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Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Citizen G’Kar (1946-2006)

I think I’ve been behind ever since Shelley Winters threw me off by dying last month. I’ve been lagging by a week ever since. If I had been on the ball, I would have written this column last week. But I wasn’t on the ball. I was goofing off, taking advantage of a midterm break at the Little Munchkin’s school and enjoying a midweek family break at a resort hotel in a corner of Ireland that was even colder and wetter than where I live. So I didn’t get the terrible news of Andreas Katsulas’s death until the weekend. The very same weekend that my web server hosting company decided to migrate me to a new machine and a new IP address, putting me offline for a brief period and allowing me the opportunity to completely screw up my email delivery for a couple of days, of which I took full advantage.

So, I should have written about Mr. Katsulas last week and I should be writing about the Jameson Dublin Film Festival this week. After all, I’m already back from Dublin. But my thoughts on my JDIFF experience will just have to wait until next week. This is more important.

First off, Andreas Katsulas wasn’t just a guy who put on alien makeup and played sinister characters on TV science fiction shows. I mean, he was that, but he was also more than that. Given his physical look (which even many of his most devoted fans have never actually seen or remember seeing) and magnificent voice, this native of St. Louis, Missouri, was destined as an actor to play foreigners, ethnic types and menacing figures. He played the mobster Tony Venza, whose act of murder is witnessed by Mimi Rogers in Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me. He was in Michael Cimino’s The Sicilian. In Hot Shots! Part Deux he was the villain Rufshaad, who said to Richard Crenna, “I can see you’re no stranger to pain.” (To which Crenna replied, “I’ve been married… twice.”) And, in the role that was seen and noted by most people, he was the infamous one-armed man, the real killer of Harrison Ford’s wife in the big-screen remake of The Fugitive. He was another Arab villain in the Kurt Russell/Steven Seagal thriller Executive Decision.

But his acting legacy isn’t really found in these roles or in the various supporting parts he played in made-for-TV movies or in guest shots on regular TV series (including Max Headroom, as Mr. Bartlett). He was an integral ingredient of the artistic success of Babylon 5, as well as a noted participant in the Star Trek franchise. He had a recurring role as the calculating Romulan commander Tomalak in Star Trek: The Next Generation and, in fact, appeared as Tomalak in the series finale, “All Good Things.” His last role was as a Vissian captain on an episode of Enterprise called “Congenitor.”

In the normal course of events, an actor who specializes in playing foes and villains in prosthetic makeup on TV would not get a chance to create a memorable character for the ages in an immortal epic. But just such a thing happened when Katsulas was cast as the Narn ambassador to a United Nations-like space station in Babylon 5. As conceived and written by J. Michael Straczynski (JMS to his fans), the character of G’Kar grew and evolved over the series’ five-year run and became something large. One of the thrills of B5 was watching the gradual (and sometimes not so gradual) changes in the various characters, as they were affected by galactic events out of their control. None changed as much or as nobly as G’Kar. In the pilot, the reptilian Narn seemed a standard scifi villain, living a hedonist life (in the pilot movie he propositions a human telepath under the pretext of wanting to add telepathy to the Narn gene pool) and taunting his enemy, Londo, the Centauri ambassador, while planning treachery behind the scenes. But things took an unexpected turn. The Centauri made a pact with a mysterious and powerful ally and soon the Narn were decimated and humiliated. G’Kar’s life went into a spiritual direction and he wound up being a latter-day prophet for his people.

And Andreas Katsulas made it all convincing. The makeup job was good enough that we accepted G’Kar as a real person. And the actor’s bearing and delivery were convincing and ultimately endearing. In one memorable episode, G’Kar and his archenemy Londo are trapped in an elevator together and nearly wind up dying together. (Londo reminds him, however, that he has seen both their deaths in a dream and, as he recounted in the very first regular episode of the series, the two will die strangling each other.) As played by Katsulas and Peter Jurasik, the episode was in turns funny and pathetic and all too revealing about certain aspects of human nature. At the end of the series, G’Kar and a companion set off on a pilgrimage/odyssey through the universe. But, thanks to flash forwards in the series narrative, we knew that he still had that rendezvous with destiny with his old foe and future friend Londo.

Sadly, Babylon 5 ended in 1998, although we did get another welcome glimpse of G’Kar in the ill-fated 2002 pilot of a prospective spin-off series, The Legend of the Rangers.

The most moving and poignant episode of the whole Babylon 5 series was the very last one. Called “Sleeping in Light,” it was set two decades after the five-year period covered by the series proper. The dying John Sheridan calls his surviving friends together for one last visit and celebration. G’Kar and Londo are not there. In a touching way, real life echoed that story and provided a bit of cosmic symmetry. And JMS was generous enough to share the details with the community of B5 fans. Less than a year after Katsulas, who was a passionate smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer, he and his wife invited JMS, B5 executive producer Doug Netter and Peter Jurasik to dinner. Wrote JMS, the occasion “was filled with laughter and stories and good food. He wanted to know all the stories we never told him because, as he said, ‘Who am I going to tell?’ So we did. Because we knew we were saying goodbye, and there would not be a second chance.”

At 59 Andreas Katsulas was too young to die. We are sad for his friends and his family and for ourselves for the performances that will never be. And, to a lesser degree but still importantly, we mourn the erasure of a character from any possible future projects involving the Babylon 5 universe. You see, JMS also wrote (and he has the authority to say this), “Andreas is gone…and G’Kar with him, because no one else can ever play that role, or ever will.”

He is, of course, right.

-S.L., 23 February 2006


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