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LOS ANGELES — Anyone who knows Jessica Walter as Lucille Bluth, the self-centered family matriarch who’s usually dressed to “Dynasty”-like perfection on Fox’s Emmy-winning “Arrested Development,” would be surprised to see her on her days off. She strides into a Westwood restaurant wearing a youthful ensemble of dark jeans, a white T-shirt and a black blazer, her tanned face devoid of makeup.
“I’ve learned that plastic surgery isn’t the answer,” she says. “It’s wearing less makeup that makes you look younger.” Of course, Walter is also blessed with great genes and a lean, 5-foot, 8 1/2-inch frame that she maintains by swimming several miles a week at UCLA.
Though some audiences may just be discovering Walter now, the actress’ lengthy career includes Broadway plays, a Golden Globe nomination in 1971 for “Play Misty for Me” opposite Clint Eastwood, an Emmy for the 1974 series “Amy Prentiss” and supporting roles in films as disparate as “The Flamingo Kid,” “Tapeheads” and “Slums of Beverly Hills.” She’s hit another high point with the brilliantly satirical “Arrested Development,” which has won critical acclaim and two Golden Globe nominations this year, but has yet to garner the ratings it deserves.
“I’m begging everyone to watch it,” she says. “I’d rather be connected with a really outstanding show that only a million people watch than be in a huge hit that’s terrible.”
The creators of the series had a tough time casting the role of Lucille until Walter came along. “The description was very brief: Lucille Bluth, matriarch and socialite,” she recalls. “I can’t explain it, but I absolutely knew this woman. I saw her vulnerability. Down deep she has a desperation about her, which all comedy has to have.”
Lucille also has a rather caustic personality, which Walter plays to perfection, adding, “I usually play mean people — although I’m very nice.”
In the very beginning, Walter decided that her character should always be dressed to the nines with her hair perfectly coiffed even when visiting her husband, played by Jeffrey Tambor, in prison. “The show can’t really afford what I think a woman should wear, which is Armani, but our costume designer, Katie Sparks, does a great job. What people don’t realize is that you can put on a Ricki Freeman for Teri Jon suit and if it’s tailored correctly, you would think it’s Calvin Klein.”
On the show, Walter also appears in Tahari, Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein, which she calls “clothes a real woman can wear.” It’s a look that carried over to the Emmys, where she wore a pale blue custom-made Anne Klein suit, which was criticized on the red carpet. “The women on E said, ‘Oh come on, get more dressed up!’ I thought I was very dressed up, I just wasn’t hanging out of my clothes and sparkling because that’s not me.” Of course, when Walter won her Emmy 32 years ago, she was seven months pregnant and donned an unfashionable black sack.
“I burned all those clothes,” she adds.
A Queens native, Walter graduated from the High School for the Performing Arts in the Fifties (she’s now 63) and began acting professionally when she was 17. She got her first taste of show business at 16, when she lied about her age to work as a chorus girl at the Copacabana. “I went to watch a friend audition, but they made me walk across the stage and I got the job instead. She never spoke to me again.”
Walter, who is married to Tony-winning actor Rob Leibman, maintains a brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and a house in Pound Ridge, N.Y. But in L.A., she leads a more temporary life. Apart from working, swimming and spending time with her daughter and brother who live here, Walter likes to keep it simple. “I don’t even own a computer because I’m not interested in any more information than I already have.”
She’s never seen her extensive bio on the Internet Movie Database, which claims that she holds two black belts in martial arts.
“Not true,” she tsks, slipping into her character’s acerbic, deadpan humor. “But I do have black belts from Ralph Lauren.”