The Fabulousness of Jessica Walter: On ‘Archer,’ ‘Arrested Development,’ and Cocaine Parties

The TV diva returns as overbearing spy-matriarch Malory Archer on the sixth season of FX’s hilarious Archer. She opens up about the show, an Arrested Development movie, and more.

F. Scott Schafer/Netflix

She is television’s reigning diva. And on Thursday, the feisty Jessica Walter made her triumphant return as Malory Archer, the tough-as-nails mom to turtleneck-loving spy-son Sterling, for the sixth season of FX’s animated series Archer.

And Malory is back to giving everyone in the organization-formerly-known-as-ISIS all kinds of grief, and serving as a martini-soaked babysitter to Archer and Lana’s baby daughter, Abijean. Walter lays down the vocals for Malory at Nutmeg Post, a recording studio on West 45th Street in Manhattan, and says it usually takes about a half-hour for her to knock out an episode (with executive producer Matt Thompson feeding other character’s lines into her ear).

Having a show enter a sixth season is a first for the 73-year-old Brooklyn native, who’s sadly used to having shows like Dinosaurs (where she voiced mom Fran Sinclair) and Arrested Development (the lovably sassy socialite Lucille Bluth) be canceled prematurely.

The Daily Beast caught up with the decidedly non-diva-like Walter to discuss Archer, the future of Arrested Development, and the crazy ‘80s.

What was it like to return to the office, so to speak, for Season 6 of Archer?

You know something? I’ve never had a return back to anything for six seasons, so just that alone was a groundbreaker for me. Six seasons of a show. I feel the show is growing in popularity—just from people on the street.

What do people on the street tell you?

They love it! That they love the characters, they love that it’s so racy… I’m not the demo that watches the show, so my phrases are a little old-fashioned!

You must see parallels between Malory Archer and Lucille Bluth.

Oh, I do. Of course, Lucille would never let her hair go gray—as Malory has—and Lucille was not a self-made woman. She relied on her husband’s money and her family, whereas Malory is a really sharp, take-charge businesswoman. Even though Lucille tries to keep control, she doesn’t do as good a job of it as Malory.

They do have a similar, overbearing relationship with at least one of their sons. The Sterling/Malory relationship reminds me a lot of Lucille/Buster.

Buster, yeah. Definitely. I like my characters to have one son who’s very needy, otherwise I don’t take the role! Just kidding. [Laughs] Adam told me I was the first one cast on the show, and they sent out copy for auditions to people that said, “Think of the type as Jessica Walter from Arrested Development,” and my agent who got the copy called me and said, “They’re thinking about you. If you like it I’ll tell them you’re interested in doing it.” I said, “That sounds smart.” And that’s exactly how it happened.

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You’ve managed to recruit so many of your Arrested Development colleagues onto Archer, like Jeffrey Tambor, David Cross, and Judy Greer.

You know something? I can’t take credit. All of those people wanted to be on the show, so I’m sorry to say it had nothing to do with me!

Jeffrey is so great on Transparent.

You know, I saw the pilot but I don’t have Amazon—but someone sent me the pilot, which I loved. I’m so bad technologically. How do you get the Amazon? Do you download it and put it on your computer? You know, I got sent the screeners, too. I don’t even know! By the way, your real-life husband Ron Leibman is hilarious as Malory’s significant other, Ron Cadillac. Is he coming back?

We don’t know! We talk about it a lot, but I hope so. So far he hasn’t appeared. You know Adam, god bless him, came to me and said, “Do you think Ron would be interested in this role?” And I said, “Oh my god, I’m sure he would be.” And of course, he was. Who wouldn’t want to be on Archer? I grew up loving Dinosaurs. Was Fran Sinclair the first character you voiced?

Oh my god! Speaking of great writing. I can’t take credit for that show, because the writing was so great. I’d done commercials and some cartoons. I had a running gig on Wildfire, one of those Hanna-Barbera’s. But I’d never done a recurring role on that kind of network show.

That show, like Arrested Development, only lasted four seasons even though it was so great. What happened?

I don’t know! It must be my bad vibes, because I get on a show and it only lasts four seasons—although that’s disputed now because of the six seasons of Archer! And Jennifer Falls, this show I did this summer, was just canceled after one… can’t win ‘em all! But Arrested Development was so great for everyone in it. It really revived our careers.

How did you feel about the comeback season on Netflix?

