Cult Times 7/97

"Dead Man Walking"

Actor, writer and aspiring director - Bruce Boxleitner discusses the future of the Babylon projects.

At the end of April, the final episode of Babylon 5 went before the cameras. For those involved it was the end of an era - a moving epilogue to one of the most acclaimed Science Fiction series ever made. Yet, although Sleeping in Light finally brings the show to a conclusion, Babylon 5 is not definitely over. If a fifth season is commissioned, then the episode's transmission will be delayed, and a new installment will be shot to take its place at the end of Season Four.

"I'm going to be optimistic and say it"s not going to be the end of it," says the show's star Bruce Boxleitner, who plays the unerringly scrupulous Captain John Sheridan.

"This story can end, this facet of it may change, but that's good - I think you've got to move it along."

Sleeping in Light takes place 20 years in the future, when the Babylon 5 command team and the alien ambassadors have gone their separate ways. They are reunited for a significant event - the relevance of which may become clear to viewers after they have seen the opening episodes of the new season...

"The end is Joe's finest stuff," enthuses Boxleitner. "It's going to be very poignant if we carry it off correctly. I think there will be some misty eyes from the people who have followed it from the beginning. A lot of changes have occurred, we're in different positions in life, the war is over and it's going to be really fun for everybody to see what happened to all the different characters. Some didn't make it either..."

Written, directed and produced by series creator J. Michael Straczynski, the episode promises to be a true labour of love. Although he has had an input into every level of production since the series began, this is actually the first time Straczynski has worked directly behind the camera - a fact that allowed the cast and crew to have some innocent fun at his expense.

"We were all - including the grips and the lighting guys - going to walk around on the last episode with a name tag saying, 'I am a grip', 'I am an actor'. We were all going to give Joe a hard time with that!"

Fans have already seen older versions of Londo, G'Kar, Vir and Delenn in Season Three's War without End, but for Sleeping in Light most of the regular cast have had to undergo ageing make-ups.

"But not so that it looks like some terrible college play!" cautions Boxleitner. "Hopefully in 200 years we'll be living a little longer. We've already extended human life into its seventies and eighties, which didn't exist years ago, we're living 100 years. I'll be a much older, more dignified gentleman. I have white hair..."

This 'more dignified' look for Sheridan is actually phased in during the final few stories of the season. A year ago the actor spoke to Cult Times, revealing that the fourth season would find the Captain sporting a beard in the wake of his experiences on Z'ha 'dum. After some debate among the production team, this plan was shelved.

"We were going to do it at the beginning of this season," he confirms, 'but then they realized that Sheridan really was killed at Z'ha'dum. Well, your beard doesn't grow when you're dead! Not many corpses need to shave! Joe just wanted me to have a different look, that helped it along plotwise and character-wise. He was toying with it.

"I didn't want a beard initially because I thought it would look a bit like Riker on The Next Generation. I'd much rather be the Shatner type character. I was saying, 'Joe, I don't want to be locked into a beard so soon'!"

The beard is finally introduced during important developments in Babylon 5's war against Earth.

"We did the beard gradually, "Boxleitner explains. "It'grew right along with the episodes. It's more warrior-like, and he keeps it to remind him that he's very different - there's a certain maturity hat has come with it."

Much has changed in the four years since the series started. Initially regarded as an attempt to cash in on the success of Star Trek, Babylon 5 quickly established itself with its innovative style of storytelling. Instead of merely being a collection of one-off tales, the show is actually one self-contained story, and like a good novel it has a prologue (the pilot The Gathering ), a number of chapters (the episodes) and the epilogue (Sleeping in Light). It's an experiment that has proven popular with fans, and Season Four goes one step further, as every single episode forms a part of the arc.

"The stories are going at a breakneck pace now." concurs Boxleitner. "We're marching right on through, but that also gives a certain energy to it. I was reading some letter from a fan in a column in one of your magazines which said that he thought the storylines were being Rushed now. You've got to remember Joe created this back in the Eighties, but everything moves at a faster pace now. You've got to sustain an audience's attention. We have to get on with it, and he's had to alter some of the material, but he has it all explained why. He's dropped some certain things than can always come back. The stories are moving faster, but I'm not so sure that's a bad thing."

