Mike Judge on one of Christopher Evan Welch's final 'Silicon Valley' scenes
In the third episode of HBO comedy Silicon Valley, titled “Articles of Incorporation,” eccentric tech billionaire and angel investor Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch) demonstrated exactly how brainy and zany he can be. Ignoring the pleas for emergency funds from two executives running a business on the verge of shutdown, he orders up and then studies every item on the Burger King menu with alien-like curiosity. But just when the stressed-out pair reach their flame-broiling point with Gregory and his seemingly disassociated contemplation, he snaps into focus and offers a cropload of comic relief: He coolly delivers a connect-the-dots speech that involves cicada cycles in Myanmar and Brazil and underpriced Indonesian sesame seed futures, things that will help him score a $68 million profit with which he can provide them a $15 million bridge loan. It’s a signature moment of the show, earning the No. 22 spot of our 50 Best Scenes of the TV season in the current issue of EW. Sadly, it also would be one of the last that Welch ever filmed. At the age of 48, he died of lung cancer in December. Here, co-creator/executive producer Mike Judge reflects on the “one of a kind” character actor (whose credits include Lincoln, Rubicon, Law & Order, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and his standout performance in this scene.
“There’s a big tech person who was described to me as almost Asperger-y. This was probably 14 years ago. He would just sit there and mumble something like ‘Okay, we’re going to buy this company and then we’re going to buy their main customer and supplier, and then we’re going to lower the price…’ People would be taking notes and go, ‘Oh my god, he just made us 60 million dollars.’ When Chris first read for the part, I was just blown away. I knew this was something really special. It made me think about doing a scene like that. [Executive producer] Alec Berg was telling this story about a famous director who came in one day and there was some big production meeting and he asked somebody, ‘Has anyone ever eaten at Burger King?’ And everyone was thrown by this. He just kept asking about it and said, ‘I’ve never eaten at one,’ and he sent one of the assistants out to buy one of every item from Burger King. So that’s how it came about. I just knew Chris was going to kill it, which he did….
I had a good feeling about [this scene] because after the pilot we’d be doing his voice while we were writing, imitating him. I thought, ‘Well, it’s going to be funny on the page.’ But that exceeded my expectations by quite a bit. Chris always did. These guys have this big problem and he says, ‘Has anybody ever eaten at Burger King? This was all Chris. The way he says ‘Burger King’ puts the accent in a weird place. It’s [a name] that everybody in America says all the time and he’s saying it like it’s this odd thing. From the first rehearsal, we started laughing at the way he was saying ‘Burger King.’
The line about ‘These burgers, of which they are presumably king’ — we had all taken a hand in writing this stuff but Alec had put that line in, and I actually thought maybe it was a little too broad. We had it at the table read, but I think we had taken it out [after the table read], and then on the set, Chris said, ‘Hey, I really miss that line. Do you mind if we put it back?’ It’s one of those things where if it seems real to an actor who’s that good to say it, then yeah, by all means let’s put that line back in. I can’t remember if I asked him, ‘If you can just play it like you’re making a little quip, that you recognize that you’ve made a little quip there.’ And that’s when he did that great little laugh that he does, which he had done in the pilot when he said the line ‘The true value of snake oil is intangible as well.’
The props department had to keep going back to Burger King and buying tons of food because it would wilt and look really bad. Laying out that stuff in front of him and watching him just look at it, we were cracking up. The guy was such an amazing actor. It was just so fun to watch him do those scenes…. He’s one of those actors when you’re going through the dailies in the editing room, there’s never one false moment, beginning to end, from when you call ‘Action!’ to ‘Cut!’ He’s pretty consistent, but then there would be two or three different versions of a line where he just did something with his face or with his hand. When Peter is meeting the guys — he’s so socially uncomfortable around people — there’s a little thing he does with his hand when he does this half wave. It’s so genius. I feel sometimes I have a little hint of that myself, so it’s relatable to me, his thing of ‘Oh, you’re supposed to wave? I don’t know…’ He’s so real in that performance that you forget that that’s not how he is at all. It would just be surreal to watch somebody playing something so real, and instantly after you call ‘Cut!’ he’s back to normal Chris Welch.
He really took that character to another level. It’s all these little moments I just can’t get enough of. When the [Astrophile] guy has just had enough and he’s in his face, I remember looking at the monitor while we were shooting that and [Peter] just looks up at him and says “Myanmar.” (laughs) I didn’t realize it was going to be that good, just somebody saying ‘Myanmar and Brazil’ to somebody who’s yelling at him. What I liked about that big epiphany was that it was also another flavor of Peter Gregory, where he’s just in an unusually good mood. We hadn’t really seen that side of Chris playing that character. There was something that made everybody feel good when he says, ‘Would anyone like some BK?’
By the time we were editing that scene, he had passed away, and it was tough going through all those dailies…. I guess he was having a rough time [because of the cancer], but he never let it show. That’s why it came as a shock to us. I knew he had had this cancer come back, but from what we heard and saw, he was cancer-free and cured. If he was hurting, he kept it all to himself. He seemed totally fine, funny and vibrant. We didn’t see that coming.
Recasting was just completely out of the question. For example, when we started looking into casting on Office Space and I was still thinking, ‘Maybe I should just pull the plug on this and not make it,’ Gary Cole read for Lumbergh, and that kind of tipped the scales for me, like, “I gotta do this.” To me, this is a similar thing, of ‘What do we have here exactly?,’ and when Chris read for Gregory, I just thought, ‘Man, I got to get this guy on camera doing that character.’ So the idea that we would go back and find somebody else wouldn’t have been worth it — I would have rather just not do it all. It’s weird to talk about because the whole thing is sad and tragic. I do feel really fortunate that we got the five episodes with him, and I feel like he ended on a high note. Although everything I’ve ever seen him in, he’s been a high note. He was one of a kind.”
Welch did not appear in the final three episodes of the season, and it was mentioned that Peter Gregory was on the island that he’s building in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Judge says that one of the first orders of business for season 2 — which the writers have just begun working on — is to determine an appropriate way to handle the loss of Welch. “This is a comedy and we have to try to deal with it in that kind of way,” he says. “We have a couple of ideas. I talked to his mom and his brother about a month and a half ago. One of the ideas I ran by them, they thought it was funny…. We haven’t figured it out yet but it’s something that will be a tribute.”