Villains, like blondes, have more fun," says veteran actor John Colicos, who should know. Colicos created two of science-fiction television's most famous villains: Star Trek's Klingon Commander Kor and the human traitor Baltar on Battlestar Galactica. But besides those disreputable notables, he has played countless other "villains of the week" on such shows as Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-O, Night Heat, Mannix and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Reflects Colicos, "I think I've been on just about every crime or adventure drama there is."
However, it is not as Kor that Colicos is mainly recognized by SF fans, but as Baltar. "I can't go anywhere!" he exclaims. "People are screaming out of taxis, 'Hey, Baltar!' It's the curse of the Cylons! About four or five years ago, we were doing The Dresser out in Edmonton [Canada] to a school audience who were magnificent, great applause at the end. I put up my hand and they went deader than a doornail. 'I just want to tell you,' I said, 'that I think you've been the best audience we've had.' We started applauding them, and some kid screamed out, 'Baltar lives!' It brought the house down.
"I have two young female fans in the Antelope Valley," Colicos explains. "I have no idea how they tracked me down, but they keep sending me stories with Baltar as the hero and lovely drawings. They've idealized me terribly and taken 60 pounds off me."
In the midst of remarking on the many pleasant experiences he has had with fans, Colicos smiles merrily, remembering a Los Angeles SF convention he once attended. "There was one kid who said, 'Mr. Colicos, what does Baltar do when the chair turns around and we can't see him anymore?' I was stumped for a second, then I said, 'Well, it's perfectly obvious. He reads Marvel comics all day long.' That brought down the house. Then, I thought, well, maybe he does. I mean, what else does Baltar do?"
Still, Baltar's part in the Battlestar epic was almost a very small one. "Initially, I was only to be in the pilot," recalls Colicos. "Then, Glen [Larson] decided he liked the character and he work that I was doing, so he deiced to keep Baltar as a running character. He re-directed the pilot's final scene himself, so that when the sword came down to cut my head off, he stopped at the least second and I was spared if I would betray the human race.
"Had the show gone on longer, we had some marvelous ideas. Glen is a Mormon, very imbued with the Bible. There are many biblical references in Battlestar -- Adama, for instance, and the tombs of Kobol, the lost tribes of Earth. All that is a kind of strange pastiche of events in the Bible. We conceived Baltar as eventually being a sort of Lucifer, basically a fallen son of God. He might have turned out eventually to be a bastard son of Adama, or a brother -- the black sheep of the family, as it were. In fact, I was the one who, at a luncheon in a Chinese restaurant, brought up the idea."
Colicos also claims credit for the design of Baltar's costume. "I was furious," he comments, "about that sheet thing that I wrote in the pilot, those diapers. That was ludicrous. That's why I designed the green velvet and the hairpiece. It had the slight suggestion of horns to it, so it was slightly satanic. Then, they decided to light me all from beneath, to make me as grotesque as possible. There were all kinds of directions considered."
Once Baltar was established as a series regular and the episodes unfolded, his character underwent considerable change. "What was unfortunate," says Colicos, "was that we had different writers on every episode and they hadn't come to grips with the storyline. They hadn't quite decided what audience they were trying to reach, whether it was cutesy kid audiences, or whether it was college-level science-fiction fans, or the general populace. By not finding a full two-year storyline, and having a bible to follow, the character of Baltar kept flipping back and forth."
Colicos himself isn't sure what motivates Baltar. "If it's a revenge motive, then it's the classic 'Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.' It may be, as my Antelope Valley girls make out, Baltar was framed. There's a third suggestion we toyed with, that it's all a ploy to finally get rid of the Cylons. Baltar would turn out to be Adama's spy. Take your pick. Because the writers never decided who and what he was, we never found out. 'I've played villains,' I thought. 'I've played monsters. We'll do a fine line and make it enigmatic.' When in doubt, be enigmatic."
On Battlestar, as on Star Trek, creative relationships for Colicos were excellent. "Glen Larson was marvelous," he enthuses. "We had wonderful lunches. He's a man who knows how to live and lives very well indeed. He's highly intelligent and very creative -- millions of ideas floating around in his head all the time. He's not closed-minded at all, but open to all suggestions.
