'Babylon 5' Creator Fulfills Promise to Late Star at Phoenix ComiCon Panel
"My assassins are usually sneaker than that," Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski told a Phoenix ComiCon staffer standing next to the table. That set the tone for the Q&A that ranged from fun stories about the cast to insight into writing epic stories.
Straczynski seemed to be enjoying a panel dedicated to his genius in writing. He had no problem being extraordinarily sarcastic and biting to fans for badly phrased questions or awkward moments. The packed room loved the genuine nature of Straczynski and the light-hearted beginning to the panel gave a nice contrast to the very intense ending.
Straczynski revealed that the five year arc of Babylon 5 came to him all at once. “It scared the hell out of me,” he said. He wrote it in a few hours and “spent five years elaborating” on the initial plot.
When talking about his approach to writing, Straczynski gave many tips and insights to the eager audience:
"Stories are as wide and as diverse as the human heart."
"Write what you’re passionate about."
"When I settle into the scenes, I focus on the small details."
Writing was pretty much the focus of the Q&A portion of the panel. Straczynski also announced that he just sold the rights to his latest work, Sense8, to Netflix. The project is partnered with the Wachowski brothers, who are famous for "The Matrix" triology.
Straczynski then dismissed the moderator to take over the session to "fulfill a promise." The writer then took the last 30 minutes of the session to talk about the losses to the "B5 family."
"In many ways the story of Babylon 5 is the story of Londo and G’Kar," Straczynski said. The alien character "G'Kar" was played by Andreas Katsulas who died from cancer in 2006. Straczynski revealed that other actors would show up on the set just to watch Katsulas and Peter Jurasik, who played "Londo Mollari." Stracynski claimed that he would also look at the filming schedule and make sure that he was on set for the scenes the two intense characters filmed together.
Katsulas was described as one who was quiet and kept to himself. However, when he put on the G’Kar costume "he [suddenly] felt sexy," Stracynski said. "And it worked!" He laughed. Straczynski claimed that women would come on set and go straight to Katsulas when he was in costume. "He would just purr under the makeup."
Straczynski revealed the details behind one of the iconic scenes in Babylon 5, where "Londo" and "G'Kar" are stuck in an elevator. In the scene, "G'Kar" hates "Londo" so much that he decides not to try to save them just so he can watch Londo die. Straczynski revealed that he intended the scene to be a very serious moment. When he walked on set at the beginning of filming, he heard the two actors laughing. Katsulas and Jurasik plead with Straczynski to allow them to try the scene with humor before doing it in a serious tone. Stracynski saw one take and told them to keep it the way they interpreted the moment. Speaking of Katsulas, Stracynski said, "He could always go one step further than you wanted it to go and make it extraordinary."
Straczynski then talked about the last few months with Katsulas. "I'm dying, isn't that f*cked up," Katsulas laughed when he revealed his cancer to the Babylon 5 creator. Straczynski said that Katsulas faced cancer "with a grace and courage I’m still in awe of to this day." Katsulas, near the end of his life, called for a "last supper" with Straczynski and they talked and laughed through the night.
"Tell me all the dirt. Tell me all the sh*t that went down behind the scenes that we never knew about. Who am I going to tell?" Katsulas asked. It was a sweet moment for fans to have a peek into such an iconic and inspiring actor’s final days.
Straczynski also talked about Jeff Conaway, who played "Zach Allen" in the series. According to Straczynski, Conaway took responsibility for his failing career and difficult life situation that brought him to audition for a small "day" role for Babylon 5. "He came in knowing he was starting over again," Straczynski said. As Conaway was leaving the audition he turned to Straczynski and, "Give me a chance to do this … I’ll make you proud." It took some lobbying before he became a regular, but Stracynski developed a deep respect for Conaway, who died in 2011.
Rick Biggs "loved you guys," Straczynski said. Biggs, who died from an unknown congenital heart defect in 2004, played the flawed "Doctor Franklin" in the series. Straczynski said that Biggs come down stairs at conferences, party with the fans and do acting workshops. "He embraced life."
Straczynski revealed that Biggs was almost entirely deaf and that he had to learn not only his own lines, but the lines of everyone else in his scenes. He would read his colleagues' lips to know when it was his turn to speak.
Biggs, an African-American, apparently asked Straczynski if his race was going to be something that was explored on the series. Stracynski said no, "You’re sitting across from someone who has three heads and feathers … Your race doesn't matter." Straczynski said that Biggs appreciated that, and was glad it was not going to be a part of the series or his character development. "Of all of us," Straczynski said, "He was the one we were sure was going to last forever."
Straczynski then said he was going to get even more serious when remembering Michael O'Hare. O'Hare, who died in September of 2012, made a pact with Straczynski to never reveal the circumstances that caused the star character "Commander Sinclair" to leave the series after the first season (he later reappeared in a later season). “Keep it to my grave,” O’Hare said. Straczynski did and then "fulfilled" his "promise" to reveal to fans what life circumstances plagued the actor.
In a beautiful memoriam, Straczynski detailed the severe mental illness that haunted O'Hare throughout the first season. Most of the Babylon 5 family did not know of his condition and Straczynski revealed that he almost "shut down" the season in order to get his friend help.
Listen to the audio below in which Stracynski tells the full story of O’Hare and some fond memories.