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Scott Larson

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Commander Sinclair (1952-2012)

If you’re plugged into news sources all the time, you are constantly getting pieces of news that depress you and distress you. But sometimes you hear something that really punches you in the gut more than other news stories, even though it is not that earthshaking on an objective global scale.

That’s how I felt when I came across J. Michael Straczynsk’s announcement on his Facebook page Friday of the death of Michael O’Hare.

“I regret that I must convey the sad news that Michael O’Hare passed away today,” wrote JMS “He suffered a heart attack on Sunday and was in a coma until his passing this afternoon. This is a terrible loss for all B5 fans and everyone involved with the show wishes to convey their condolences to the O’Hare family. He was an amazing man.”

The next day JMS passed on comments from O’Hare’s brother thanking Babylon 5 fans for their many warm comments and expressions of support on Facebook. He also talked in more detail about the circumstances of O’Hare’s passing, noting poignantly, “Mike will now be reunited with his younger brother and sister whom we lost a while back.”

I actually shook Michael O’Hare’s hand once. It was at an appearance at a B5 gathering at Dublin City University back in the 1990s. B5 was still on the air, although O’Hare was no longer part of the regular cast. He was completely different from Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, the character he played on B5. O’Hare was warm, friendly, approachable and he seemed totally in awe that people in another country were interested in seeing him and hearing what he had to say. A tall Irish-American from Chicago, he was clearly delighted to be in Dublin. I told him how much I had enjoyed his work, and he shook my hand so energetically I thought I was never going to get it back. When most actors meet a fan, my experience has been that they are politely friendly but you can see somewhere in their eyes that it’s all part of the job. O’Hare was the one case where I felt like he would happily go off to a pub with me and spend the afternoon gabbing.

Like a lot of screen actors, he got his start on the New York stage. Among his Broadway roles was Lt. Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men, the role played by Jack Nicholson in the film adaptation. He was also said to take pride in being the first white actor nominated by the New York African-American theater community for an Audience Development Committee (AUDELCO) best actor award for his performance in Shades of Brown, about the effects of apartheid in South Africa.

His screen career began with playing Richard Cranch in the miniseries The Adams Chronicles. From the 1970s through the 1990s, he had various guest appearances on several TV shows (T.J. Hooker, Trapper John, M.D., Kate & Allie, L.A. Law) and bit parts in feature films (The Pursuit of D.B. Cooper, C.H.U.D., Last Exit to Brooklyn). His post-Babylon 5 screen work seems to have consisted entirely of a couple of appearances on Law & Order.

Clearly Commander Sinclair constitutes the bulk of his acting legacy that will live on. He played the role in the TV movie pilot “The Gathering” as well as in B5’s first season. He reprised the role in one of the highlights of the entire series, the third season two-parter “War Without End,” a time travel yarn that revisited events in the first season episode “Babylon Squared.”

I did not immediately warm up to the character of Sinclair. He seemed a bit stiff and rigid. He reminded me strangely of the actor Michael Rennie, which was not a bad thing but it made him feel like a character from the 1950s rather than one from the future. But as time went on, Sinclair grew on me. I was genuinely disappointed after the end of the first season when it was announced that O’Hare would be replaced by Bruce Boxleitner. I had no problem with Boxleitner or his character, Capt. John Sheridan. But there was always the nagging question as to why the change had been made. JMS had famously plotted the whole thing out for a five-year saga, and clearly Sinclair was meant to be there until the end. For example, Sinclair’s girlfriend Catherine Sakai (played by Julia Nickson) was a planetary surveyor. She was clearly being set up for the fate that ultimately befell Sheridan’s wife Anna, who was lost at Z’ha’dum as part of an exploration vessel’s landing party.

It was no coincidence that Jeffrey Sinclair and John Sheridan had the same initials and that they were the same as Joe Straczynsk’s. Did the studio suits insist on the change because Boxleitner was a more established name? Was it a way for JMS to get out of a corner that he found that he was writing himself into? Or something else? We’ll probably never really know for sure.

Instead of becoming the leader of the rebellion against a dictatorship on earth and the ultimate first president of the Interstellar Alliance, Sinclair was given a more divine destiny. In “War Without End” he wound up going back in time and becoming the planet Minbar’s great prophet Valen. It was a fitting end to Sinclair’s story and a much more appropriate swan song for O’Hare than simply being shuffled off to an ambassador’s job off screen. And it took care of all those foreshadowing hints in the first season about Sinclair having some grand destiny.

I don’t know what the actuarial tables would say, but it feels as though Babylon 5 has been hit particularly hard in terms of the number of core cast members who have passed on in the 14 years since the last new episode of the original series aired. We lost Richard Biggs (Dr. Franklin) in 2004, Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar) in 2006, Jeff Conaway (Zack Allan) in 2011 and now Michael O’Hare. Compare this to Star Trek which did not lose a major cast member (DeForest Kelley in 1999) until a full 30 years after the end of the series’s original run.

In the end, such questions aren’t worth dwelling on. But with O’Hare’s passing, it feels as though a magical time in television and in science fiction has slipped even further into the past. But more important than that, we mourn the fact that the world has lost a really nice guy.

-S.L., 1 October 2012

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