put a bullet in Steve Martin in The Jerk (1979) and as Michael Keaton’s sponsor in Clean and Sober (1988).

Perhaps no character better embodied Walsh’s talents than Loren Visser, the unscrupulous private detective in Blood Simple (1984), the Coen brothers’ feature debut. Visser, hired to catch a cheating spouse and her lover in the act, ends up double-crossing and killing his client, emptying his safe and framing the wife for the murder.

In a story with no redeeming participants, Visser is by far the most reprehensible, and in a 2000 revival review of the film, Roger Ebert referred to Walsh as “that poet of sleaze.”

“Every time, you [have to] try to figure something individual that works for the character,” Walsh told The Guardian in 2017. “If you’re playing a villain, you don’t play villain. … Visser doesn’t think of himself as particularly bad or evil. He’s on the edge of what’s legal, but he’s having a lot of fun with all that. He’s a simple fella trying to make an extra buck and going a little further than he’d normally go in his business enterprises.”

Walsh was honored with a Spirit Award for best male lead for Blood Simple. The Coens then brought the actor back for another splashy role, as a yakking machine shop worker in Raising Arizona (1987).

If not Visser, then Walsh will best be remembered for his portrayal of Bryant in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). As was typical of a Walsh character, Bryant is a hard-nosed police captain who forces Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) out of retirement to resume his post as a specialist who hunts down bioengineered replicants that have gotten loose. “I need you Deck. This is a bad one, the worse yet,” he says through clenched teeth. “I need the old blade runner. I need your magic.”

In a 2017 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Walsh said he was asked about Blade Runner more than any other movie he had ever made. “We shot down in [Los Angeles’] Union Station,” he recalled. “They set it all up in a little office over in a corner, and we had to be out by five in the morning because commuters were coming in for the train. I don’t know if I really understood what in the hell it was all about.”

After seeing the finished film for the first time, Walsh realized he wasn’t the only one with that opinion. “We all sat there and it ended. And nothing,” he said, laughing hysterically. “We didn’t know what to say or to think or do! We didn’t know what in the hell we had done! The only one who seemed to get it was Ridley.”

Michael Emmet Walsh was born on March 22, 1935, in Ogdensburg, New York. His father was a customs agent.

Raised in Swanton, Vermont, Walsh attended Tilton School in New Hampshire before enrolling at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, where he roomed with future Knots Landing star William Devane. (In 1998, Clarkson honored Walsh with its esteemed Golden Knight Award.)

Walsh graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marketing in 1958 and moved to New York City. Three years later, he joined the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and began plying his craft in summer stock and regional theater throughout the Northeast.

Walsh appeared on an episode of The Doctors in 1968 and made his Broadway debut a year later in the drama Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie? in a cast that included Al Pacino and Hal Holbrook. In 1973, he replaced Charles Durning in the role of George Sikowski in the original production of Jason Miller’s That Championship Season.

After making his film debut as an uncredited extra in Midnight Cowboy (1969), Walsh popped up in such notable features as Serpico (1973), The Gambler (1975), Bound for Glory (1976), Ordinary People (1980), Reds (1981), Cannery Row (1982) and Silkwood (1983).

Blood Simple marked a turning point.

Walsh was shooting a film in Texas when he got word of an indie project that two brothers in Austin were trying to pull together. He was intrigued by the private eye character, envisioning the role as a Sydney Greenstreet type with a Panama suit and hat. After watching a promo trailer they had shot to entice investors, he signed on.

With Joel Coen and Ethan Coen making heavy use of storyboarding and light on giving direction to their actors, Walsh wasn’t sure what to make of the fledgling filmmakers. He didn’t expect Blood Simple to have a big impact on his career.

“I didn’t hear from them for months after that. They didn’t have enough money to fly me in to New York for the opening of the film,” Walsh said. “I saw it three or four days later when it opened in L.A., and I was, like, ‘Wow!’ Suddenly my price went up five times. I was the guy everybody wanted.”

Walsh had a flair for comedy, as seen in Cold Turkey (1971), They Might Be Giants (1971), Get to Know Your Rabbit (1972), What’s Up, Doc? (1972), At Long Last Love (1975), The Prisoner of Second Avenue (1975), The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979), Fletch (1985), Back to School (1986), Wildcats (1986), Camp Nowhere (1994), My Best Friend’s Wedding (1997) and Christmas With the Kranks (2004). And he showed up in a curmudgeonly role in Knives Out (2019).

He also kept busy as a voiceover actor (Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary series The Civil War, 1999’s The Iron Giant) and as a guest star on TV (All in the FamilyIronsideBonanzaThe Bob Newhart ShowThe Rockford FilesLittle House on the PrairieHome ImprovementThe X-FilesNYPD BlueFrasierEmpire and The Righteous Gemstones).

Walsh never married. As he put it in a 2015 interview, “If you marry another actor, there’s always competition. And if you marry a ‘civilian,’ they don’t understand what you’re doing and why you have to travel to, say, Nova Scotia, for several months. Besides, I never met a woman who was stupid enough to think I was a great catch!”

Survivors include two nephews.

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