Brainiac On Banjo #109: What Jessica Walter Means To Me

Don’t you ever miss your house in the country, and your hot little mamma too? Don’t you better get a shot from the doctor, for what the Road Ladies do to you? – Frank Zappa, Road Ladies, 1970

I was just 21¼ years old. Old enough to know better. And, well, I did know better.

I had started on the radio about two years earlier, doing freeform “underground” shows overnights on Chicago FM stations. Back in those days, FM wasn’t on most car radios and station owners bought them just so that their competitors could not. At that time, nobody made money on overnight FM except for those slots that were purchased — brokered — by churches, far-right-wing political howlers, and foreign-language shows. That is, nobody made money until we came along.

In short order, my peers warned the 19-year-old me that, from time to time, women would call the studio in the middle of the night and make it clear that a personal appearance need not involve guitars and amplifiers. Remember, this was during that hallowed time between the invention of the birth control pill and the onset of HIV, and it was a wonderful period to be a 19 year old with Y chromosomes that screamed louder than a pack of shock-jocks.

My peers pointed out that these ladies had never seen me, and that I had never seen them. All they knew was I was on radio which, admittedly, can be an intimate experience at 3 in the morning. According to my instructors, other than an hour’s pleasure nothing good could come out of such parlances… and quite often there’s a world of hurt around the corner.

Yeah. Right. I was pushing 20 and I was full of three things… one of which being myself.

I had just started at a station in Evanston, Chicago’s northern neighbor and their studio was along the Chicago River about two miles from the fabled “L” trains. As is wont to happen, one night my car broke down in their parking lot and I had to choose between a long walk or an even longer wait for repair. I was three hours into my five-hour shift and I knew that walk would be annoying. I mentioned my situation on the air. At three in the morning. Sadly, my “Uh-Oh Sense” declined to stop me.

I received a few calls from folks who were willing to pick me up. One pleasant-sounding young lady, perhaps a couple of years my elder, was quite sympathetic and, you will recall, I was pushing 20. So I took her up on her offer, figuring I had the strength and fortitude to resist any of the more aggressive charms that might waft by.

Yup. I’m dumber than a bag of over-heated doorknobs.

I won’t go into details. Warren Zevon later wrote, presumably referencing his experience and not mine, “She took me back to the Hyatt House. I don’t want to talk about it.”

The following year Clint Eastwood made his directorial debut with Play Misty For Me. It was about an overnight jazz disc jockey (Clint typecast himself) named Dave Garver who has a liaison with a fan named Evelyn Draper, played by Jessica Walter. Later at her apartment, Evelyn admits that she is the fangirl who repeatedly requests Erroll Garner’s classic, “Misty”. This is when the movie turns into a horror film.

Each and every one of us sat there in the dark theater nodding wide-eyed as though we were on the lam from a bobble-head contest. We identified with Dave Garver, particularly with the parts of the movie that involved his feelings of overwhelming regret.

Horror begins at home, often below the waistline.

Jessica Walter went on to enjoy a fabulous career, one that ended this past week with her death at 80. Her résumé sucks up a hell of a lot of IMDB ether, and deservedly so. You young-uns know her from her recent work as a regular on shows like Archer and Arrested Development. You comics fans know her from her work as the villain in the Doctor Strange television movie, as Granny Goodness on the Harley Quinn series, in The Return of Wonder Woman television movie, and as Athena on the Justice League Action series. I love her work and I look forward to seeing her pop up in the hundreds of movies and television shows forever.

But, mostly, I thank Ms. Walter for the life-lesson she gave me in Play Misty For Me. Guys tend to have two brains; she taught us why we need to overrule one of them.

Maybe those sing-along days are, indeed, lost to us forever. I think they might be a bit; what has logically and necessarily evolved into the #MeToo movement has a growing impact, at least on some people. But as far as I’m concerned — and this opinion was shared by my peers – Play Misty For Me was Clint Eastwood’s first documentary.