It was very difficult because they didn’t have everybody they wanted all the time at one place. If they had me, they’d have me in several different episodes, so it was quite confusing—especially for wardrobe and hair—because you’d shoot scenes from up to 10 episodes in a day. Let’s say it was the apartment set or Lucille’s prison cell. You’d have her cell, which appears in four episodes, and then you’d shoot all the scenes even though they’re at different periods in her life. It was like doing five shows at once. But I thought it was pretty successful. People seemed to like it.

Was it difficult to not be in the same room? Because the thing I’ve always loved about Arrested Development is how the cast would just be bouncing great one-liners off each other, like a game of verbal ping-pong.

We had a couple of those good scenes where everyone was together in the same room, but it’s not a secret that there were some green screen scenes down the line—although it really wasn’t with members of the family. I had a couple with Liza [Minnelli]. Not ideal, but not horrible.

What is the status on the planned Arrested Development movie? Is that still happening?

I don’t know, but I’m hoping. The last I heard, which was in the papers, was that Ted Sarandos said it was definitely coming back. So hopefully he’s a man of his word! But we’d all love to do it again. I know I would.

You’re known for playing these saucy, diva-like characters. But after meeting you when I hosted the Archer event at Comic-Con, they don’t seem anything like who you really are.

I don’t think so, no. It is great fun! It’s way more fun than playing Little Miss Vanilla Ice Cream Ingénue who rides off into the sunset behind her leading man on his stallion. I don’t even know why I get cast in those parts, but I’m grateful.

How do you channel your inner diva, then?

Well, I think all actors—the ones that are trained—use parts of themselves, and try to make the character as close to certain aspects of themselves as possible in order to be truthful. In the movie Play Misty For Me, she’s this real psychotic murderer, but who hasn’t wanted to kill somebody? We don’t do it, but those feelings of rage and anger? Everybody has those feelings. So, I tried to access those feelings for the character just to make it real.

I love Play Misty For Me. That was a pretty big early role for you.

Yeah. It actually was. The first early role, believe it or not, was a movie called Lilith with Warren Beatty and Jean Seberg, and directed by Robert Rossen. That was in 1964. And Grand Prix was the year after. That was a great trip around the world, let me tell ya!

So you really got to act alongside some hunks—Warren Beatty, James Garner, and Clint Eastwood. Did you romance any of them?

And Charlton Heston in Number One! He was really a wonderful guy, I have to tell you. People make fun of him and all that stuff, but I just thought he was wonderful. Clint is a dreamboat—still, to this day. I think any woman would agree. But no, unfortunately I did not. I’m trying to look back… when I met Clint I was married. When I did Grand Prix I was married. Heston, I was married. And with Warren Beatty, I wasn’t married, but I wasn’t interested. Girls were lined up for him and I was so not that way when I was young. I was too serious about my work.

Malory and Lucille are two very prolific drinkers. How is Jessica Walter at handling her booze?

You know something? I don’t drink much. Chardonnay is my fave. I used to once in a great while have a vodka martini. But that’s it. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, I never took drugs, smoked marijuana, or sniffed cocaine. I’m one of those straitlaced people. I knew it was bad, and if I did it, I’d probably get hooked.

I imagine there was a lot of drugs on film and TV sets in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

A lot of drugs. You’d go to a party in the ‘80s at the neighbor’s on a nice, tree-lined street in L.A., and there would be a huge bowl of coke on the coffee table! It was out in the open. People on sets used to walk around sniffing, but that was not my thing.

Those crazy ‘80s. With Archer this season, they of course dropped the acronym ISIS from the show. Did you have any merchandise you had to get rid of?

You know what’s funny? The only thing they ever gave us that said “ISIS,” and very few of us got it for some reason, was a coffee mug that says ISIS on it. I never use it, but it’s hanging where my coffee cups are hanging. And we had to go over the lines where every time we mentioned “ISIS” in the new season, we had to re-record over it something that made sense.

I’ve got to ask: Do you have a favorite Lucille line from Arrested Development? You know? I do. Here’s my favorite line: There was an episode where something very sad happened and she gets the news, and Lucille says to her son, “You know, I feel like crying, but I can’t spare the moisture.” That was a good one.

You were in so many fun movies in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but how does it feel to have your two most iconic roles—Lucille Bluth and Malory Archer—come later in life?

Oh my god! I can’t even express how lucky I feel. I should have been put out to pasture years ago, and thanks to these roles, I’m still hangin’ in there. And younger people now know my name! It’s not just the grandmas who grew up with my films.