"The fellow who played Lucifer was a sweet kid. He was marvelous, but he had no voice at all. He was a tiny, little fellow, a dwarf, I think you would say. He only came up to the middle of Lucifer. The top was a harness that he wore. He was speaking out of the middle of the body, while all this electronic madness was going on top, the eyeballs going beep-beep-beep. They brought in Jonathan Harris [of Lost in Space] to dub in Lucifer's voice later, but I never saw him.
"Half the time when I was playing Baltar, the scene started when I would whirl around in the chair, and there I would be, the regal lord, sitting on top of the pedestal. But, I thought, 'I'm going crazy here. I'm climbing this Leaning Tower of Pisa, on this rickety ladder.' The most dangerous part of the whole performance was getting up 30 feet on that ladder, with four stagehands hanging on. It was way the hell up in the top of the ceiling. They shot all my stuff on a crane. What with 'By your command' and all this, I finally got to the point where I thought if I talked any more to bloody robots, I would go out of my mind.
"When I finally did go to war on Battlestar," Colicos reveals, "and wore the Cylon helmet, which had my face showing in there, instead of mechanicals, I was nearly burned to death. The helmet had these lights or something, over my forehead but I couldn't get it off, and I was yelling for help, but they couldn't hear me. Finally, someone saw me waving my arms around like a madman and realized something was wrong, but it was a near thing."
A native Canadian, Colicos got his acting start in high school, when the principal drafted him at short notice for the school play. When an English teach introduced him to Shakespeare, he decided to become a classical actor. "One of the first roles I ever played was God," he laughs, "and I've been going downhill ever since."
That "downhill" trip, has encompassed many stage roles, as well as countless appearances on television and such feature films as Anne of the Thousand Days, Raid on Rommel, Scorpio and the 1984 version of The Postman Always Rings Twice. It also included a period with the illustrious Old Vic Shakespearean Company in London, England, which he joined in 1951. There, at age 23, Colicos becomes the youngest King Lear on the English stage in this century. "To me, Shakespeare," he explains, "is the greatest psychologist who was ever born. His knowledge of humanity, from the highest to the lowers, is absolutely incredible."
It was in his early years of stage and radio work in Canada, however, that Colicos met the two actors with whom he would do his best known work, William Shatner and Lorne Greene. "Lorne went to Hollywood," Colicos wryly observes, "learned how to ride a horse, became Pa Cartwright and wound up playing God in Battlestar."
Colicos has strong feelings about heroes and villains. "Leading men are so clichéd," he maintains. "They're so boring, so predictable. But when you get a really kooky, off-beat villain, you can explore all kinds of devious twistings and turnings in the human mind. If you're a hero, well, they're all interchangeable. I don't think they're so interesting as these basic characters, which are the mainstay of all the shows anyway. People tend to remember the villains more than the heroes. Everybody wants to hiss and boo. Everybody loves villains. It gives them a sense of superiority because they can feel, "Well, I'm not as bad as he is.'"
On the other hand, Colicos believes that people tend to identify with villains. "Deep down in their hears, they know they can never be Superman or Clark Gable. It's much easier to deflect all that feeling into the villains, who maybe get their comeuppance in the end, but get a good run for their money. They're fighting the system, they're fighting everything, and it's a great release valve for people."
However, Colicos still enjoys doing genre work. "When you do science fiction," he notes, "then the imagination can run wild. All of these films appeal to the childish imagination in everybody. Battlestar was like playing games again, with mad costumes and ridiculous lines, being the lord of the universe -- it was a ball. I love Star Trek, too. I've got most of it on tape, as a matter of fact. I had fun on Star Trek because I just literally walked from set to set following my makeup around. I would love to do Baltar again. I would love to do Kor again, and some day, before I die, I would like to play Ming the Merciless." In fact, according to Colicos, there was a possibility that Kor might have returned in Star Trek II, but the filmmakers opted for Khan instead.
Currently living in Toronto, Canada, Colicos is renovating a house to make room for his many career artifacts and his 4,000-volume theatrical research library. His latest feature is a supernatural thriller called Shadow Dancing.
"I've always remained a 19th century, slightly hammy, overblown actor," he insists. "I prefer gigantic parts with huge emotions to playing kitchen drama. All this realism is just tedious and boring.
"I'm too big for television now," John Colicos adds wryly. "I'm too big for my house. I belong on another planet somewhere. I wish there were a space shuttle going to Mars. I would take my Shakespeare and start a new company... somewhere up there."