Hasslein Blog: Rest in Peace, Michael O'Hare


Hasslein Blog

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Rest in Peace, Michael O'Hare

by Rich Handley
Every year, Hollywood experiences the passing of far too many talented people we admire, as we're reminded during the "In Memorium" portions of the annual Academy Award and Emmy Award broadcasts. Sadly, another name can be added to the list for the next memorial videos: Michael O'Hare.

Michael O'Hare (1952-2012)

O'Hare may not have become a household name, but to science fiction fans, the Illinois-born actor was well-known as Commander Jeffrey Sinclair, the star of Babylon 5's pilot and first season, and a recurring guest star in seasons two and three. O'Hare's soft-spoken yet articulate approach injected a strong gravitas into the character that, for many fans, made his performances mesmerizing and powerful.

I've seen reviews of his work on B5 characterize O'Hare as stiff and wooden, but I couldn't disagree more with that assessment. Quite the contrary, in fact—I firmly believe that the slow, methodical way in which he spoke perfectly matched the character's history. Sinclair was a career officer from a military family who was educated among the Jesuits, a strictly obedient Catholic order sometimes called "God's Marines" since their founder, Spanish priest Ignatius of Loyola, also came from a military background. As far as I'm concerned, O'Hare hit it out of the park.

Commander Jeffrey Sinclair

Educated at Harvard University, the Juilliard School of Drama and Sanford Meisner, O'Hare worked primarily in the theater, both on and off Broadway. Among his notable performances was a stint as Colonel Nathan R. Jessup in Aaron Sorkin's 1989 play A Few Good Men, a role originated on stage by Stephen Lang (more recently seen as the testosterone-charged Colonel Miles Quaritch in James Cameron's Avatar) and played brilliantly in the 1992 film adaptation by Jack Nicholson. Given how O'Hare approached the role of Sinclair, I truly wish I'd been able to see his performance as Jessup, as I'm positive he must have been perfect for the role (the same is true for Lang, by the way—I'll bet he was downright terrifying when yelling out "You can't handle the truth!").

His other work included Shades of Brown, a play that closely scrutinized South African apartheid, resulting in his becoming the first Caucasian actor to receive the Audience Development Committee (AUDELCO) Award—established in 1973 to honor excellence in the New York African-American theater scene—for best actor.

But it was as Jeffrey Sinclair that O'Hare became most recognizable, when J. Michael Straczynski cast him for the lead role in The Gathering, Babylon 5's pilot film.

Still the best sci-fi TV series of all time. To this day,
I re-watch it in its entirety every couple of years.

For my money (and given that I'm someone who purchased all of the B5 DVDs, novels and comic books, my money counts), Sinclair was among the most intriguing characters of the pilot and first season. The mystery of the missing 24 hours of his life, the truth regarding the Battle of the Line, his relationship with Catherine Sakai, his connection to Ambassador Delenn, his friendship with Garibaldi and the secret reason the Mimbari requested his assignment to the station had me riveted, and I was floored when it was announced that he would not return for season two (a decision that both O'Hare and Straczynski have described as being mutual and amicable, but about which few details have been made public). No more Sinclair? After season one's "reassigned to Mimbar" cliffhanger? What??

As such, I was admittedly slow to warm up to Bruce Boxleitner as his replacement, John Sheridan, since I simply didn't want O'Hare to leave the series. Of course, like most other fans, I soon came to see how amazing a character Sheridan was, and how perfectly cast Boxleitner was in the role... but I still missed Sinclair. So when the commander later returned in a guest-starring capacity, and we learned (GASP!) that he was really—no, wait, I won't spoil that true masterpiece of storytelling for those unfortunates who haven't yet watched the show. Suffice it to say Sinclair and O'Hare fans received pretty much the best closure for that arc that we could possibly have hoped for.

Here's a tiny hint.

Following his all-too-brief stint on Babylon 5, O'Hare sadly slipped into acting obscurity. Other than guest appearances on The Cosby Mysteries and Law & Order in the mid-90s, his TV career pretty much ended, leaving many wondering what had happened to this once-promising actor.

I'm still not entirely sure what happened, but I have an inkling. Although he was a private guy and news about him was scarce, I've heard over the years that he'd become ill. Back in the '90s, my friend Michael Thune and I saw him at a science fiction convention. Both of us were great fans of B5, and of O'Hare's performance, so we were ecstatic at the chance to hear him speak in person. Unfortunately, he acted strangely throughout his presentation. The audience fidgeted nervously at the sight of him walking in sow-motion and speaking as though only half-lucid. Picture a 100-year-old man slowly shuffling his feet a couple of inches at a time, his back hunched over and his attention wandering and unfocused, and you'll have a pretty good idea of how he looked... and yet he was in his early 40s at the time.

I prefer to remember him like this.

At first, we thought it was some weird performance art, but when it didn't end, there was an awkward dawning on everyone's part that it was real. It was confusing and heartbreaking to behold. I later learned that he may have been on heavy medication that day for some undisclosed reason. For years after that appearance, he practically vanished from the public eye.

In recent months, JMS has commented that O'Hare was not doing well, culminating in his announcement yesterday of Michael's passing at the young age of sixty. Whatever illness O'Hare suffered from, it was apparently with him for a long time and was visibly affecting him. It's too sad to think about. Instead, I choose to recall how much I enjoyed the actor's performance on Babylon 5, how invested I was in Sinclair's story arc and how permanent a place both secured in my memory and on my DVD shelves. In fact, I think may re-watch his final two-part B5 episode, "War Without End," tonight in his honor. Rest in peace, Mr. O'Hare.

Safe journey beyond the Rim, Commander.

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At September 29, 2012 at 10:13 AM , Blogger Deborah Blake said...

I loved the way he played the part too, and he was one of my favorite characters. (And like you, it took me a while to adjust to the change.)

RIP, Michael.


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