May 19, 1997 12:00 PM

>J.T. Walsh


WHEN THE YUPPIE COUPLE PLAYED BY KURT RUSSELL AND Kathleen Quinlan in the thriller Breakdown first encounter trucker Red Barr, he greets them with a smile and a helping hand. “He’s a nice guy,” says veteran character actor J.T. Walsh, who plays the trucker. “Very helpful.”

First impressions can be deceiving, as Russell and Quinlan learn when their highway Samaritan becomes a homicidally inclined tormentor. For Walsh, 53, the evil trucker is the latest in a cavalcade of sleazeballs he has played over the years. From Robin Williams’ conniving commanding officer in Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) to Billy Bob Thornton’s sinister asylum mate in Sling Blade, Walsh has specialized in characters he imbues with a sense of “just how ordinary and everyday real evil is.” Walsh says he first made that discovery while growing up in Germany, where his father, a career U.S. Army officer, taught him about the Holocaust.

Walsh’s nomadic Army childhood also included a Jesuit boarding school in Ireland. After graduating from the University of Rhode Island, where he dabbled in drama, he toiled as a social worker, an encyclopedia salesman, a junior high school teacher and a reporter. Long active in community theater, Walsh turned pro in 1974 and got his break after befriending David Mamet, in whose plays American Buffalo and Glengarry Glen Ross he was eventually cast. Now single, he lives in L.A. with his son, television production assistant John West, 22. His evil characters haven’t helped his luck with women. “The normal ones don’t want to have anything to do with me,” Walsh laments. “And the sick ones, I don’t want to have anything to do With.”

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