John Colicos: "Full Expression"
John Colicos was a "Slightly Hammy, Overblown Actor." Let us pause to see if the Internet erupts in dismay over the characterization in this essay’s title. But, actually, that is the great thespian John Colicos... describing himself!
However, he was probably speaking with a twinkle in his eye and a tongue in his cheek. As he declared in Starlog #138, "I've always remained a 19th Century, slightly hammy, overblown actor. I prefer gigantic parts with huge emotions." Colicos (who died in 2000) seemed to me truly larger than life on screen and only slightly smaller in reality.
We care, of course, about Klingon Commander Kor, the alien antagonist who helped introduce that whole warrior race to the Star Trek universe in 1967 as part of The Original Series' first season entry, "Errand of Mercy." Colicos flew from Toronto to LA to do the Klingon gig. "It was such a last-minute job that nobody knew what Commander Kor should look like," the classical actor told Starlog's Canadian correspondent Peter Bloch-Hansen. "So, we devised the makeup right then and there. The makeup artist [Fred Phillips] said, 'What do you want to look like?'" Colicos suggested a kind of Genghis Khan visage, the "vaguely Asian, Tartar appearance" of a past legendary warrior. "Within two hours, this thing emerged and that was it." The quintessential Klingon.
But Kor wasn't his most recognizable role. That would be Baltar, traitor to the entire human race in TV's original Battlestar Galactica (1978-9). "I can't go anywhere," Colicos mock-complained in 1988. "People are screaming out of taxis, 'Hey, Baltar!' It's the curse of the Cylons."
I know exactly where I was when Battlestar debuted on ABC on Sunday, September 17, 1978: In a room, at an organizational meeting of the Syracuse University Science Fiction Club also doubling as a Galactica TV viewing party. Bizarrely, I recall ABC interrupting the story mid-premiere for breaking news coverage of the Middle East-Camp David Accords Signing (starring U.S. President Jimmy Carter with this episode's special guest stars Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat). The juxtaposition of televised fiction and historical reality, of tomorrow's space warfare and the promise of peace on Earth today was, well, jarringly surreal to say the least.
The special effects on that initial Battlestar TV movie were great; the show itself not so much. But what I liked best about it was Colicos, double-dealing with vicious aliens but, you know, incredibly entertaining about it all. A traitor with style.
Colicos' performance was so engaging that Galactica creator Glen Larson reshot an execution scene (in the pilot's original cut and a theatrical release edition, Baltar had been beheaded). Instead, the futuristic quisling lived on to indulge in further deviltry (as Colicos did in the subsequent TV series). "Villains, like blondes, have more fun," the actor quipped.
After I sent Bloch-Hansen off to do that interview in 1988, he reported back on the experience. They had chatted in Colicos' Toronto area home, in a study where the shelves overflowed with books (my kind of place)—and Bloch-Hansen (a teacher) was impressed. Bloch-Hansen found the Shakespeare veteran flamboyantly theatrical and proud of it. "I used to believe very strongly in the 19th-Century idea of 20-league boots and Byronic excesses," Colicos explained. "The actors back then were all larger than life. They had to bring attention to themselves. So, they dressed with great capes and canes and floppy hats. That struck my imagination." He added, "Life is so colorless and dreary and boring. I believe in full expression."
On the two extended occasions I encountered Colicos, he wasn't quite so flamboyant. No capes or floppy hats, yet still theatrical. At an SF convention in Maryland, we zoomed down the roads to Baltimore's Inner Harbor (with Babylon 5's Mira Furlan and me clinging desperately to straps in the backseat of an apparently-Indianapolis 500-auditioning vehicle, Colicos riding shotgun) and dined at a fine Italian restaurant at the Harborplace tourist mecca. He regaled us, con organizers and guests alike, with acting anecdotes (after all, he had worked with other such larger-than-life talents as Richard Burton, Robert Mitchum and George C. Scott). I was able to tell Colicos how much I liked his brief yet (atypically) sedate and sympathetic role as a detective investigating mysterious events involving Scott in The Changeling (an underrated, eeriely effective 1979 cinematic ghost story; see it!).
The other instance was the 1995 SeaTrek Cruise, where Colicos joined fellow great character actors (and Klingons) Michael Ansara (Kang) and William Campbell (Koloth). Having previously penned separate Starlogging memory plays about my encounters with Campbell and Ansara, I'm happy to complete this trilogy, "Tales of the Klingons Three." Besides sea and shore events, the trio were on stage for the cruise's cabaret entertainment. They acted in a Campbell-organized, ensemble cast re-creation of an old-time radio drama (just handheld scripts and microphones). It was a heart-rending adaptation of Ray Bradbury's "Kaleidoscope" (a melancholy tale of starfarers courageously facing their imminent, certain deaths as they hurtle through space).
I also recall Colicos sitting alone at the bar on the ship's top deck. He was impeccably outfitted (no cape or floppy hat at sea either) in brilliant, all-white cruise gear, a scarlet scarf rakishly wrapped around his neck (technically speaking, I'm unsure if it was apache scarf, cravat or ascot, but it sure was theatrical!).
On television, the Klingons Three had united for the 1994 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine "Blood Oath" mission; Colicos later returned solo for a 1995 DS9 quest, teaming with Worf and Dax to recover "The Sword of Kahless." And in 1998, he was back on DS9 for a final, glorious ride into battle, "Once More Unto the Breach." When I was editing Starlog: Star Trek's Greatest Guest Stars (a HarperPrism paperback collection of past interviews), I asked Bloch-Hansen to chat with Colicos again (so we could update the previous piece to include Kor's DS9 adventures).
"I love the character! Kor is a Falstaffian character, a bon vivant, a good storyteller and the story gets grander and grander every time he tells it," Colicos revealed on that interview occasion. "He reads a lot, has a huge library and, I suspect, is working on translations of Shakespeare into Klingon. I'm finding that this character is getting larger and larger [than life]. He's of gargantuan proportions now, or will be when I'm through with him."
And John Colicos himself? "I'm not quite as large as I used to be."
David McDonnell, "the maitre’d of the science fiction universe," has dished up coverage of pop culture for more than three decades. Beginning his professional career in 1975 with the weekly "Media Report" news column in The Comic Buyers’ Guide, he joined Jim Steranko’s Mediascene Prevue in 1980. After 31 months as Starlog’s Managing Editor (beginning in October 1982), he became that pioneering SF magazine’s longtime Editor (1985-2009). He also served as Editor of its sister publications Comics Scene, Fangoria and Fantasy Worlds. At the same time, he edited numerous licensed movie one-shots (Star Trek and James Bond films, Aliens, Willow, etc.) and three ongoing official magazine series devoted to Trek TV sagas (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager). He apparently still holds this galaxy’s record for editing more magazine pieces about Star Trek in total than any other individual, human or alien.
Ⓒ David McDonnell