Chris Whelan—a much-beloved friend, son, brother, uncle, colleague and classmate—died on September 8 in his apartment in New York City. He was 54 years old.
He suffered over a period of months from a progressive neurologic disorder that caused him considerable pain and difficulty walking at the end of his life. An inveterate marathoner and proponent of sober living, Chris was incredibly healthy through the years—and he was a master of his craft in musical theater.
He was born Thomas Christopher Whelan in San Francisco on November 11, 1964, and moved to Pacific Palisades at age 3. He was life-long friends with many of his classmates at Corpus Christi School.
At age 14 he traveled with The Young Americans, performing in a show titled “To Richard Rogers with Love.” At Loyola High School in Los Angeles, he played varsity volleyball and was elected the social coordinator (a big deal in an all-boys’ school). He was deeply involved in the Hannon Theatre Company at Loyola—even playing the lead role in “Jesus Christ Superstar” his senior year.
He enrolled in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program at the University of Southern California, in the Acting Conservatory under the great John Houseman. He loved his summers acting at the Edinburgh Festival with his colleagues from USC.
As he took on more towering roles, he had a talent for assembling caravans of friends from Corpus Christi, Loyola and USC, who traveled together to see him perform up and down California.
He became a member of the Screen Actors Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the Actor’s Equity Association. He appeared initially in television shows like “General Hospital,” “The Young and the Restless” and “Baywatch.”
But his real forte was in musical theater, where he made friends across the country in productions of “Ragtime,” “Mamma Mia,” “Flashdance,” “Guys and Dolls,” “Camelot” and many others. He worked many happy summers in repertory theater at the Tuacahn Center for the Arts in St. George, Utah.
His favorite effort may have been bringing Jackson Pollock to life in a memorable one-man show. His most recent project was “Paradise Square,” a musical version of “The Gangs of New York,” which played to great reviews at the Berkeley Repertory Theater early this year.
Chris was very generous and loyal as a son and as a friend. He cared for both his parents at the end of their lives. He inspired tremendous devotion among his fans, and many of his colleagues in the acting world have come forward with stories since his death about how much they relied on him through the tough times in their lives.
He married Sue Hitzmann in 2015, with a spectacular wedding that involved reciting vows on an immense tour boat bobbing under the watchful eye of the Statue of Liberty.
He is also survived by his sister Molly, brother Michael and his wife Juliana, brother Patrick, niece Grace, and nephew Olivier. He was pre-deceased by his parents, Mary Lue and Bernard Whelan, and by his brother Timothy.
A mass of remembrance will be held at his home parish church of Corpus Christi in Pacific Palisades at 10 a.m. on Saturday, September 28.
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