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'Silicon Valley' season premiere: Inside the tribute to Peter Gregory—and the late Christopher Evan Welch

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HBO

[SPOILER ALERT: This story contains plot points from Sunday night’s episode of Silicon Valley, “Sand Hill Shuffle.”]

The season 2 premiere of Silicon Valley was filled with all the right kinds of absurdity. Erlich brutally negging various VCs. Richard trying to. Gavin Belson redefining altruism with the sentence “I don’t want to live in a world where somebody else makes the world a better place better than we do.” But the episode also dealt with a much more serious matter: It fittingly wrapped up the story—and life—of Peter Gregory, Pied Piper’s brilliant weirdo angel investor who was last known to be on an island that he was building.

Gregory, as you know, was played to eccentric perfection by Christopher Evan Welch, who, as you probably know, died of complications from lung cancer in the middle of filming last season. Sunday’s episode of HBO’s tech world satire, titled “Sand Hill Shuffle,” managed to thread a tiny, moving needle, which was to reverently send off this character—and by proxy, the respected 48-year-old character actor (The Master, Law & Order)—in an appropriately irreverent, quirky manner. Peter’s death was first revealed with a tossed-off comment by a head-buried-in-his-phone Jian (Jimmy O. Yang), and then the details were slowly doled out in an extended leave-you-hanging gag: Richard (Thomas Middleditch) and Erlich (T.J. Miller) asked Monica (Amanda Crews) how her boss had died, and Monica, numb with sadness, would give them a strand of information about a hippo attack during his safari before trailing off, leaving the pair to keep trying to finish her sentence, before she finally revealed his soft demise. (“He hadn’t run in a long time, maybe ever, and he just… that was it.”) The end of the episode gave us Peter’s grandiose memorial service—and closure—blending emotional moments (Gavin tearfully bidding goodbye to his old friend-turned-bitter rival) with industry-tweaking ones (“That’s just the kind of guy he was—warm, generous, and not disappointed in Snapchat,” eulogized Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel while defending his app against a previous speaker’s swipe that Peter was not happy with his investment in the company.) By the time the PowerPoint presentations were over and the doves had been released by Gavin (Matt Ross), a level of catharsis had been achieved.

Welch appeared in only a handful of episodes of Silicon Valley last season, yet was already earning a scene-stealer on set, infusing that odd-duck of a character with a dry, laconic, idiosyncratic, stilted-genius energy. (Required viewing: The scene from “Articles of Incorporation” below in which he examines every item on the Burger King menu laid out on his desk as if they were specimens from another planet before suddenly speaking eloquently of cicada cycles in Myanmar and Brazil and explaining how to make tens of millions of dollars on Indonesian sesame seed futures.) He was three days away from beginning work on the sixth episode when he died suddenly. The news stunned the cast and producers, most of whom knew that he’d been battling cancer but were under the impression that he had beaten it—after all, the man they saw on set was lively and upbeat, even scheduling social engagements right up until his death. “My wife, Kate, and I had made plans to have a barbecue with him and his family a few days before, and then he was just gone,” says T.J. Miller (Erlich). Seconds Thomas Middleditch (Richard): “I mean, it came out of nowhere. I think Chris was very, very adept at hiding his ailment. I didn’t even know he was sick.’”

Silicon Valley co-creator Mike Judge had heard that Welch suffered a relapse in the months of downtime between shooting the pilot and the rest of season 1, but was supposedly cancer-free again when the show resumed production. “He seemed to have bounced back completely,” remembers Judge. “There was no indication that anything was wrong.” Cast members recall a man who was optimistic about his new gig—Miller recalls that Welch felt that his Silicon role was some of the best work he’d done in his career—and one who was a pleasure to work with. “When that happened, I was gutted,” says Amanda Crew, who had shared the bulk of her scenes with Welch up to that point. “He was such a down-to-earth, no-walls kind of guy. In between scenes, we would hang out and he would show me pictures of his kids.” The actors bonded through their grief and disbelief as production continued that week. “That I had to go to set the next day was just this weird thing,” says Crew, “and what was great was that we were all kind of going through it together.” 

The rattled producers temporarily shelved several self-driving car and private island scenes with Peter and Jared (Zach Woods), which were later rewritten and filmed as a solo journey for Woods, and they opted to station Peter off-screen while they figured out a permanent solution. When the writers’ room opened this season, the immediate order of business was to figure out a proper way to bid farewell to the character. “When we came in the first day of the second season, we were like, ‘How do we deal with this?’” says Judge. “It was difficult.” While the original script for the season 1 finale didn’t use Peter much, he had a key moment at the end of the episode, telling the Pied Piper crew that he was now back in their corner, which set up the story for next season. “Peter quit on them because he didn’t think they had what it took, and in the end it’s like, ‘Okay, you showed me something. Let’s do this,’” says Berg. “Going into season 2, it was going to be: ‘What’s the next chapter in the Pied Piper/Peter Gregory relationship? Obviously, if Peter Gregory were around, the entire landscape of season 2 would be radically different.”

