By Steve Persall
Times Film Critic
M. Emmet Walsh landed Wednesday in Tampa a year older than when he left Los Angeles on a red-eye flight. Freshly turned 76, the most familiar actor most folks can't name is picking up a lifetime achievement award at the Gasparilla International Film Festival.
What a life — more to the point, assortment of lives — Walsh has revealed in 110 feature films and nearly as many TV and stage roles, often in brief but memorable appearances. He's always "that guy," with a face you don't forget and a knack for making dialogue sound better than it's written.
So much that Roger Ebert coined the Stanton-Walsh rule that "no movie featuring either M. Emmet Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton in a supporting role can be altogether bad."
You've seen Walsh somewhere: the scheming, sweaty private eye in Blood Simple, Harrison Ford's boss in Blade Runner, crooked cops and kindly neighbors in too many movies to list. Walsh effortlessly makes the same old characters special, weirdos fun and extraordinary plots believable. He has done that for 41 years, from Alice's Restaurant to Youth in Revolt. Oh yeah, you've seen him.
You should hear him, too. A telephone interview set for 15 minutes went three times longer, with Walsh taking the listener — you don't get many chances to speak — on a rascally tour of his life, and perceptive analysis of his career.
"I don't know how you're going to get this down to 300 words," he said when it ended. I can't, so sharing these nuggets will have to do.
Walsh on his college days: “I was going to take engineering but they had to study so I took something (marketing) that allowed me to drink. It was obvious when I finished college that I wasn't going to be a brilliant businessman. They tried to flunk me out but couldn't quite pull it off. . . .
"The dean of students called me in and said: 'Okay, Walsh, you're going to graduate. We can't stop it. But we want you to know you're graduating with the lowest marks in seven years.' Then they brought me back for the 50th reunion and gave me the Golden Knight award. You think I didn't get up there with that microphone and rub their a----- in it?"
On moving to New York to act: “As opposed to the first 21 years of my life, I found New York frightfully exciting. I spent the first two years just putting Band-Aids on my knees. I'd be looking at a tall building and I'd fall off the curb.
"I couldn't act . . . but I was a sponge. I'd put on a suit and tie and queue up outside a theater during intermission when people come out to have a cigarette. You wander in with them and there's always an empty seat. Name a play, I saw it; watching the actors' hands, how they listen, all these acting problems that I never thought of before. Nobody falls off the turnip truck and does Hamlet.
What filmmakers like about him: “Way back they used to hire me because they said, 'If the writing's bad, get Walsh. He'll make it look like it's better.' I could take dialogue and make it sound right. I got killed once (in a role) and it was so bad even I couldn't help it. The director who wrote the script told me to change the dialogue. I said no, I want you to hear how terrible this is, so you'll learn. It was the worst."
How he remains in demand: "There's stage presence, and there's film presence. They're not equally exchangeable. . . . I've been blessed with a little of both. I have a presence out there. I walk on and people watch. It's a gift from the gods. Yes, I know how to do my job. But that I have this little magic thing helps."
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.