Rarely garnering a lead role, M. Emmet Walsh has become one of the busiest character actors in Hollywood, using his ruddy, seedy appearance to embody countless low-life strangers with unsavory agendas. In his rare sympathetic roles, he's also capable of generating genuine pathos for the put upon plight of struggling small-timers. His effortless portrayals have made him a welcome addition to numerous ensembles, even if many viewers can't match a name to his recognizable mug. In fact, his work is so well thought of that critic Roger Ebert created the Stanton-Walsh Rule, which states that no film featuring either Walsh or Harry Dean Stanton can be altogether bad.
Contrary to his frequent casting as a Southerner, Walsh is a native New Yorker, born on March 22, 1935, in Ogdensburg, NY. As a youth he attended the prestigious Tilton School in New Hampshire, and went on to share a college dorm room with actor William Devane. He graduated from the Clarkson University School of Business, but it was not until his thirties that he discovered his true calling: acting. He first popped up in Midnight Cowboy (1969), and has worked steadily ever since, some years appearing in as many as eight motion pictures, other years focusing more on TV movies.
Working in relative anonymity through the '70s and early '80s, appearing in films ranging from Serpico (1973) to Slapshot (1977) to Blade Runner (1982), Walsh landed his meatiest and most memorable role in Joel and Ethan Coen's remarkable debut, Blood Simple (1984). Without batting an eye, Walsh exuded more casual menace as the amoral private detective doggedly pursuing his own self-interest than a host of typecast villains could muster in their entire careers. His role was key to creating a stylish noir that would launch the careers of two modern masters. It earned him an Independent Spirit Award.
Blood Simple did not markedly alter Walsh's status as a supporting actor, as he went on to appear in this capacity in Fletch (1985), Back to School (1986), and Raising Arizona (1987), his next collaboration with the Coens, in which his bull-slinging machinist scores riotously with less than a minute of screen time. One of the first appearances of the kindly Walsh was in 1988's Clean and Sober, in which he plays a recovering alcoholic helping Michael Keaton through the same struggle.
As he crept into his late fifties and early sixties, the stature of Walsh's films diminished a little, if not his actual workload. Continuing to dutifully pursue his craft throughout the early '90s, Walsh again returned to a higher profile with appearances in such films as A Time to Kill (1996), William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet (1996), and My Best Friend's Wedding (1997). More as a reaction to the ineptitude of the movie than Walsh's performance, Ebert called into question his own Walsh-Stanton Rule in his review of Wild Wild West, the 1999 Will Smith-Kevin Kline debacle in which Walsh is one of the only tolerable elements. In the years to come, Walsh would remain active on screen, appearing in films like Youth in Revolt and providing the voice of Olaf on the animated series Pound Puppies.