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M. Emmet Walsh, memorable ‘Blood Simple’ and ‘Blade Runner’ character actor, dies at 88

An older man in a yellow-and-white striped shirt and colorful cardigan, smiling
M. Emmet Walsh, shown at the “Knives Out” premiere in Westwood, has died.
(Axelle / Bauer-Griffin / FilmMagic)
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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, his manager said Wednesday.

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

The ham-faced, heavyset 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.”

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

“There are only nine or 10 of us who do what I do,” Walsh told the Los Angeles Times in 1989, describing his character-actor status. “How it happens is you get old and decrepit and bald and finally they start hiring you. It’s not that you’re good or anything. They figure if you’ve survived, you must be talented.”

The English actor, who died at 75, leaves an astonishing range of performances in movies including ‘In the Bedroom,’ ‘Michael Clayton’ and ‘The Full Monty.’

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Rob Schneider, who directed and co-starred with Walsh in the 2007 movie “Big Stan,” remembered his friend on X (formerly Twitter) as “one of the finest actors and human beings” he had ever known.

“I remember all his wonderful stories and how generous he was with the wisdom and acting knowledge he had accumulated in his 119 movies he made in his career,” Schneider tweeted.

Critics and film geeks relished the moments when Walsh showed up onscreen.

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

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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.”

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In 1982’s gritty “Blade Runner,” a film he said was grueling 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 farther north.

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

He went to a tiny local high school with a graduating class of 13, then to Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., 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.

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Walsh slowly started making film appearances in 1969 with a bit role in “Alice’s Restaurant.” He didn’t start playing prominent roles until nearly a decade after that, when he was in his 40s, getting his breakthrough with 1978’s “Straight Time,” in which he played Dustin Hoffman’s smug, boorish parole officer.

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Walsh was shooting “Silkwood” with Meryl Streep in Dallas in the autumn of 1982 when he got the offer for “Blood Simple” from the Coen brothers, then-aspiring filmmakers who had seen and loved him in “Straight Time.”

“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 would be stunned that first-time filmmakers had produced something so good.

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

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In the film he plays Loren Visser, a detective asked to trail a man’s wife, then paid to kill her and her lover.

Visser also acts as narrator, and the opening monologue, delivered in a Texas drawl, included some of Walsh’s most memorable lines.

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“Now, in Russia they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else. That’s the theory, anyway,” Visser says. “But what I know about is Texas. And down here, you’re on your own.”

Walsh 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 included director Rian Johnson’s 2019 family murder mystery “Knives Out” and director Mario Van Peebles’ western “Outlaw Posse,” released this year.

“It’s amazing how I fall into the trap of doing those bad guys,” Walsh told The Times in 1989, when he was 53. “I’m still waiting to do a role with a toupee. And they never let me play Jamie Lee Curtis’ love interest.”

Dalton covers entertainment for the Associated Press. Los Angeles Times staff contributed to this report.

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