Herbert Jefferson Jr. is happy to relate his favorite off-screen Battlestar Galactica stories, but he's also interested in discussing his life before he boarded that rag-tag fugitive fleet as Lt. Boomer 20 years ago. "Everyone wants to talk about Galactica, and I'm happy to do so," he says warmly, "but no one seems to know I had a career before -- and after -- that!"
Born in Sandersville, Georgia, and raised in Jersey City, New Jersey, Jefferson initially had no designs on becomin an actor. "As a child, I had a great interest in literature," he says. "I also grew up in a home very big on music. I sang with my father in a gospel choir and was comfortable being in front of people. In grammar school, I performed in plays."
In high school and college, Jefferson worked in theater production, but it wasn't until he was working in the mail room at ABC-TV in New York that he decided to become a professional actor. "Peter Jennings was a local anchorman in New York, and I was his inter-office mailboy. I would see the soap operas and other TV productions develop from their embryonic stages to live broadcasts. This was very stimulating, so while working at ABC during the day, I took acting classes at night at the Herbert Berghof Studios under a very respected actor, the late Bill Hickey."
Roles in some Off-Broadway plays followed, including The Fugitive Kind and Damn Yankees. These early professional appearances convinced Jefferson to seriously pursue acting. He was accepted at New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts, graduating with honors in 1969.
His TV debut in 1970 came in an episode of The Silent Force, a detective series. "I had two scenes as a bad guy," Jefferson recalls. "It showed me getting my butt whipped. The character I played deserved it."
His first major role was in The Immortal, the 1970-71 series starring Christopher George as a man who will live forever. In "By Gift of Chance", Jefferson played Garland Colley, a good-hearted drifter who befriends the immortal and later dies after being forced by a sadistic foreman to eat a poisoned tomato. "The Immortal was interesting because it was truly my first TV guest performance. Although I had done two Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, The Great White Hope and No Place To Be Somebody, I knew very little about the technical end of television -- the lighting, hitting marks, camera angles and shooting out of sequence. Chris George took the time to rehearse with me one on one, and he walked me through all the technical obstacles. Chris was more than kind and helpful, and a fine actor to boot."
Rod Serling's Night Gallery was Jefferson's second major TV stop. In "Clean Kills and Other Trophies", Raymond Massey starred as a brutal big-game hunter who berates his introverted son (Barry Brown) to shoot a deer to prove his manhood. In Serling's original script, the boy, driven to the breaking point, shoots his father and displays his head on a wall. NBC recoiled at the patricidal element and demanded a rewrite. The aired version has Massey's African valet (Jefferson) summon up ancient gods to administer justice. The hunter's head still ends up beside his animal trophies.
"This was one of my favorites because it was a Serling story," Jefferson says, "and Serling himself approved me for the role. I also had the good fortune of working with Raymond Massey, an actor I had grown up with on TV and film."
The behind-the-scenes work of devising the gruesome denouement -- Massey's head mounted high on the wall -- made a lasting impression on Jefferson. "The effect was created by laying Massey down on a mattress, and then raising the bed up on a forklift to a hole in the wall. Massey's head was moved forward through the hole and a wooden plaque fitted around his neck. I'll never forget seeing his disembodied head, squirming on the wall, saying, 'This feels like a size 14!' and the effects man replying, 'No, Mr. Massey. It's a size 16. I measured it!'"
Among his other pre-Galactica credits are segments of Mission: Impossible, The Gemini Man and The Bionic Woman. Personal highlights also include ,"The Streets of San Francisco, where I worked with the legendary Karl Malden, and Cannon with William Conrad, and two McClouds, one with Chris Gorge. We both played heavies. I was a mobster who tries to pass himself off as a priest and yes, my character was successful. He was the only bad guy they never caught. On Columbo, I worked with the great Peter Falk, and in The Law with Judd Hirsch, I played a West Indian defendant. These were all very exciting shows for a young actor to do."