Recasting the role with a different actor was out of the question. “There’s nobody that could have done that the way he did, and the idea of trying to do one of those two Darrins thing [Dick Sargent replaced an ailing Dick York on Bewitched], it would have been alienating and strange,“ says Berg. “And it would have been totally unfair to whoever came in.“ Instead, the writers focused on devising a reason that Peter would not be present anymore. “We had some scenarios that we knocked around, like, ‘He’s on his personal nuclear-powered submarine.’ ‘He’s meditating under the polar icecap,’ and ‘He’s missing and nobody knows where he is, and people have this theory that, like Jim Morrison, he wanted to get away,'” recounts Berg, who notes that these ideas could allow the character to check in and/or offer advice from off-screen. “We loved the character so much that maybe there was a way to have the character still exist even though Chris isn’t going to be able to play it. And then it felt like it was a much weaker version of what Chris was doing with it, and it wouldn’t be satisfying…. Ultimately, we decided that that was a lot of trickery, and fans know that he’s never going to come walking back in the door, so let’s not pretend there’s a possibility that that will happen, because it would just be disappointing. At that point, we knew we’d have to do it in a way that feels appropriate and is funny, but not creepy or manipulative or insensitive. If you’re going to write a character off a show, you can do horrible things to him. But the fact that the guy who played this character has passed away, whatever you’re doing to the character, you’re doing, in a sense, to a real person, so you have to be very careful.”

To that end, Judge shared their ideas with Welch’s family. “I talked to his mom and wife and sister, and they said, ‘I hope you make it funny,” he says. “That’s what we tried to do—find a balance but also pay tribute.” Berg, meanwhile, sought advice from some producers from other shows on which an actor had died. “Everybody had the same thought, which is, ’You have to be sensitive, but you also have to be funny because you’re a comedy show,’” he says. “You’ve got to honor the memory of that actor by making their departure really funny and enjoyable. So there was a lot of pressure—not just to do it in a tasteful way, but to actually make people laugh, and they can go, ‘Oh! The last moment dwelled on that character was one that we really enjoyed.’”

The writers spent considerable time figuring out how Peter would pass away. “We landed on this idea that Peter was a pretty goofy, silly character, and if he were going to pass away, he would probably do it in a goofy, silly way,” says Berg. “We wanted to be able to laugh, and also it had to be something that was very different than what really happened, because we didn’t want anybody associating them.” The writers, second-guessing themselves, penned a few different versions of the scene in which Monica communicated the news to Richard and Erlich—Berg calls the formula “a real Borscht Belt, shaggy dog, Catskills sketch”—but ultimately they shot only the version that aired, which “just felt right.” 

The look of the episode-ending memorial scene was heavily influenced by the Steve Jobs memorial service at Apple. (Peter’s office and his shelves, by the way, are based on a famous picture of Jobs in his home office.) “The whole thing was daunting,” says Berg of the shoot. “It was weird to be there on the day and have these 40-foot high pictures of Chris on the set. It was a bummer to see and… remember that we don’t have him anymore.”

To strike the right balance of humor in the scene, “we started thinking, ‘How would these people treat a memorial service?’” says Berg. “Well, they’re socially awkward, and they don’t like speaking in front of people, so they’d probably rely on PowerPoints. Or they’re egotistical, so somebody would say something that’s demeaning about another guy, and another guy would get up and argue, ‘That’s not accurate,’ and they would get into this petty pissing contest in their eulogies.”

And to give it some heft, they wanted to show Gavin in a new light by giving him an emotional speech. It was understandably surreal for Ross, who had shared only one scene with Welch (though the two knew each other from years ago, having played brothers in an episode of Third Watch). “It certainly was not lost on me that I’m eulogizing someone who’s actually dead,” says Ross. “You still have to deal with the acting part of it—I’m telling a story for the good of the larger whole and that’s my job—but it was sad. It made it a very odd experience because you’re confronted with the actual reality, not the TV reality…. There was a slight somber note on set that day.”

Mostly, though, the actors were just pleased and relieved that the episode accomplished its lofty goal. “I know they considered a lot of different ways of handling it, and I think the way they did it was ultimately very smart and respectful,” says Kumail Nanjiani (Dinesh), noting that the scene was “a tribute to this amazing actor and person who sadly was gone too soon,” and “the bits where it becomes petty and about people furthering their own agendas felt true to the show.” Agrees Ross: “It could not have been dealt with with more elegance, sensitivity, nuance, intelligence. And ultimately I think they honored him so much because it was also very, very funny. It was not like ‘A Very Special Episode Of.’ It was perfect.”

“What does make me so happy is his performance is insane and was recognized, and Mike and Alec did such a great job of honoring him in the episode,” says Crew. “I didn’t know how they were going to deal with it, and I felt for the position that they were in. And then when we got the first episode and I read it, I cried, not because it was sad, but because it was a relief to me that they had figured out this amazingly, brilliant, touching way to honor him but also stay true to the tone of the show.…  When we were filming the big funeral scene and we got there, and there were these massive banners with his face all over the place but with these weird facial expressions, I was just like, ‘Chris would have gotten such a kick out of this.’ That’s when it just sealed the deal for me—he would have loved this.”

Sums up Miller: “The real tragedy is not that he would have been critically lauded and loved by audiences—he was and is—or that he would have seen how successful the show was—beyond anything we hoped—it’s that the audience lost him in the coming seasons, his family lost a father and husband, and we lost a friend. It was our loss, because in some ways he went out on top. He was ecstatic about the show and working with everyone. He was happy when I last saw him. He was incredible to work with, and someone I learned so much from. It was such a deeply sad and surreal thing.”