The Jessica Walter Scene That Convinced Clint Eastwood She Was Perfect For Play Misty For Me

Clint Eastwood wasn't exactly Clint Eastwood when he was prepping for his directorial debut, "Play Misty for Me," in 1971.

He was primarily viewed as a Western actor who'd parlayed his television success on CBS' "Rawhide" to attain a cultish, pulpy stardom via Sergio Leone's shot-in-Spain "Dollars Trilogy." The films were commercial hits in the United States but despised by most prominent film critics. They found them silly and excessively violent, and thought Eastwood's taciturn demeanor was less an affectation than flat-out lousy acting.

Nevertheless, Eastwood kept knocking out hits, which pleased Universal Pictures enough that they were more than happy to greenlight his first filmmaking effort. Screenwriters Jo Heims and Dean Riesner had crafted a tightly structured thriller about a ladies' man disc jockey who finds himself stalked by a one-night-stand. It was a curious choice for Eastwood in that his character is vulnerable and somewhat unlikeable. He's certainly not the steely, take-charge type that had made him a major box-office draw.

The key to the film's effectiveness was finding the right actor for the role of the stalker. She couldn't seem unhinged out of the gate. There wasn't a lot of nuance on the page, which meant a film tilted too heavily in Eastwood's favor could easily come off as misogynistic. We had to understand her grievance on some level. Eastwood didn't want some random ingénue under contract at Universal. He wanted an actor. And he found a heckuva one in Jessica Walter.

Walter shined in Sidney Lumet's The Group

In an early 1970s interview with Stuart M. Kaminsky, Clint Eastwood was asked how he arrived at Jessica Walter as the dangerous stalker. "Over the studio's dead body," he quipped. Coincidentally, three of the top contenders for the part had appeared in Sidney Lumet's 1966 drama "The Group." When Eastwood watched the movie, one particularly violent scene convinced him Walter was the only choice.

As he told Kaminsky:

"[Walter] plays a frigid gal who talks about sex but is really turned off — and she's with this German guy who's trying to put the make on her and she starts this turn-off, and he just hauls off and slaps the s*** out of her. And the look on her face, the transition she makes, the story on her face made me want to get her. I talked to the studio and they named a couple of people who were more well-known, people they could get deals on because business was slow, and I said: I don't want deals, I just want someone who is right for the part."

And as anyone who has seen "Play Misty For Me" can attest — Jessica Walter was absolutely the best person for the role.

Jessica Walter was the proto from hell psychopath

Clint Eastwood got Jessica Walter, and it's hard to imagine Glenn Close's bravura turn in Adrian Lyne's "Fatal Attraction" without her portrayal of a woman who will not be ignored. These characters aren't the most enlightened cliches, but the fling/roommate/nanny/what-have-you-from-hell archetype can be tremendous fun provided the film errs on the side of pulp. These are, after all, fears people harbor, and they can be queasily revealing of our own deficiencies.

The only bummer here is that Walter didn't fully get her due as an actor until she became the over-it-all, chardonnay-swilling matriarch of the Bluth family on "Arrested Development." Hollywood could've done a lot with Walter, but too many filmmakers lacked Eastwood's instincts. Walter passed away in 2021, and she is so, so missed.