Science fiction television is filled with fan-favorite characters, but behind every lead hero is their assistant. They’re often present in the background, usually only ever get a first name, and the role might propel their portrayer into minor fame on the comic con celebrity circuit, long after the show has ended. Stephen Furst’s Vir Cotto was one such character in the science fiction show Babylon 5, but over the course of the story, he became so much more than that: an example of where even background characters have incredible importance to the bigger picture.
Furst passed away earlier this week from complications related to diabetes, according to his Facebook page. He had a long acting resume, appearing in films such as Animal House, and shows like St. Elsewhere, but he will be fondly remembered as as Vir Cotto in J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5, where he played the diminutive and bumbling assistant to the station’s Centauri ambassador, Londo Mollari.
Babylon 5 ran from 1994 through 1997, and told the story of an interstellar space station, a neutral ground for the galaxy’s various alien species to come together peacefully after a great war. The show depicts the rise of another interstellar war, with a nuanced portrayal of politics and diplomacy deep in space. Furst later went on to direct a handful of episodes of Babylon 5 and its sequel show, Crusade, as well as several films.
Vir might have started out as a meek and bumbling character, but over the course of the show, that changed. In many shows, these characters remain static: funny and deferential to their superiors. While he largely remains at Londo’s side throughout the show, he becomes a moral figure in the center of a complicated story. Vir became a rare example of a background character who grows in importance over the course of the story, whose seemingly naïve moralistic qualities become the most important guide for the characters around him. He essentially becomes a stand-in for Londo’s conscious, calling out his mentor’s disastrous decisions, standing up to powerful figures, and often provides the right and just choice during times of moral ambiguity. In doing so, he becomes an indispensable and heroic character in the show, one who actively influences the outcome of the story.
Furst’s portrayal of Vir was reportedly true to life: in an interview, he recounted how his personality helped get him the role of the character. The character is one that shines because of Furst’s performance, and it holds up as an excellent and memorable example, even twenty years after the show went off the air.