However, it was his co-starring role in Rich Man, Poor Man (1976) that brought the most acclaim. "That was one of the biggest history-making pieces in television," Jefferson proudly notes. "It was a star-studded cast, and I was fortunate enough to work with Nick Nolte and Peter Strauss. I played Ray Dwyer, a merchant seaman who befriends Nolte after he comes to my assistance aboard a freighter." Jefferson returned for the Rich Man, Poor Man Book II series during the 1976-1977. "I was a regular until they killed me off about halfway through the series."
Shortly thereafter, while doing the award-winning play Streamers, Jefferson was called to audition as a space fighter pilot in the mini-series Battlestar Galactica. "I've been a great lover of science fiction," Jefferson reveals. "One of my all-time favorite films is The Day the Earth Stood Still, along with Destination Moon, Conquest of Space and 1950s television like Science Fiction Theater, Captain Midnight and Steve Canyon. Battlestar Galactica looked like an opportunity to have fun and do some quality work."
Jefferson faced 20 other qualified actors also hoping for the job. "I did my homework for the role of Boomer by reading the script cover to cover. Eventually, the actors were whittled down to eight, and out of that group I got the nod."
Looking back, Jefferson can appreciate the humorous aspects of the crucial auditions. "The nature of Galactica's material was very technical and futuristic. These were terms never before written for a series. The network people wanted to hear you read the material. May be they wanted to hear how an actor came across saying a word like 'felgercarb'. If you could say that, and it make it sound believable, you had the job!"
The series debuted in 1978 with an epic pilot that depicted the near-annihilation of a human civilization by the robotic Cylons. Commander Adama (Lorne Greene) directs his Battlestar Galactica and its fleet away from the rampaging machines and sets course for a planet called Earth. Jefferson still regrets that the series wasn't given more time to prepare for its TV journey. "The concept had great potential, but before we had finished filming the three-hour pilot, the planned six-hour mini-series was dropped in favor of a weekly show. The lack of time affected the show's quality and didn't give us the opportunity to develop these strong characters properly."
He was pleased, however, with the lavish pilot. "It was fantastic! Nothing like that had ever been done in the history of science fiction television. We have creator Glen Larson to thank for the concept. There was a spiritual focus to it, also, in that these are the last remnants of the human race, people from all walks of life from different planets with different cultures, all pulling together for something positive -- their very survival. It struck a chord with many people."
Jefferson, an aviation buff since age eight, enjoyed playing a fighter pilot who zoomed through space at warp speeds, though he always tried to pull more from Boomer than fancy flying and shooting. In some Galactica fan fiction, it's revealed that Boomer had a fighter pilot father who died in a long-ago war. "now that would certainly be a great premise for further character development," remarks Jefferson. "Since we only ran one season, it was hard to thoroughly develop a character's history. But I do wish they had focused on the people more than the special FX. No matter how many millions of dollars you spend on better visuals, it really comes down to how you feel about the people. Can I relate to these characters? Do I see myself in that situation?"
However, even during his first read-through of the Battlestar pilot script, Jefferson immediately developed a rapport with Boomer. "This was a man who was strong, well-rounded and positive. And ironically, it was in our last and best episode, 'The Hand of God', that we saw another dimension to Boomer. The Galactica decides to stand and fight against the Cylons. Apollo [Richard Hatch] and Starbuck [Dirk Benedict] are sent off on a commando mission to infiltrate a Cylon basestar and Lt. Boomer is left in charge of the strikewing. At the same time, the Galactica is receiving a signal from out in deep space. Boomer tries to boost the signal and establish where it's coming from. Could it be from Earth? That episode allowed us to see Boomer as an officer with a background in engineering who's also able to speak many languages. he's doing something other than sitting in a Viper cockpit, pushing a button and blowing Cylons to smithereens. And there's a nice scene where Apollo and Starbuck are leaving to go on their raid, and we see Boomer's compassion. he would rather not see his buddies go without him. For the most part, you didn't see that kind of vulnerability in Boomer."
