Christopher Evan Welch: An actor who made an impression

Bill Irwin, performer

We lost a sterling actor this week, an actor whose name was less familiar than his face or voice. But fame is many things: fleeting, relative, frequently a matter of chance. To those who knew his work on screen and on stage, Christopher Evan Welch wasn't just famous; he was infamously creative.

Welch died Dec. 2 in Los Angeles at the age of 48. He'd been contending with lung cancer for three years. He leaves behind a wife, Emma Roberts Welch, and a three-year-old daughter, June. In his final months, having completed the first season of the new HBO comedy series "Silicon Valley," he spent considerable time with his family and, having loved the "Silicon Valley" experience, he described himself to one friend and longtime colleague as "criminally happy" with all aspects of his life.

In Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master," Welch plays a small but pivotal role, that of the nattering skeptic who disrupts the high-society fundraiser hosted by the self-made religious idol portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Moore's the one who breaks into the scene as an insistent off-screen voice, peppering his target with: "Excuse me. Excuse me? Excuse me."

He questions the Hoffman character's belief in time-travel, noting, with tense politesse: "Good science, by definition, allows for more than one opinion. Otherwise you merely have the will of one man. (Pause.) Which is the basis of cult."

It's a marvelous scene, and Welch, who also provided the dry, wryly authoritative voice-over narration in Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," is marvelous in it.

"I asked him about that scene," recalled Patrick Kelly, who ran the University of Dallas drama department when Welch was an undergraduate there in the 1980s. Welch and director Kelly later worked together on a variety of classical stage projects, including "Hamlet" at Colorado Shakespeare Festival. Regarding "The Master," Kelly recalled Wednesday, director Anderson told Welch basically to be "as annoying to Phil as he could. And they started rolling, and what you saw on screen was at least partially improvised. The reason that scene sticks with people, I think, is that he's the one voice for the audience in 'The Master,' the one character who lets in a little bit of air."

On stage Welch worked on many of America's most prestigious stages, alongside some formidable collaborators, among them Bill Irwin in a celebrated staging of "Scapin."  By phone Thursday, actor-director Irwin said: "On a stage, or just watching him from the audience, Chris was one of the shrewdest, funniest actors I've ever been around. He just knew certain dynamics so well, the way a piece of comic machinery worked, you could just feel a scene with him clicking into place, the way a great musician finds a groove."

In 2002 Welch played a mysterious Army corporal in Bruce Norris' play "Purple Heart" at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. He acted opposite Laurie Metcalf. It was not a major work by Norris, but Welch, the interpreter, and Norris, the dramatist, were nonetheless aptly matched in their comic malevolence.

"It's a huge loss," remembered Steppenwolf associate artistic director Erica Daniels Wednesday. "He was an actor I greatly admired. And always hoped to get back at Steppenwolf."

The talent was there at the beginning. In director Kelly's 1990 staging of "As You Like It" for the Fort Worth Shakespeare Festival, Welch was astoundingly funny as Touchstone, a part known for the unfunniness of the character's doggedly arcane jokes. Kelly told him that if he could make any of the jokes funny, he'd be eternally grateful. Welch's response was to create a restless, itchy, compulsive vaudevillian, responding to the strangeness of his surroundings in comic overdrive.

Welch sang in a rock band, the Ottoman Bigwigs, in Seattle and elsewhere, and he had friends and fans everywhere he worked, in LA, New York, Seattle, Minneapolis, and in Dallas, where events celebrating this actor's life are being planned this month. A separate Welch tribute is being planned for January in New York City.

mjphillips@tribune.com

Twitter: @phillipstribune


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