Kenneth Welsh, one of the greatest Canadian actors of his generation, played a variety of characters ranging from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Julius Caesar, to a parody of Adolf Hitler in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. He died at home in Sandford, Ont., on May 5. He was 80.
“His background and his roots were on the stage, especially in his early years,” his agent, Pam Winter, said.
After beginning his career at the Stratford Festival, where he performed for seven years, he played a wide range of roles in film and television, including American president Harry Truman; Thomas Dewey, the man Truman defeated in the 1948 U.S. election; and inventor Thomas Edison. In Canada, he portrayed Alberta premier Peter Lougheed in the CBC drama The Tar Sands, and Colin Thatcher, the Saskatchewan politician convicted of murdering his wife. Give him a role, and he could do it.
“You can do all kinds of interesting research and come up with a portrait,” he told Scarlet Street Magazine in 2000 about his process of studying for a role. ”I truly enjoy that kind of research and learning about people like Edison and Truman, and even Thatcher. It is always a great study for me to unearth details about someone’s life I am about to become.”
The basement of the converted schoolhouse where he lived in Sandford, Ont., was filled with awards for his acting. He received five Geminis, a Genie and an honorary degree from the University of Alberta, and he was named a member of the Order Canada in 2004.
“He had about 250 film and television production credits over his career and that doesn’t include hundreds of theatre roles. Even I don’t know the total, and he probably didn’t either. Remember, he started right out of theatre school when he was 22,” his agent, Ms. Winter, said.
Mr. Welsh was a classical actor who knew Shakespeare so well that he could recite almost any scene on command. Someone in the audience would say Lady Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 1, and he would recite the part word for word. Say a few words from another scene and he would finish it.
“He had an uncanny memory,” his long-time friend John Cavers said. “I guess when you’ve done it for so many years, it’s cemented into your brain.”
And Mr. Welsh did it for well over 50 years, going straight to the stage at Stratford after he graduated from the National Theatre School in Montreal in 1965.
He started playing minor parts but he became a star on stage early.
“Ken and I worked at Stratford together in 1968, the year he starred as Hamlet. He had gone pretty much from the National Theatre School straight to Stratford where he played smaller roles and then he was given this huge role and away he went. He never looked back from there playing all the big parts,” actor Tedde Moore said.
Not only was he good, but he was lucky.
There was a production of The Three Musketeers at Stratford in 1968 and the main role of d’Artagnan was played by Douglas Rain, the actor who was the voice for the HAL 9000 computer in the film 2001, A Space Odyssey. The play was such a success that the CBC wanted to do it on television. “Douglas Rain was actually pretty old at that point; it didn’t matter on the stage because he was such an incredible actor but it did matter on TV,” Ms. Moore said. Mr. Welsh, who was 14 years younger than Mr. Rain, was cast in the plum part of d’Artganan for the TV version in 1969.
“He never looked back from filming after that. Ken had never thought of himself as a film actor, he was a theatre person but the camera loved him and he worked very well in front of it,” Ms. Moore said.
Television brings more fame than the theatre, even if there is more status in the acting community to being an accomplished stage actor. And his achievements on the stage were what made him such an idol in the acting community, even if what brought him the most fame was playing a villain, Windom Earle on the TV series Twin Peaks.
“Arguably that was the role that made him the most well-known by a huge number of people,” said Ted Dykstra, a director who worked with him on many stage projects. He said Mr. Welsh was much more than that one TV character. “He played Cate Blanchett’s father in The Aviator and he starred with Kathy Bates on Broadway in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. He worked with Mike Nichols on stage with Glenn Close and Kevin Kline. There’s no end to what he did. He was the most unassuming guy, he wasn’t ambitious in the way of ‘I want everyone to know who I am’, he just loved the work.”
Kenneth Welsh was born in Edmonton on March 30, 1942. His father, Clifford Welsh, worked for the Canadian National Railway as a rail signal man. His mother, Lillian (née Sawchuk), worked at a dress shop.
“My [paternal] grandmother was born in British Columbia but her first language was Ukrainian. She spoke Ukrainian throughout her whole life,” Kenneth’s son, Devon Welsh, said.
Kenneth went to Bonnie Doon Composite High School, where he took a drama course. Alberta was the only province that offered drama courses in high school at the time, according to the Canadian Theatre Encyclopedia. He was class president in his graduating year and majored in drama at the University of Alberta then moved to the National Theatre School of Canada.
Mr. Welsh was 46 when he had his only child, Devon, with Corinne Farago, his wife at the time. His agent, Ms. Winter, says he was active in the New York theatre at the time, but returned to Canada because of his son.
“He was a devoted father and he brought me along on many of his trips that he took while working on various productions. Of course, when he wasn’t working he was at home so I spent a lot of time with him as a child and he would just let me be myself and encouraged me to be a creative, energetic child,” said Devon, who is a musician, singer and songwriter.
Mr. Welsh devoted a lot of time to his local community, Sandford, which is about 60 kilometres northeast of Toronto.
“Every Christmas he would read A Child’s Christmas in Wales and other Christmas stories like The Hockey Sweater” at the local public library, Devon recalls.
And his local performances were not only at Christmas.
“He performed in Uxbridge on farms with his big Shakespeare truck that was all painted with quotes from Shakespeare and he would stand in the back of the pickup and just deliver speeches. This was all for farmers and locals who all loved him and knew him. He never stopped performing,” Mr. Dykstra said.
Gardening was one of Mr. Welsh’s hobbies, and it was one that almost killed him. Several years ago while he was rototilling his vegetable garden he got his leg caught in the rototiller. It was a life-threatening injury, but he recovered.
Starting in the 1990s Mr. Welsh did a lot of work at the Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto with his colleague Mr. Dykstra, where he performed a one-man show, Under Milk Wood.
“I remember saying to him, ‘How do you remember your lines?’ And he laughed and said, ‘How do you know I didn’t make a mistake?’” Mr. Cavers recalled.
One of Mr. Welsh’s creations was another one-man show called Stand-up Shakespeare. He first performed it Off-Broadway, directed by Mr. Nichols.
“Ken was a stand-up comic but only using lines from Shakespeare. He did a whole act and it was from all different plays and he delivered it all like he was a stand-up comic,” Mr. Dykstra said.
“He would roll a joint and then take a puff on and say, ‘to see yonder cloud, methinks it is in the shape of ….’ And as he rolled up the joint he would say, ‘Weed wide enough to wrap a fairy in.’ So, he took lines from all random plays and constructed a narrative as a stand-up comic. It was quite something.”
Mr. Welsh had slowed down somewhat in recent years, but he was still working, both on stage and in movies. His last film was Midnight at the Paradise, due out later this year.
Mr. Welsh was married four times. He leaves his wife, Lynne Mcilvride, and his son, Devon.