Remembering Emmet (A Tribute to M. Emmet Walsh)

M. Emmet Walsh surrounded by the crew of "Raising Buchanan", October 2017. (Photo used by permission PBATHW, LLC.)
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On March 19, 2024, just three days short of his 89th birthday, Michael Emmet Walsh departed this Earth. Known to the world as M. Emmet Walsh, the ornery old character actor spent the last seven years thinking that every picture would be his last.

A moment of relaxation for the talented Mr. Walsh. (Photo used by permission PBATHW, LLC.)

We were riding to the set together in October of 2017. “I don’t think I should do this anymore,” said Emmet, out of the blue. He shook his head slowly, resignedly. 

“Do what?” I asked. “Make movies?”

“Yeah, I think I’m getting too old.” 

“Go on, you’ll outlive us all,” I assured him. 

Emmet gave me a sideways glance under those bushy, knitted, white eyebrows. “Oh yeah?” he said. “What the hell do you know?”

I burst out laughing and he turned to stare through the windshield at the clear, Phoenix sky, not even cracking a smile. It was hard to make Emmet smile.

I looked over and he was mumbling to himself in an odd way, as if he was having an internal argument. Then he pulled his lap belt slack and bent forward in his seat until his head was tucked between his knees. He held that position for a few seconds and I was genuinely concerned. But as a producer, I’ve learned to give actors a little extra leeway in their eccentricities. As it turned out, Emmet had placed his script on the floorboard between his feet. He was taking quick peeks at his lines before sitting back upright to commit them to memory.

At that point, I understood Emmet’s concern. I could never do what he did for a living. But he would go on to perform in another half dozen films and three episodic TV shows.

You may best remember M. Emmet Walsh as the shady private detective in “Blood Simple”, the 1984 crime drama and breakout film that propelled the Coen Brothers to nearly instant notoriety and probably did the same for Walsh. Though his career spanned 56 years, he was often just “that guy” who looked and sounded familiar but was otherwise unplaceable. As the unscrupulous Loren Visser, Walsh slinks through the film noir shadows, like a self-righteous backwater deputy who thinks himself above the law but below the radar. His, by now, recognizable voice is reedy and buzzes like a nest of hornets; the patented Walsh sideways glance, head back and with an air of confidence, as if all-knowing. We get what this guy is capable of, and we hope that he will fail horribly.

Makeup artist Kay Gray touches up Emmet on the set of “Raising Buchanan”. (Photo credit: Durant Photography)

Once again, I must revert back to calling Mr. Walsh by the familiar. If you were to call him “Mr. Walsh”,  he would surely have scolded you for making him feel old. Similarly, if you were to come around to his side of the vehicle to open his door — as I tried to do in October of 2017 — he would shoo you away and tell you that he was not feeble. Even now, seven years later, I hear his voice:

“Get away! Get away! Get away!” Yes, three times. He was adamant that you neither helped him out of deference nor out of pity. Emmet can open his own damned door. Having been brought up in the South Bronx, I took Emmet’s attitude in stride. No, strike that. I was actually having a grand old time listening to him.

On the set of “Raising Buchanan”, Director Bruce Dellis and Exec Producer Amanda Melby flank veteran actor M. Emmet Walsh. In the movie, Walsh plays Melby’s hard-to-please Dad. (Photo used by permission PBATHW, LLC.)

Emmet’s scenes were on Sunday. (As is typical for low budget movies hiring name talent, we shot all of Emmet’s scenes in a single day and then flew him back home that night.) But Emmet wanted to visit the set the day before and get the lay of the land. Climbing up into the rented SUV, he immediately became very upset. The reason was that he forgot to bring two dollar bills with him to pass around the set. Apparently, this was Emmet’s “thing”. And apparently, everyone knew it but me. Weeks before, I was driving the late René Auberjonois (“Odo” from “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine”) to a different set but for the same movie, “Raising Buchanan”. Rene found out that Emmet was going to be in town and his face lit up. “Tell him that I still have that two-dollar bill he gave me!” I responded with a confused nod.

Emmet regales Amanda, Bruce and “Hospice Doctor” (played by actual doctor Tim Shaub) between scenes on the set of “Raising Buchanan”. (Photo credit: Durant Photography)

So, on Saturday afternoon, at nearly 3pm, instead of driving straight to the set, we spent most of the afternoon going from bank to bank looking for new $2 bills for the crew. Three o’clock on Saturday afternoon. No easy feat, but he got it done. That’s the kind of guy he was. Come Sunday, he was already a welcome family member on set, posing for photos and giving everybody a hard time, still not cracking so much as a smile — except for the camera, when he would turn up one side of his mouth like the sly fox he was. Emmet’s performance as the bedridden father of the conniving main character (played by Amanda Melby) was impeccable. He even gave Amanda’s character a pet name that was not scripted (“Ruthie”), but was perfect to solidify the father/daughter bond. 

A page from the writer’s production scrapbook. A gift from M. Emmet Walsh. (Photo credit: Joe Gruberman)

When I dropped him off at his hotel at the end of the day, a valet ran up to his door. “Get away! Get away! Get away!” snapped Emmet. He gets out and says to the valet “How are the Dodgers doing?” The valet had no clue that Game 5 of the World Series was in progress. He looked back with wide, vacant eyes and said he didn’t know. “So what the hell good are you?” growled Emmet. I just laughed and laughed.

M. Emmet Walsh — Emmet, to all who knew him — lived on his own terms. What a cussin’ sailor he was. I hope life was good to him. May he find a heavenly poker game ready to deal him in.

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About Joe Gruberman 47 Articles
I'm a writer/producer/filmmaker/teacher based in Phoenix, AZ.

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