Babylon 5: The Wonder that is Stephen Furst’s Vir Cotto

We salute a much-loved Babylon 5 character, played by the much-missed Stephen Furst...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

A little less than a year ago, in the wake of Jerry Doyle’s passing, Babylon 5 creator J.M. Straczynski made a passionate plea to the universe; too many B5 alumni had died already. Following the untimely deaths of Michael O’Hare, Richard Biggs, Andreas Katsulas, Jeff Conaway, and more recently Jerry Doyle, Straczynski was “goddamned tired of it” and he asked the universe to “knock it off for a while.”

Unfortunately, the universe didn’t listen. On June 16, Stephen Furst joined his fellow departed B5 co-stars on “the other side of the veil.”

Most will remember Furst as lovable Kent ‘Flounder’ Dorfman in the 1978 cult classic Animal House, but to sci-fi fans he will be more fondly remembered as Babylon 5’s Vir Cotto.

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J.M. Straczynsky’s creative genius had much to do with Babylon 5’s popularity, but the work of the ensemble cast was one of the main ingredients of the series’ appeal. Many TV shows boast an ensemble cast, but very few gave us such nuanced and expertly developed main and secondary characters as Babylon 5 did. Secondary or supporting characters on television series are often only used as convenient narrative tools (at times, a mere step above ‘red shirts’). Babylon 5, however, gave us a number of interesting supporting characters, from Walter Koenig’s psi cop Alfred Bester to Stephen Furst’s Vir Cotto.

Babylon 5 gave actors the space they needed to work out their acting muscles and develop even secondary characters well beyond the customary two-dimensional television clichés that many supporting characters were often confined to. Vir Cotto was the personal assistant of Centauri ambassador Londo Mollari. As such, he was only a secondary character, but Furst’s genuine personal charisma and talents as a method actor made Vir stand out as the most relatable character of the series.

Mollari’s assignment as ambassador was considered a joke by the Centauri government, so the position of his assistant could only be seen even more derisively by the Centauri. Vir was seen as Mollari’s unwitting assistant, and as such, he really represented the basic good person struggling with the moral dilemma forced upon him by his position, which gave Furst plenty of room to develop Vir well beyond the confines of a two-dimensional secondary character.

One of Babylon 5’s strengths was the development of the main characters over the course of the series. Most of the characters went through deeply transformative personal story arcs; some characters were deeply flawed and had to suffer the consequences of their shortcomings, others had to overcome significant personal issues or events, and some had to face terrible odds despite severe personal limitations. Vir Cotto’s was of the latter kind, and Furst’s talent was the reason Vir stood out from all other secondary characters and even some main characters of the series.

Vir Cotto could easily have been labelled as Babylon 5’s ‘comic relief’, especially given the manner of his introduction during the series’ first episode, Midnight On The Firing Line, where his entrance could have been heralded as ‘send in the clown’. Ambassador Mollari introduces Vir to Michael Garibaldi and the viewers with a simple “this is it” comment and derisive gesture.

“He will always be Flounder,” Jerry Doyle said of Furst on the DVD commentary track of season two episode The Geometry Of Shadows, a sentiment that was echoed by Claudia Christian and Bruce Boxleitner. “This is so Flounder,” Bruce Boxleitner said on the commentary track of the same episode about a scene where when Vir downs Mollari’s unfinished drink and immediately passes out. Boxleitner added, “Clearly, Stephen was born in the wrong time. He should have been [born] around the Laurel & Hardy or Honeymooners era.”

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Furst did indeed bring in some of the same bumbling naivety of his famous Animal House character to Vir’s personality makeup. And for the better part of season one, Vir played Laurel to Mollari’s Hardy (or is that the other way around?).

But that selfsame episode of slapstick Vir comedy also gave us our first glimpse of Vir’s hidden backbone. This is the episode when we are introduced to the Technomages, a cabal-like group of mystics who use science to create the appearance of magic. The Technomages are both respected and feared, and seeing how they treat poor Vir when he tries to contact them on behalf of Mollari shows us why. Vir is set upon by a monster conjured up by Technomage Elric (played by the outstanding Michael Ansara). Instead of running away, Vir stoically faces the monster and repeats his request for an audience, like a neophyte reciting a mantra on the steps of a temple. Elric makes the monster go away when he realizes it will not succeed in scaring Vir off.

“You don’t frighten easily,” Elric tells Vir. “I work for Ambassador Mollari,” Vir answers. “After a while, nothing bothers you.”

And with that one reply, at once both serious and terribly funny, Furst reveals the dual nature of seemingly inane Vir. Call it occupational hazard, or a job perk, but this was our first peek of the iron hiding behind the comic relief of Vir Cotto.

As sci-fi fans, we like to project ourselves into the world of our heroes. Some fans may see themselves as Sheridan, Ivanova, or Marcus, and while Vir may not come to mind immediately as anyone’s favorite, he is still just like us: an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary events, and no other B5 character – except maybe for Sheridan who actually dies and comes back to life – goes through a more complex and profound metamorphosis odyssey over the course of the series. Characters are uninteresting if they don’t go through changes. At the end of Sleeping In Light (the series’ final episode), we are treated to a very moving collage of ‘before and after’ pictures of the main characters and of some secondary characters. In a series of quick glimpses, we are reminded of every character’s remarkable journey. None is as striking as Vir’s, and we have Furst’s incredible acting depth to thank for that.

