Stephen Furst:
Floundering onto Babylon 5

by Michelle Erica Green

It's hard to write about Stephen Furst without being tempted to make a joke about how he's no longer floundering. Not only did he become a legend playing Flounder in the eternal adolescent classic Animal House, but he's best-known on television for playing two characters who floundered their way through their respective series: Dr. Elliott Axelrod on St. Elsewhere and Centauri embassy attache Vir Cotto on Babylon 5.

"I played a bumbling character on both shows - I think that hurt my credibility to say hey, can you trust me with a million dollars to direct an episode?" laughed Furst in a recent interview. The actor has focused his energies primarily on directing since the untimely demise of Babylon 5 and its sequel series, Crusade, for which Furst directed. "I think intellectually people can separate me from the characters, but maybe I was too good of an actor - some of them still see me as bumbling! We all get stereotyped, don't we?"

Furst believes that no matter what he does in life, he will always be the guy from Animal House to most fans. "I'm not the guy from Babylon 5, I'm not the guy from St. Elsewhere. It's the most popular movie that I've ever done. A lot of people are known for certain types of roles, even a legend like Jimmy Stewart who really played Jimmy Stewart in every movie. I think because of Animal House and its popularity, I'll always be Flounder."

From Virginia Beach To Outer Space

For science fiction fans, Vir Cotto - who started out as a harried aide, but wound up the Centauri ambassador to the Alliance on Minbar - will always hold a special place in the oeuvre of Stephen Furst, a Virginia native who now lives near Los Angeles, where he works as a director as well as an actor. Unlike many of the other actors on Babylon 5, Furst did not want to know the end of his character's arc in advance, so he was unaware of the good fortune awaiting Vir at the conclusion of the series.

Though many of the characters suffered great losses, including Vir's friend and mentor Londo Mollari - who spared him from suffering at the hands of the manipulative Drakh by sending him offworld - Vir was left in a relatively comfortable place, working among people he knew for a cause he believed in. "I didn't want to know what was going to happen to me, like in real life, even though this is science fiction," noted Furst. Asked whether he was happy with Vir's fate, which was much more pleasant than that of most of the Centauri regulars, the actor responded, "Why not? It's like running the studio!"

Furst was nostalgic when the series ended, but already had plans to direct on Crusade, which suffered a much more surprising demise and upset the actor more since he had hoped to work more on the production end. The actor still sees many of the original series cast regulars at conventions. "I stay in touch with Peter Jurasik - he's my best friend from the show - and believe it or not, I stay in touch with Bob Krimmer, who played Cartagia. I did a con in Toronto with Bob and Peter which was a hoot - three friends in one city! Once in awhile I'll call Billy [Mumy, who played Minbari Ranger Lennier], or I'll call Andreas [Katsulas, who played Narn Ambassador G'Kar], but I never talk to Jeff Conaway and I never talk to Jerry Doyle unless we see each other at a convention."

In order to stay on good terms with everyone and to do his best as an artist, Furst did his best to stay out of the show's internal politics. "I don't know what was going on behind closed doors between Claudia Christian and Straczynski, or between TNT and the show," he noted, referring to Christian's departure before the fifth season and to Crusade's cancellation.

"I think the problem there was that TNT wanted more action, and it just wasn't happening in the scripts, so they cancelled it. I wasn't surprised [about the cancellation] because I had heard the warning," revealed Furst. "My first show that I was directing was when the edict came down. They stopped filming and they had this big meeting on the set. They kind of rose-colored it, saying TNT was so enthused that they were going to shut us down and build better sets - they put it that way, kind of like Life Is Beautiful. Then my second show was the last one of the season, which became the last one of the series - I was number 13. Not lucky."

Furst found the directing style on the later series to be interesting, noting that "there was a lot more hand-held and steadycam stuff on Crusade." He directed some of the most acclaimed episodes of Babylon 5, including "The Deconstruction of Falling Stars," the fourth season finale filmed in six days when TNT picked up the series for a fifth season. It was the first episode to reflect the new sensibility brought to the series following the abortive end of the Shadow War, reflected in the longer scenes with more dialogue than the action-oriented fourth season.

"As a director, I'm involved in every single aspect of the show," explained Furst. "I sit down and I read the script, and then I start visualizing." He added that one thing he did that he's never heard of another director doing, "because my office was right there on the set and because I was one of the actors on the show," was to go onto the sets and act out all the different parts in the script. "It's strange if a crew guy comes in to paint something, and he hears me doing Mira Furlan's part, but I act out each part to make sure of the moves. If I want an actor to move from the window and run over to the chair, I want to make sure that it doesn't feel stupid to him. It may feel stupid to him but not to me, but at least then I've experienced it."

