Titus Welliver is a journeyman actor whose name is more distinctive than celebrated. He doesn’t have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He doesn’t get chased by paparazzi. Yet his weathered, slightly pained-looking, everyman face is familiar to millions.
After a quarter century of yeoman’s work—a busy and increasingly well-compensated career spanning NYPD Blue, Deadwood, Lost, The Good Wife, Transformers, and all three of the movies directed by Ben Affleck—he’s a month shy of 54 and finally in a position to claim the kind of celebrity that he never really aspired to in the first place.
“I‘ve sort of had that to a certain degree over the years, and it has always been very manageable,” says Welliver, who is, at long last, the star of his very own crime series, Bosch, ten episodes of which are being released today to the customers of Amazon Prime.
“We’re not talking about Bruce Willis-Brad Pitt territory,” he adds. “For me, it has just been about doing the thing that I do. I’m glad I reach people who enjoy it—or don’t enjoy it—because it’s what I do. If it gives them some pleasure, then I’ve done something right.”
Welliver’s Bogartian sangfroid is naturally attuned to that of LAPD homicide detective Hieronymus “Harry” Bosch, the world-weary, psychically damaged yet compassionate protagonist of Michael Connelly’s popular police procedural novels. A former Special Forces soldier who has killed when he needed to, Bosch is partial to justice, the swifter the better, and reflexively disrespectful of authority and oblivious of the chain of command. I watched the first four episodes and found them absorbing and bingeworthy.
“Before this, I’ve always been content to be the second, third, or the tenth or whatever, having done shows with really strong ensemble casts, where everyone has a good piece of the pie,” Welliver says. “This is the first time I’ve actually played the title character.”
In this case, “it’s a pretty iconic character in that genre,” he says. “The show isn’t created from the ground up; you have all of Michael’s Harry Bosch books to cull from,” he adds, referring to Connelly, an executive producer of the series and a constant presence on the set. “I came to the very quick realization that I had to resign myself that I was never going to please everybody with my depiction of the character. I may not look like the Harry Bosch they had in their head for all those years of reading the books.”
Every so often during the filming—which lasted from August to December—Welliver would consult with the author. “For me it was a huge gift, because you could go to Michael and ask about anything,” he recalls. “Sometimes he laughed at me. I’d ask him a question and he’d go, ‘How the hell should I know? I wrote that ten years ago!’”
On the other hand, Welliver says the series “is a very true rendering of the books. We haven’t deviated from the established musculature of those stories. We haven’t gone and done ridiculous things like putting Harry in some kind of hot sports car, and he’s not wearing Brioni suits. We don’t go crazy. We’re not in the Miami Vice world with weapons with endless ammunition, and bullet-proof cops and bad guys. It’s very grounded in reality.”
Welliver’s sense of reality was largely shaped by his late father, prominent landscape painter Neil Welliver, whose paintings are in the collections of the New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Washington’s Hirshhorn among other high-culture palaces.
“He lived to see my acting success and he was very proud of that,” Welliver says. “The one thing he said to me was, ‘I’m not in your racket, but I’ve known a lot of successful people who do what you do. But do it because you love it, not because you want to be a celebrity. Don’t be another dipshit actor.’ ”
Welliver initially trained—under his father—as a painter. The elder Welliver, who served for more than two decades as chairman of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Art before his death in 2005, was a severe critic of his son’s canvasses.
“It wasn’t easy having my old man looking over my work,” Welliver says. “He was very tough with his students, and I used to say to them, ‘That’s nothing! You should see him with me when I’m in the studio and he’s critiquing my work.’ ”
Was his dad something like the merciless music teacher played by J.K. Simmons in Whiplash?
“It was borderline,” Welliver answers. “He used to draw on my drawings—which would make me crazy. I finally said, ‘You know what? I’m not gonna show you my drawings anymore if you’re gonna correct them and draw on them.’ And he said, ‘Tough shit. You either want to learn how to do it or you don’t want to learn how do it. That’s the way I teach and if you don’t like it, you can go fuck around with your art teachers in boarding school. And maybe you can get a job working at Marvel Comics.’ For me, that would have been more than okay.”
After a solitary, soul-searching year at the family house in Maine, a year spent reading books and sawing firewood, Welliver decided that he was better suited to a career in acting, something he’d enjoyed doing in high school. So he trekked to New York, studied at HB Studios on Bank Street in the Village, later enrolled at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, and worked at odd jobs in order to make ends meet.
“There wasn’t any lumberjacking and lobster fishing, so I did bartending and bouncing,” Welliver says. “I wasn’t a very good doorman, because I let everybody in and got yelled at. I’m just not that guy.”
Eventually his acting career progressed from off-off-Broadway to television to films, yet sometimes it became frustrating and he considered giving up. “When I became disenchanted, my father said, ‘What are you gonna do? What would you rather be doing?’ My answer was, ‘Nothing.’ And he said, ‘Then it’s not an option to stop doing it. I didn’t raise you to be a candy-ass. Go in there and suck it up!’ ”
Sometimes, when the elder Welliver visited Manhattan to confer with his art dealer at Marlborough Gallery, he’d treat Titus and some of his starving-actor friends to a nice dinner. During one such meal, he fell into conversation with a young acting student who was planning to try his luck in Hollywood, saying he’d maybe give it six months to a year to see if he could earn a good living at it. He had already been getting decent money in New York with roles in television commercials.
After dinner, Titus and his dad compared notes as they strolled down 57th Street. “I remember the conversation like it was yesterday,” Welliver says. “My father said, ‘That kid’s a nice kid, but he’ll never be a success or achieve anything as actor.’ I said, ‘Why would you say that? He’s a really talented guy.’ And he said, ‘I’m sure he’s talented, but he doesn’t get it. Any artist who puts a time limit on navigating their way to making a living is destined for failure.’ And it turned out he was right.”
When Welliver ran into his old friend years later, the talented former acting student, the one who was booking commercials, was toiling in the advertising business. “My father gave me sage advice,” Welliver says.
Right about now, many of Welliver’s peers are looking forward to—or else dreading—the Academy Awards, and two his close friends, Mark Ruffalo and Julianne Moore, are up for Oscars.
“They’re my friends because they’re grounded, normal people,” he says. “They’re not lunatics that are out driving around campaigning. Everybody sort of digests that in different ways. But it’s a hard thing. I sometimes think, ‘Can’t you just give everybody one?’ But that also goes against everything I grew up with.”
The four-times-married Welliver, the father of two teenage boys and a nine-year-old girl with different women, worries that kids today aren’t being given an education in how the real world works—a deficiency that might hamper them from becoming productive adults.
“I was at a private-school soccer game where there really was this spirit of anti-competition,” he recounts. “I hear this kid say to the coach, ‘What’s the score?’ And I hear the coach say, ‘It’s win to win!’ My fucking jaw dropped to the floor. Why would you say that?”
It sounds like Welliver is channeling his father when he observes, “I’m not saying you have to raise your kids like the Great Santini. But I think it’s important to make clear to our kids that it’s a very slippery slope. We’re seeing a lot of generations of kids and adults with major entitlement issues. Hey, you know what? Get off your ass and do something!”
Needlessly, Welliver adds: “Don’t get me started.”