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Last character role for the busy, brilliant J.T. Walsh

"Pleasantville" contains the last major role by the much-admired character actor J. T. Walsh. He plays the head of the 1950s sitcom Chamber of Commerce, a man much threatened by change, who warns, "There is something happening in our town" - a town, we know, where nothing has ever happened.

Walsh, who played roles in nearly 60 movies in a busy acting career that began only in 1983, also was seen recently as an internal affairs investigator in "The Negotiator" and a murdering truck driver in "Breakdown." He died on Feb. 27 of a heart attack, at age 53.

"He was so hard on himself," remembers Gary Ross, who directed him in "Pleasantville."

"I met J. T. at 7 in the morning and he was having a big whipped cream cheese danish, smoking a cigarette while he was eating. He smoked all the time. Tough on himself. And he was so hard on himself as an actor.

"As a director, you try to sort of find what it is they need, a little bit of reassurance, and with J. T. it was - boy, how do I get him to forgive himself and relax a little bit here? He was so brilliant, and I would go, 'This is great, this is great.' But he never believed it."

On why Walsh came late to acting, Ross said, "He was an encyclopedia salesman. He was so good right from the start. Remember him in 'Good Morning, Vietnam?' "

He also was in "Sling Blade," "Nixon" (as John Ehrlichman), "Contact," "Red Rock West," "Backdraft," "Hoffa" (as union leader Frank Fitzsimmons), and many TV programs (he had a continuing role on "L.A. Law" in 1986).

In "Pleasantville," he leads the forces of status quo against the threat of change. "J.T. had the best way of describing the movie," Ross remembered. "He said the kids from the future (who stir up the 1950s sitcom universe) are like the sand that gets in the oyster. It was such a perfect metaphor - the irritation that produces something beautiful."

As for Walsh's death so soon after filming was completed: "It's just an insane loss."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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