Surprisingly, the actor needed only about half an hour in the makeup chair to become Vir, although he has worn full prosthetic makeup for films and said he would do so again only "if the part was great enough." Nonetheless, if he could have played any other character on Babylon 5, "I'd love to play Peter Jurasik's part. I can't think of a more flamboyant character. He's my best friend from the show." Though he is not hopeful that there will be a Babylon 5 reunion in the near future in the form of a TV movie, he thinks it's a great idea: "I think that would do really well in the ratings."

"Science fiction is very hot," he added. "I actually just gave Netter Digital something that I have come across that I think would make a great movie; it would be a remake of another science fiction movie from about twenty years ago, like Logan's Run."

Actor and Director

Furst describes himself as "kind of a nuts and bolts type of actor - hand me the scripts and I'll learn my lines." He believes the key to acting is "to try to be as natural as possible, so I try to do the best natural acting. I don't lose or gain fifty pounds for the part or that kind of thing. When somebody tries to be funny, it never works."

He is delighted to be associated with the adolescent humor of Animal House, which Furst revealed was originally conceived for the old Saturday Night Live cast but ended up starring only John Belushi from that group. "They were trying to make it a whole Saturday Night movie, Tim Matheson's part was supposed to be for Chevy Chase and the guy who played D-Day was supposed to be Dan Ackroyd. I've worked with Tim Matheson several times, but I don't really stay in touch with those guys. We did a thing last year about the 20th anniversary in Westwood at UCLA, which was amazing - the audience was filled with college kids going "Toga! Toga!", kids that are eighteen and nineteen now."

That's around the ages of Furst's own children, who are 21 and 18. The actor is particularly proud of his older son, a film composer who is "working constantly. All the 30 year old composers came over to look at his studio to see how he works so fast." Currently at work on the Starship Troopers series, the younger Furst worked on She's All That and scored his father's last movie.

"On last episode of Crusade, I did not like the music, and when I put in my director's cut, I had my son put his own temp score into it. I asked Joe [Straczynski], did you like the score, he said, what's that music from, is it from Alien? And I said no, it's from my son! He has a ton of equipement in his bedroom."

Furst became interested in directing when he starred on St Elsewhere and saw many of the other performers trying to direct. "Unfortunately by the time I decided to do it, it was over," he recalled. Yet the actor has fond memories of the show. "I would have to say St. Elsewhere was my favorite role. It was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life, for five years, even though I played this bumbling doctor, as each year evolved I was given just wonderful acting chances. And it was so much fun to be on a show that was prestigious - a hit show that's not Three's Company. I keep in touch with [producer] Tom Fontana, because I'm bugging him to direct one of his shows; he does Homicide."

Having recently lost over 75 pounds, which he hopes will make more roles available to him, Furst said, "I want interesting characters as an actor and good stories as a director." Despite the science fiction on his resume, he would rather be working on romantic comedies. He was in line to direct one for CBS, "like a Notting Hill starring Melissa Gilbert," whom he knew from Babylon 5. But CBS already had two movies on the shelf starring Gilbert, so the director is looking for another lead actress. "I courted her, then I found out that she has another TV movie," Furst groaned.

"I have a love-hate relationship right now with this business," he noted. "I'm doing an incredible amount of leg work right now in this independent film market, where I'll spend a year cultivating a project and then the money will fall through two weeks before we're supposed to start pre-production. And then you just keep going; you find other money. Five years from now, I would like for people to say, 'Steve, here's a script, the money's in the bank...will you direct it?' and have it be a wonderful piece - whether it's commercially successful or not I don't really care, though that would be the icing on the cake. Let me do a Swing Blade or Shine or Walk on the Moon. Give me those actors, give me Diane Ladd, I don't want Julia Roberts or Nick Nolte."

"I hated The Phantom Menace, I was bored to death," admitted the man who now attends several science fiction conventions each year. "Give me Liam Neeson, give me Natalie Portman! I'm certainly not going to have them stand there and deliver monotone lines! Of course if I had been asked to be in that movie, I don't care if it was blank pages, I wouldn't even have read the script, I'd have said yes. The only thing complicated about playing an alien is having to go to the bathroom when you're wearing all that stuff!"

Finding Direction

After appearing in The Magic Kid in 1993, Furst wrote, directed, and starred in The Magic Kid II, his first directing job. "I really don't write - I punch up scripts a lot as a director. I find these wonderful writers who are not famous, so I option them and when somebody says, 'I'm looking for science fiction,' you can rest assured that the project I'll give them is a very good project."

In addition to the prohibitive cost of optioning scripts by very famous writers, "It's very hard getting someone because they say, 'What has Stephen produced before?' Well, nothing, but if I had produced Starship Troopers, which was horrible, then I could get the job. I lost a job, a Disney thing, it was between me and the guy who did Meet the Deedles, which was a major studio movie. You just need one."

