Kenneth Welsh, memorable as a villain on 'Twin Peaks,' dies at 80

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Kenneth Welsh, memorable as a villain on 'Twin Peaks,' dies at 80
Kenneth Welsh and Stockard Channing in the play “The Little Foxes” at the Vivian Beaumont Theater in New York, April 15, 1997. Welsh, a prolific Canadian stage and screen actor who was best known as the murderous, unhinged villain Windom Earle on “Twin Peaks,” died at home in Sanford, Ontario on May 5, 2022. He was 80. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Jordan Allen

NEW YORK, NY.- Kenneth Welsh, a prolific Canadian stage and screen actor best known for his portrayal of the murderous, unhinged villain Windom Earle on the hit early-1990s television series “Twin Peaks,” died May 5 at his home in Sanford, Ontario. He was 80.

His longtime agent, Pam Winter, said the cause was cancer.

Welsh appeared in 10 episodes of “Twin Peaks” in its second season, playing the vengeful, maniacal adversary and former FBI partner of the protagonist, Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan).

The series, created by David Lynch and Mark Frost, follows Cooper as he investigates the murder of the high school student Laura Palmer in the seemingly sleepy town of Twin Peaks, Washington.

Earle featured in some of the darker, more sadistic scenes and storylines in a series that was known for bending genres, mixing horror and surrealism with soapy and sometimes comic elements.

In the years after its cancellation by ABC in 1991 and its cliffhanger ending, “Twin Peaks” developed a cult following and spawned a prequel film, “Fire Walk With Me” (1992), and returned for limited-series that premiered on Showtime in 2017. Welsh’s character did not appear in either project.

Welsh was cast in the role after visiting the set in Washington state and meeting with Robert Engels, one of the show’s producers, and Frost.

Engels “knew that I was a little eccentric, and he knew that as an actor I would go this way and that way,” Welsh said in an interview for entertainment website 25YL, adding: “He just kind of knew that I was crazy and that I was perfect for Windom. I guess?”

Welsh said it was he who successfully pitched the idea of having Earle wear different disguises as he stalked Cooper and various other characters.

Welsh thrived playing off-kilter characters, such as Larry Loomis, the Sovereign Protector of the Order of the Lynx, a dying fraternal order at the center of “Lodge 49,” a short-lived comedy-drama series seen on AMC in 2018 and 2019.

But in his more than 240 movie and television roles, he ranged widely across genres, including sketch comedy (Amazon’s recent revival of “The Kids in the Hall”), science fiction (“Star Trek: Discovery” in 2020), family fare (“Eloise at the Plaza,” a 2003 Disney TV movie) and historical dramas. Also, he played President Harry S. Truman twice — in the television movies “Hiroshima” (1995) and “Haven” (2001) — and Thomas Edison in the 1998 TV movie “Edison: The Wizard of Light,” for which he received an Emmy nomination.

His notable film roles included vice president of the United States in Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow” (2004), about the onset of an ecological catastrophe, and the father of Katharine Hepburn (played by Cate Blanchett) in Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning “The Aviator” (2004).

Welsh won five Canadian Screen Awards, four for his television work and one for his supporting role in the 1995 film “Margaret’s Museum,” a drama set in a coal-mining town on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. In 2003, he was named a member of the Order of Canada.

Kenneth Welsh was born March 30, 1942, in Edmonton, Alberta, to Clifford and Lillian (Sawchuk) Welsh. His father worked for the Canadian National Railway for more than 35 years, and his mother worked at a dress shop.

Welsh was the inaugural class president at Bonnie Doon Composite High School in Edmonton. He attended the University of Alberta, where he majored in drama, and then the National Theater School of Canada, graduating in 1965.

He went on to rack up many credits on the stage, including, early on, in Shakespearean productions at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. Notably, he starred with Kathy Bates in the original off-Broadway production of “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair De Lune” in 1987 and was seen on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s “The Real Thing” (1984), directed by Mike Nichols, and at Lincoln Center in a production of Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes” (1997), with Glenn Close.

His last stage performance was in Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood” at the Coal Mine Theater in Toronto in 2021.

Drawing on his encyclopedic memory of Shakespeare’s works, Welsh was a creator, with composer Ray Leslee, of “Stand Up Shakespeare,” a “motley musical,” as it billed itself, that opened off-Broadway in 1987. The production, also directed by Nichols, involved audience members, who would suggest Shakespeare characters, scenes or plays for Welsh to recite from memory. In the following decades, he would sporadically revive “Stand Up Shakespeare” as a signature piece in various locations in the United States and Canada.

Welsh’s marriages to Corinne Farago and Donna Haley ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, Lynne McIlvride, a visual artist, and a son, Devon, a musician, from his first marriage.

In the final phase of his career, Welsh shifted his attention to independent projects and young filmmakers. His last film was “Midnight at the Paradise,” a drama directed by Vanessa Matsui, now in postproduction. Alongside Alan Hawco and Liane Balaban, he played the key supporting role of a movie critic nearing the end of his life.

On set, Matsui said, Welsh captivated his colleagues.

“He was always telling the cast and crew funny stories from his life, and he blew us all away with his performance and grace,” she said in an email. “I’ll never forget shooting this one scene with him and Allan Hawco, and you could hear a pin drop because the crew was just so drawn in by his performance. It was one of those special, intangible moments on set where you knew you just captured magic.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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