Kenneth Welsh has died. A prolific Canadian actor, Welsh is probably best known to American audiences for his performance as chess-obsessed supervillain Windom Earle in the second season of Twin Peaks. Appearing in more than 200 projects across a 50-plus year career, Welsh was a consistent mainstay of the Canadian TV, film, and theater industry. Per CBC News, Welsh died earlier this week. He was 80.
Born in Edmonton, Welsh began his career as a stage actor, while also quickly settling into the role of journeyman actor popping up all across Canadian TV and film. Early notable roles include a starring turn in Canadian ski comedy Reno And The Doc, and a number of roles in historical projects, where his stage-forged talent for the theatric made him a consistent highlight.
A working actor who worked pretty much relentlessly, Welsh has one of those resumés that runs, basically gapless, from 1972 until his death this week. (He’ll reportedly appear in the upcoming Kids In The Hall revival, among a number of projects he filmed in recent months.) But despite appearances in films like Crocodile Dundee II, Marlon Brando vehicle The Freshman, and more, Welsh didn’t truly break big for international audiences until 1990, when his friend (and Twin Peaks producer) Robert Engels pitched him as the performer to take on a major villain turn in the show’s post-”Who killed Laura Palmer?” reality.
Windom Earle is a controversial figure in the Twin Peaks canon, an unambiguously cartoonish villain somewhat out of step with the show’s more mystical tone. But it’s impossible to deny that Welsh is clearly having a lot of fun with the part; in an interview many years later, he revealed that he helped develop Earle’s bizarre taste for disguises and love of playing the flute, and the relish with which he lectured his various henchpeople and victims throughout his run on the series is never in short supply.
After his time on Peaks ended, Welsh continued to act consistently (now with the added buzz of being a Twin Peaks alum). Listing credits would get a bit silly, because there are literally hundreds, but take it as read that if a genre series (X-Files, Stargate: Atlantis, etc.) filmed in or around Vancouver from 1980 onward, there’s a better than average chance Kenneth Welsh showed up to lend a little high-energy weirdness to the proceedings.
As we noted above, Welsh continued to work regularly up through the last years of his life. He had one of his most prominent turns just a few years ago, in fact, appearing as “Sovereign Protector” Larry Loomis in Jim Gavin’s Lodge 49. In keeping with the show’s tone, Larry is both an absurd character and a deeply moving one, with Welsh showing his gradual decline across the first several episodes of the series. Describing his final (regular—he popped up a few times as a ghost) scene on the series, Welsh told AMC in 2018,
After Brent [Jennings] and I had gone through that long scene, the crew broke into applause, and actors love that. Jim came over and said, “You guys, that was like watching a master class.” I took that home. It was great fun being in that group of people and being surrounded by that much positivity. It made the whole experience a really good one. I’ll remember it so fondly.