Because he is working in so many areas of filmmaking, Furst has little time to watch television, even his own shows. "I don't watch TV. I see a lot of movies. I see the major studio stuff, I see independents, I see foreign films...everything. If I had a choice as a moviegoer to go see a science fiction movie or a wonderful romantic comedy, I'd choose the romantic comedy. I'm a sap!"

Currently, the director is working on Frindle, which he describes as "a family picture, a piece on individualism." The script was written by "a very, very hot up and coming writer," a 33-year-old writer named Jody Picoult who has just written her sixth book. He's also directing a film called The Courier.

One of the dream projects Furst would like to produce in the future was also written by Picoult, with whom the director became friendly while working on Frindle. He is interested in producing a film of The Pact: A Love Story, but fears that the theme of teen suicide may not tempt studios in the current political climate.

"A lot of people don't get it in Hollywood," he lamented. "They say, 'We can't do a movie about teen suicide, with teen suicide so rampant!' This script is so wonderfully written, it starts off like a love story and then the tragedy, it involves the families, then it goes into a sort of John Grisham courtroom drama. I would just love to do that."

"The two leads are seventeen year olds so I'm perfect there!" he added with a laugh. "Everything is young, young, young. I was listening to Roger Ebert last night and they were talking about Teaching Mrs. Tingle, they said the movie is the most ricidulous horrible embarrassment with this wonderful actress Helen Mirren playing opposite MTV's flavor of the week. That's what I'm going through - I'm doing this movie and the casting guy gave me a list of actresses who are available for this young part, the 18-year-olds, and I don't know the names. I mean, of course I know Sarah Michelle Gellar, who isn't available, but these names...they're getting like three hundred grand a movie!"

Furst is proud of his last film, Baby Huey's Great Easter Adventure, which he describes as a real family movie. His son even wrote the music for that one. He has a roles in a couple of upcoming films, Deadly Delusions and Everything's Jake, but he describes the parts as "favors to people."

"I was doing Everything's Jake while I was directing Crusade. It was shooting in New York City, it was Martin Luther King's birthday so I had Monday off. I directed on Friday and hopped on a red-eye, filmed all weekend and came back on Tuesday morning. This is my life! I have nothing else going in my life, so I love working! I'm so busy right now with these projects."

Life Outside

The actor does make time for science fiction conventions, which give him an opportunity to travel and meet fans. "I've lowered my price because I like to go out and meet the people, and I have nothing else going on in my life," he joked. "The conventions have become almost a stand-up routine to me because people ask the same questions, and they think I'm remarkably witty when I have these quick comebacks! But of course I've had practice fifty times before. You go there and the fans are so sweet and so nice and so adoring."

Though he enjoys meeting his former cast mates in different cities at the cons, "I have to laugh at the other actors. They get up there and they're so damn serious. 'This is my art,' I heard one actor say, 'This is my poetry, my painting, my voice is my brushes,' and I'm going, 'Oh, Please! Right! Give me a break!' You're getting paid much less than a prime-time actor, you can't get work on those shows!" Because he has lost so much weight and because of Vir's uncommon hairstyle, Furst rarely gets recognized from Babylon 5 when he goes out, though he gets recognized for other roles.

"I haven't gotten 'Vir changed my life,' but I've gotten letters like that on other shows. From St. Elsewhere, I've gotten some incredible fan letters. It's interesting - the science fiction fans are in a class among themselves, but I've gotten that from Animal House. Someone told me, 'I had cancer and I was so sad, I thought for sure I was going to die, and I would put on Animal House every day, it was the only thing that made me laugh and forget about my problems for 102 minutes. That was something."

A diabetic, Furst is active in charity work for the American Diabetes Association. When he sells autographed photos, he donates part of the proceeds to the organization. The weekend after this interview, he had plans to travel to Las Vegas for a charity event at the Riviera. "It will be fun for me!" he exclaimed. "For one day, they'll give you a thousand dollars worth of chips, and whatever you win, they'll match it and donate to your favorite charity."

"My charity is selfish, because I have the disease!" he laughed. "Me and Mary Tyler Moore. I did a thing in Washington DC where the theme was diabetics who are famous sports figures. It was myself and Catfish Hunter and a famous hockey player, I was moderating it."

If he got to choose what he would be known for over the next ten years, Stephen Furst would like it to be for directing - "Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!" - but he has no intention of giving up acting, nor putting aside the convention circuit and his contact with Babylon 5 fans. And he's comfortable knowing that no matter where he goes, no matter what he does, to a lot of people he'll always be Flounder.

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