This piece originally ran in April 2014. We are rerunning it after last night’s Silicon Valley premiere, which paid tribute to Christopher Evan Welch’s character.
A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with one of my editors here about potential interviews with cast members of the new HBO comedy Silicon Valley. “We got to get the weirdo angel investor,” he said. I agreed. In a hilarious pilot full of standout characters, Peter Gregory was maybe the most dynamic, or at least the strangest. And, having seen the next few episodes, I can attest that the show triples-down on his oddness. I was excited to talk to the actor who plays Gregory. That was until Friday, when I got a series of IMs from my editor. It started with, “So, the guy that plays Peter Gregory in Silicon Valley” and included a link to his IMDb page. There it was: Christopher Evan Welch died on Monday, December 2, 2013 at age 48, after a three-year battle with lung cancer.
Maybe there were some people who knew that the actor had died, but I was not one of them. This sucks. This fucking sucks, I thought, shaken. Silicon Valley would have been his breakout role, that’s how good he is in it. I decided to spend the weekend watching as much of his work as I could, hoping to shine a light on a career I unintentionally overlooked.
Welch was not a “that guy,” a term affectionately used to describe actors, like the recently deceased James Rebhorn, whom you constantly and regularly see in small and often thankless roles on TV and in film but couldn’t name off the top of your head. Welch maybe could’ve worked to get to that point, but at the time of his passing, he was far from well-known. Welch was a working actor who mixed solid theater work with small but more lucrative film and TV gigs.
It’s that face, pointy yet soft. It had a mix of distinct and nondescript that made him an ideal character actor. Onstage, it led to a prolific career playing the Roderigos and Mercutios of the world. He was Reverend Samuel Parris to Laura Linney and Liam Neeson’s Elizabeth and John Proctor in a 2002 revival of The Crucible. There was his breakout performance in director Ivo van Hoveʼs 1999 experimental version of A Streetcar Named Desire, for which he won an Obie. Welch played Mitch — he was not a Stanley. In movies, like last year’s Admission, where he played Brant, Tina Fey’s snotty co-worker in the Princeton admissions office, or in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, where he served as the well-enunciated, not too distracting narrator, Welch’s specificity helped fill out the universe as much as a bit character could.
The best example of this was in Lincoln, where Welch plays the Congressional clerk tasked with calling the roll, one congressman at a time, to record the vote on the Thirteenth Amendment. He flatly reads each name and the corresponding actor gets to do some capital-A acting, trying to capture some deep-seated feeling about this historic issue. Welch is in the part you’re not supposed to pay attention to, so I embedded it below to allow you to pay attention. Watch Welch play a person who is forced not to react to the immensity of the moment. His part was essential, like many small parts in big movies we so easily take for granted are. I wish I had realized that about him sooner.
Sometimes, however, Welch demanded to be noticed. After Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he was given a chance to be onscreen in Woody Allen’s 2009 film Whatever Works, albeit basically for one scene. In it, Ed Begley Jr.’s very religious character is in a bar, drinking after his wife has left him, and he meets a gay man, played by Welch. Begley Jr. was supposed to be the focus, but it’s impossible not to watch Welch, who subtly uses his face and body language to communicate his intentions. It’s a somewhat clunky scene, in a fairly clunky movie, but Welch invests personhood in what easily could’ve been a flat or cliché character.
Then there is the funeral monologue from Synecdoche, New York. As the story goes, writer-director Charlie Kaufman wrote the scene 24 or 48 hours before shooting and Welch was hired as a day player. Despite this, Welch’s ability to tackle the philosophically, narratively, and tonally complicated speech is nothing short of brilliant. Equal parts hopeful, pessimistic, and deviant, Welch made the scene one of the most iconic and memorable of Kaufman’s career.
I remember loving both moments when I first saw those movies, and now, watching them again, I feel a real loss. I was a big Christopher Evan Welch fan; I just didn’t know who Christopher Evan Welch was. And now I do, but he is gone. Why didn’t I just look up his name sooner? I could’ve seen him in a play. I could’ve done one of those quirky interviews we sometimes do where we talk to smaller actors about their random roles. Why didn’t I watch AMC’s Rubicon, which was canceled after one season? (Why didn’t anyone watch Rubicon?) Welch wasn’t the star, but he was a regular, playing a fairly unremarkable pompous asshole. If he were ever going to be a “that guy,” it would’ve started here. I watch him in it and can imagine all the second in commands or dickish vice principals he could’ve played.
On Sunday, I rewatched him in the Silicon Valley pilot. Years of anonymity afforded Welch a certain element of surprise. No one expected anything from him, because no one knew who he was. As he stood after his speech, holding his hands in that uncomfortable way, mouthing words, and awkwardly staring into the distance as Richard (Thomas Middleditch) pitched him Pied Piper, I wondered if those were the acting decisions of a man trying to make one last mark on the world or one still trying to make a first. In an email to Vulture, Middleditch described Welch’s Peter Gregory as the sort of “nuanced character work” that anyone who worked with Welch “affirmed his aptness for.” Especially, as the series goes on, it is the sort of “Who the hell is this guy?” performance that I can picture leading to larger and larger parts in TV and movie comedies.
That, of course, is not a possibility now. In 2010, right before his terrible diagnosis, Welch discussed the traits he shares with the character he was to play in the Lincoln Center performance of The Coward: “My ability to laugh at life and, sort of, try to make the best of every situation is something I share with Henry. His, kind of, lust for life is probably something that I share. He’s somebody that, sort of, just takes what comes and has fun with it and is willing to try almost anything. I think I probably have that in common with him.”
Silicon Valley is the last record of Christopher Evan Welch’s willingness. “If I were to ever glean a silver lining from such a tragedy,” Middleditch ended his email, “it’s that everyone goes at some point, that’s unavoidable, but Chris got to leave us on a high note — doing very well at a thing he’s very good at doing, praising his loved ones and in return being loved. We all just wish he could’ve done it longer.”