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Following that defining confrontation with Elric, Furst’s performance continued to cement the importance of secondary characters to the overall B5 story arc. He became as heroic a figure as any of the main characters by actively influencing how the story evolved.

Vir’s most shining moment came during season two episode In The Shadow Of Z’ha’dum, when he antagonised the Shadows’ agent Mr. Morden. Almost as if he had a death wish, in a manner uncharacteristic to his meek (at the time) persona, Vir faced off against arguably the most dangerous man in the galaxy:

Morden: “You don’t like me, do you Vir? I find this surprising. After all, my associates and I are doing everything we can to help your people reclaim their place in the galaxy. I should think you’d be grateful.”

Following a quick repartee, Morden then goes on to ask Vir the same question he’s fond of asking others: “What do you want?” And Vir answers: “I’d like to live just long enough to be there when they cut off your head and stick it on a pike as a warning to the next ten generations that some favours come with too high a price. I would look up at your lifeless eyes and wave like this. Can you and your associates arrange that for me, Mr. Morden?”

Not bad for timid Vir, especially considering that even Sheridan would stand down against Morden (at Delenn’s request) during the same episode. And thus, Vir cemented his moral fiber, which became central to the war against the Shadows story arc.

Vir was absent for most of season three. Furst had other professional commitments, but Straczynski turned that situation to the advantage of the B5 storyline by having Mollari reassign Vir as ambassadorial liaison to the Minbari. Vir therefore would spend some time on Minbar, soaking in the wisdom and philosophy of the Minbari priestly religious caste. He came back a different man, even wearing some of the garb of the Minbari.

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Vir did not remain unscathed by the events set in motion by Mollari and the chaos of the war against the Shadows, despite Mollari’s claim to the contrary in The Hour Of The Wolf (season four’s opening episode):

Mollari: “Vir! It is a terrible truth, but as one accumulates power, one loses friends. One only has those who wish to use you, and those you wish to use. And yet, in all of this, you, have somehow managed to walk through the corridors of power and not be touched. I can only assume you have not been paying attention.”

But Vir had been paying attention. Mollari had no difficulty convincing Vir that Centauri Emperor Cartagia was insane and enlisting his help. Vir threw in with Mollari’s plan to get rid of the Emperor. Vir struggled with the idea of killing Cartagia, at first. “I’ve never been involved in a conspiracy to kill anyone before, not to mention the Emperor! I thought we were past this, centuries ago! I mean, there’s got to be another way, Londo! I mean, can’t we reason with him or something,” Vir asked Mollari in season four’s The Summoning.

Vir changes his mind, however, quickly, within the same episode, when he witnessed the Emperor’s bloody hands following G’Kar’s torture:

Vir: “Londo! Remember what I said before about ‘there must be another way’? I was wrong. Kill him!”

This is the turning point in Vir’s story arc. Season four was the stage for Vir’s most profound transformation. The bumbling, fearful assistant is gone, replaced by a seasoned, mature Vir. But his decision came at a certain price, and he lost part of his innocence in the process. Despite all of Mollari’s careful plotting, Cartagia’s assassination was not fated to go down as planned. In the end, Vir is the unwitting instrument of Mollari’s plan as Cartagia impales himself on the murder weapon held in Vir’s hand during season four’s The Long Night.

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Vir would go on to help lead the Centauri Republic, first as Emperor Mollari’s right hand, and eventually as Emperor himself. Perhaps the most eloquent testimony of Vir’s transformation is the image of him standing over the bodies of Mollari and G’Kar in War Without End, Part Two, and while that episode was part of season three, long before Vir (and Furst) would go through significant story arc changes, Furst carried himself convincingly in the scene. No words are said, none are necessary. The image of Vir holding the Emperor’s crest speaks eloquently by itself: he has just inherited the Emperor’s mantle, and the weight of that role shows heavily on his face.

Following Cartagia’s death, Vir would go on to represent the Centauri Republic as ambassador to Babylon 5 during season five. The series’s grandeur was passed by then, as many fans decry the last season as not being the best, but Furst still carried the character beautifully. The image of Vir standing on the B5 bridge along with the rest of the new crew in a silent farewell to Sheridan in the series’s penultimate episode, Objects At Rest, begs for more Vir. Unfortunately, if there were any plans for a spin-off with the new crew, we never got to see it, and any chance of seeing more of Furst’s Vir disappeared with his untimely death earlier this month.

We would see Vir again in the series finale, Sleeping In Light, during the bittersweet farewell dinner for Sheridan. Rewatching the episode now, it feels more like a moving farewell to the departed B5 cast members that were at the table: Richard Biggs, Jerry Doyle, and Stephen Furst.

In his Twitter post following the announcement of Furst’s death, Kevin Smith wrote:

“As an awkward round kid, Flounder was the Delta I most identified with in #AnimalHouse, my fave comedy. #StephenFurst helped shape who I am.” 

Furst helped shape many of us. He was everyman. In many ways, he was a fan, a geek, like us. Watching Vir take part in the great B5 story arc was a lot like being there ourselves. Thanks for taking us along for the ride, Stephen.