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A graduate of the University of Dallas’ drama program, Christopher Evan Welch had just finished the first season of a new HBO comedy, Silicon Valley, directed by Mike Judge, when he died of cancer Monday in Santa Monica, California. He was 48.
Patrick Kelly, the former chair of the UD drama program, said that Welch had struggled for years with a complicated lung cancer. Kelly spoke with Welch recently, said he’d been doing well but then on Sunday he felt a tremendous pain, was taken to the hospital where his heart stopped. Welch is survived by his wife, Emma Roberts Welch, and their three-year-old daughter, June Harper.
One of the pleasures of Welch’s career — for audiences who recognized him — was seeing and hearing him constantly popping up in unexpected films and TV shows, with notable roles in Lincoln, The Master, The Sopranos and doing the voiceover in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona — a performance he later revealed he had to do without actually seeing the movie he was narrating.
Onstage as a student in Dallas, Welch made a memorable first impression in a remarkable production of David Mamet’s The Water Engine in the 1980s, directed by Patrick Kelly. Using sharp, dramatic lighting, Kelly made the play about an amateur inventor crushed by unnamed forces into a stylish noir, with Welch as a thuggish attorney. Welch already seemed completely at home on the stage: He fiddled with a twig the entire time — the only sign his scene was set in a park — managing to be at once threatening, nervous and silly. Kelly also directed Welch in a 1990 Fort Worth production of As You Like It. Welch played the clown Touchstone as a rabbity character rattled by everyone and everything around him.
Welch left Dallas for Seattle and the University of Washington. There, he formed a rock band, the Ottoman Bigwigs, and toured for several years before making a hilarious, dim-witted debut in New York. He played opposite the great Bill Irwin in a 1997 off-Broadway revival of Moliere’s Scapin. At one point, Welch’s character makes a dramatic entrance, swinging in on a rope to save the day. The rope was too long, however, so Welch wound up, coming to an abrupt halt, parked flat on the stage. Wile E. Coyote-like, he remained pointed forward, unwilling to concede that gravity, friction and his own stupidity had left him frozen several important feet from his destination. Scapin was a rare occasion in which Irwin was not always the funniest person nor the most physically daring performer onstage.
Clearly, Welch had a tremendous gift for comedy, appearing off-Broadway in Woody Allen’s two one-act plays, Writer’s Block, and in Mamet’s courtroom farce-satire, Romance. But he also brought a focused, detailed intensity to dramatic supporting roles, winning an Obie playing Harold Mitchell in an off- Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. In his appreciation of Welch, former Dallas theater critic-turned-Chicago movie critic Michael Phillips explains how, even in a minor role in a single scene in The Master, Welch provided a pivotal voice in the film.
In contrast to many of his roles on stage and screen, Welch was appealingly smart and engaging in person. Living in New York over time, Welch once told me, he’d become the typically aggressive Manhattanite, barging through crowds to catch his subway train. But upon reflection, he felt he wouldn’t permit other people’s rudeness to change him — and he returned to his calmer, more polite ways.
He felt, he said with a grin, this would unsettle New Yorkers even more.