By Jennifer Litz
December 3, 2007
Meet Welch at Jim’s restaurant, and he’ll order chili and eggs, and take his sweet time finishing it. He is all “yes’ms” and politeness. He sports a graying handlebar mustache. He wears faded plaid shirts, tight Wranglers and rose-colored aviator glasses—on his days off the set. He remembers his entry into the acting business with humility, attributing his staying power as a Western type to his being “tall and ugly”: His Actors Clearinghouse fact sheet lists him at an impressive 6’4, 170, with blue eyes. The sheet doesn’t describe how blue. They’re piercing.
His start was serendipitous. It was in the eighties. Welch was hauling cattle up to Dallas for a buyer. The buyer took a long time to meet him, so Welch decided to park and have a beer. “I got to drinkin’ that cold beer, and a guy came up—the director of “Dallas” was there,” Welch says.
That meeting resulted in a part on five episodes of Dallas as the ranch foreman for Howard Keely, who was playing Dusty’s dad. That small part opened the floodgates, at least for Welch’s identity as an actor: “Then I hooked up with Actors Clearinghouse, and used the Kim Dawson agency. Next was a documentary; the first time I met Sam Elliot [was in] Gone to Texas, [it] was ‘87ish. Then I did “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”; “Lonesome Dove”; worked on “One Life to Live”; and “Unsolved Mysteries.” ”
The list goes on: His Actors Clearinghouse résumé lists about 30 parts he’s had in television series and feature films, including McMurtry’s series, “The Newton Boys,” and three years on “Walker, Texas Ranger.” But the actor has completed still more. In “Serving Sara” with Elizabeth Hurley, he was the ranch foreman. “Texas Chainsaw Massacre II” credits him as “Drunk #1.” But Welch has also been in some acclaimed and hard-hitting movies, such as the film, “Come Early Morning,” written and directed by his friend, Joey Lauren Adams (she is the nasal, husky-voiced blonde in such ‘90s movies as “Biodome” and “Chasing Amy”). The film was nominated as a Grand Jury winner at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, and many critics have said it may be lead actress Ashley Judd’s best work to date.
Judd is, in fact, one of Welch’s favorites. “She’s a sweetheart,” Welch, usually a man of few words, says emphatically. He also likes Adams, whom he considers a friend: She called him directly to ask him to play the part of Eli in “Come Early Morning.” Welch describes his character as an older man who tries to woo Judd, but realizes she needs him as a “big brother” figure more.
He’s worked with A-list and other celebrity actors in his career. He says that Elizabeth Hurley is a gorgeous woman in person, and that Billy Bob Thornton, whom he worked with doing stunts on Thornton’s “All the Pretty Horses,” is as country and simple as they come (Thornton passed the time in between takes playing catch on the set). Anthony Hopkins is as nice as they come: on the set of “All The King’s Men” (where Welch did stunt work), Hopkins put his escort (who was supposed to take care of him) under his umbrella, walking her to the curb.
Ask Wally who is difficult to work with in Hollywood, and he gets tight-lipped. He’s an easy one to get along with, he says. What he means is that he doesn’t trash-talk. The closest he gets to that is boo-hooing the lack of incentives for movies to be shot in Texas.
“A lot of Texas crews have moved to Louisiana, shooting around Baton Rouge,” he says. “Like 54 movies have gone out there. [Directors are also] taking more out to New Mexico: “Swing Bote” [he auditioned for it], “310 to Yuma,” “Wild Hogs”—those coulda been shot here.”
The problem, according to Welch, is that these other rugged-terrained states offer better perks and tax breaks. For example, according to an incentives chart published by Screen Actor (the Guild’s magazine), New Mexico offers such perks as a 25 percent film production tax rebate, a loan and 50 percent reimbursement of wages for on-the-job training of New Mexico residents in advanced below-the-line crew positions (whew!), in addition to no state sales tax. Texas offers a sales tax exemption on items purchased or rented for production, and the Legislature just recently passed a rebate program that offers up to a 6.25 percent grant to production companies for wages spent in the state.
“McMurtry wanted to shoot the last installment of “Lonesome Dove” in Texas, but there was no incentive,” Welch says. Crew shot “Comanche Moon” in Texas for a few days, but CBS ultimately moved it out to New Mexico.
Welch plays Ranger Ikey Ripple in “Comanche Moon.” The actor describes the character as the oldest ranger in the bunch, kind of like Timothy Scott’s Pea Eye character from “Lonesome Dove” (for whom Welch acted as a double). “He was very dependable, an old Indian fighter, had a lot of heart—he was a kind old individual,” Welch says.
Not too different from Welch in real life. He’s adaptable enough to have existed in the real Old West: He taught himself how to do stunts (though he says he “don’t do no fire stuff” anymore). He stumbled across an acting career hauling horses out West. And he’s also a ranch broker, selling land across Texas.
Do the people who purchase property from him have an uncanny feeling they’ve seen him before?
No doubt they stand there, scratching their heads as he rides off into the sunset.