Sadly Season Four has had its fair share of critics, many of whom feel that the sudden end to the Shadow War in episode six fails to do justice to the three years of sustained build-up that preceded it. With the rest of the series concluding the battle for Earth, a plot-line that was seeded as far back as Midnight on the Firing Line, isn't there a danger that the series will end in one huge anti-climax?

"With some people I'm sure we will be criticized that it didn't live up to what we promised," the actor responds. "But people tend to take their expectations up way too high. I hate hearing about how great a movie is; I want to go and see it. Once you hear 'You have to see it', you go and see it and think, 'It wasn't all that great...' The anticipation gets built up by magazines and the Internet. I'm hoping it isn't too serious - because there are some good stories being done, and I think the ending will be terrific."

This year has also seen some familiar names sitting in the director's chair. Aside from Straczynski's turn, John Copeland has directed Endgame , while Stephen Furst - other wise known as Vir Cotto - helmed The Illusion of Truth, a sequel of sorts to Season Two's And Now for a Word.

"Vir Cotto directing us!" laughs Boxleitner. "He did a terrific job. He has a great rapport, and also what's nice is that we don't have anyone in our cast that would say, 'I don't have to listen to you tell me how to play my role'. It's not the first thing he's ever directed, he's done some situation comedies, and I think he did a St Elsewhere when he was on it.

"I heard initially that there would be no actor-directors on this show, but I think Stephen talked Joe into it. We had all kinds of rules laid down, and that was one of them and I respect that. I don't feel ready for that, but I would like to direct sometime in my career. I've been doing this for a long time, and it's something I'd like to do later on to see if I can do it."

Boxleitner feels there are two kinds of directors who work on the series - those who take time to develop the performances with the actors, and those who are interested mainly confronting the technical challenges of the show.

"Tony Dow [the director of Season Four's Moments of Transition ] was an actor and has been a director for many years. He has a really terrific rapport, but we do have directors, and I won't name names, who really don't talk to actors and say specifically what they want. I think I can do that. I want to know more what I can do with a lens, but for years I've sat around and watched how everything is done. Behind the camera is a mysterious, scary place to me. In front of it is not.

"John Flinn, our director of photography, is always the new director's best friend. He essentially sets everything up; tells you what can and can't be done. If we go any further, I'm going to cut my teeth eventually. I want to direct. I think Stephen kind of paved the way for all us thespians on Babylon 5 to get their chance."

After completing work on Sleeping in Light the cast and crew of Babylon 5 had a break for a fortnight before returning to the studios to shoot two new TV movies for TNT. In the Beginning is a prequel to the saga, while Thirdspace is rumored to set the scene for the proposed spin-off series Babylon 5: Crusade.

"I'm in both of them," Boxleitner confirms. "We've been going through the final negotiations. You've got to understand there's 11 people in our cast, and not everybody is in both movies ­ some are in one, some are in the other. There's one or two major characters who aren't in either. The prequel follows the events that led to the Earth/Minbari War, with just several of the characters. I'm going to have to go from a grey beard back to being Lt. Sheridan in the Earthforce. They'll have to get those filters out, because I'm going to have to go back a few years!

"Then we have the stand-alone which is called Thirdspace which sounds pretty good. Joe's doing some last minute re-writes on that now. That will basically be four of us in that one, and it is a plot that could have fallen anywhere between the Season Four episodes The Summoning and Epiphanies."

Shooting on the movies concludes on June 30th, by which time there should be confirmation whether Babylon 5 Season Five or the Babylon Project: Crusade ­ or even both ­ have been commissioned. Although Straczynski has submitted an outline for Crusade to Warner Brothers, details for the series remain sketchy. It has been said that the plot follows the aftermath of the Shadow War, and Earth has been poisoned by a virus left behind by the Shadows for which the Rangers must find a cure. It is rumoured that Tim Chaote (Babylon Squared, War Without End, Rumors, Bargains and Lies) will reprise his role as one of the Zathras brothers on a regular basis, but as yet no leading characters have been confirmed. Nevertheless it seems logical that Sheridan, as the leader of the Rangers, should play some major role in the story.

"I'm hoping it will be me," confirms Boxleitner, "I can continue this for quite a while. Certainly I think the spin-off has a terrific concept and there are limitless possibilities for stories."

In contrast to Babylon 5, Crusade is purported to have less of a story arc, instead focusing more on individual episodic stories.

"The one thing with the arc was that it did limit you ­ you had to stick to a certain thing. Science Fiction to me is the limitless possibilities of the imagination, and Crusade can do that. The standalone episodes, which were little side stories, were often very good ­ like the Brad Dourif one [Passing Through Gethsemane] where he was the serial killer who had been mind wiped. That had nothing to do with the arc, but was a stand-alone."

Talking to Boxleitner, it soon becomes obvious that he's the best sort of spokesperson Babylon 5 could have. He's totally committed to the series, and instead of distancing himself from the cult following that surrounds the show he has welcomed it with open arms. Playing Captain Sheridan, he concedes, has transformed him into something of a Science Fiction fan: he devours novels in his spare time, and always checks out the genre press. Now he plans to take his interest one step further by becoming a Science Fiction novelist in his own right.

"I am going to be a co-author of a series of Science Fiction books," he announces proudly, "together with an author by the name of Ed Gorman, who has basically been a Mystery and Western writer. I'm writing two: I'm combining the Western and the Science Fiction genre. We already have the premise and I'm actually going to do it hands-on; it's something that I've always wanted to do, and it comes directly from me having done Babylon 5 and reading more. They will be kind of violent and bloody ­ like some of these graphic novels. It'll be fun; it'll be a blend of alternative history, it'll take place out here, in California, over 100 years ago, and has a fellow in it who is an alien but doesn't know it."

Although the books are not scheduled to be released until the Autumn, Boxleitner has already submitted an outline to executives at Warner Brothers, who have shown some interest in bringing the stories to television.

"I would like to actually get it together and produce it. I would have a younger guy as my lead, as it has to be a very specific-looking character, but I'd play some other role."

It's an interesting career development for someone who, for an impressively long period of time, has maintained a very successful vocation as a performer. Born and raised in Chicago, Boxleitner became interested in acting while watching television as a child. After studying drama he moved into repertory theatre, which took him to New York. A few lean months followed, ultimately leading to his decision to move to Los Angeles, where the majority of American television and film is produced. For a few years he bided his time, attending auditions and playing guest roles on every series from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Hawaii Five-O. His big break came with the western series How the West Was Won, and shortly afterwards he would experience his first leading role in a movie with Disney's Science Fiction epic Tron.

"Tron came around 1981, it was released in 1982," the actor recalls. "That was in production and then post production for a good year or more because the early CGI was a much more laborious process. It truly is the father of Babylon 5 and all the stuff we're seeing now."

Although Tron provided invaluable experience of working with complex visuals, Boxleitner admits that, at the time, he had no concerns about being upstaged by the effects.

"It was very difficult, and the director, Steven Lisberger really wasn't used to actors. I'm not being derogatory to him in any way, but this was his first feature film, he'd come out of animation and he'd dealt with animators. He had created this whole concept. Steven had a hard time describing what we were doing. I got into it and enjoyed it a great deal, but for its time it was very new and only a very small audience really appreciated it. But it has since taken on a much bigger popularity."

Although Tron failed to transform Boxleitner into a major movie star, it did make him known in a wider marketplace. And if anyone was not aware of him by the mid-Eighties, that changed when he was cast opposite Kate Jackson in the detective series, Scarecrow and Mrs. King.

When Michael O'Hare failed to return to Babylon 5 for its second season, it was Boxleitner's established popularity with a wide television audience that made him the perfect replacement. His naturally charismatic presence proved instantly popular with the show's fans and at the same time it helped raise the profile of the series. In turn, Boxleitner has appreciated the opportunity to learn form appearing in the show.

"It helped me as an actor to try and go beyond what I've done before. The material is more imaginative than a lot of material you get to work with.

"I appreciate the technical aspects of it ­ make-up and those kind of things. Even though I don't wear the alien make-ups, I'm always fascinated by it. I'll go and watch them put it on. But for a later date in some other project it may come in handy to me.

"Babylon 5 was never really meant to go on -- it was supposed to last a little while and die. Ironically, Babylon 5 has lasted longer than any of the people affiliated with it initially thought it would. I don't think anyone expected it to have the cult following that here has been.

"No matter what the outcome, it has been a marvellous experience."

David Richardson

Thanks, Karen!

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