Jefferson regrets his character's lack of subtext. Throughout the show's run, Boomer, along with Starbuck and Apollo, were never even referenced to by their full names. "It was never established whether our names were surnames or given names," he says. "But I'm presuming we were all on a first-name basis. We wanted to see more dimension to our characters, but as actors we're basically soldiers. This is your script, here are your lines and you understand you're responsible for saying what's there. But the stories were cranked out so fast, there were times we didn't get the dialog until 20 minutes before shooting!"
Had the series continued, Jefferson believes the Galactica fleet could have provided a rich source for story material. "There were 226 ships in the fleet. I would have liked to have seen some stories about the everyday person aboard those ships and less emphasis on blowing things up. There was a story in each one of those people: crew members, launch personnel, women, the children in the passenger ships orphaned by the war."
The breakneck speed of production did allow for some bizarre sights off-camera. The gleaming Cylons had one objective: pursue the Galactica across the galaxy and exterminate all humanity. But in reality, the monsters had trouble putting one foot in front of the other. "Most of the Cylons were stuntmen," recounts Jefferson. "There was only a small slit in front of their helmets to allow them to see, so we had many a laugh when a Cylon would stumble and trip, falling into a metallic heap! And early on in the show, there was another problem. Those menacing seven-foot tall robot outfits weren't designed to be practical. They had no fly! Laughs abounded whenever nature called to the Cylons!"
The Daggit, mechanical pet of young Boxey (Noah Hathaway), brings back the most vivid memory for the actor. In "Fire in Space", the Galactica is crippled by a raging on-board conflagration. "We had suffered a kamikaze attack from the Cylons resulting in a landing bay fire and obstruction to the Galactica's rejuvenation center," Jefferson explains. "The only hope for the crew trapped in the center is to get oxygen to them, and that's where the Daggit comes in. It's sent through the air ducts with a bag full of portable breathing masks. Well, many viewers don't realize that the Daggit was played by a three-year-old chimp named Eve.
"To film the scene, they put all of this breathing gear into a big plastic bag and wrapped it around Eve, so she could pull it through the duct. But to get her to do the scene, they had to let her play with the bag first so she would get used to it. When it came time to film the scene, she began crawling through the ducts as the actors coughed and choked on all this smoke. As she came out of the passageway, my job was to take the bag, rip it open and pass up the gear to the crew.
"The director yelled action. Eve came out of the duct, and as I reached down to grab the bag from her, she leapt on her hind legs, threw up her arms and screamed. She pulled the bag back from me and wouldn't let it go. This was her bag! No way was she going to give it up. The crew fell to the ground, cracking up. Eve was a real personality. I wonder what happened to her? Maybe we could get her to attend one of the Galactica reunions!"
Jefferson's human co-stars also bring back fond memories. Greene, who died in 1987, was a good friend. "Lorne was like a second Dad to me. I was very close to him. I grew up watching this man on Bonanza. Lorne would do things like invite me over to his house, saying, 'Herb, we're having a game of Trivial Pursuit. Come on over!' He was a marvelous actor.
"There aren't many people who have the dogged determination of Richard Hatch," beams Jefferson regarding the man who has steadfastly carried the Galactica torch. "He has single-handedly, through his web site and his book Armageddon -- a saga that picks up 18 years after Adama's death -- kept the revival spirit of Battlestar Galactica alive. Working with Dirk Benedict was always a pleasure. he's a fine actor. I've always admired him for this fortitude and focus, both on and off the set. he had a God-given talent for fending off felgercarb. Terry Carter [Colonel Tigh], who co-starred in McCloud, was another underrated actor."
Jefferson's appreciation extends to the female Galacticans. "There was always a certain girlish and giggly quality about Maren Jensen [Athena]. She was a natural beauty who brought a certain vulnerability and freshness to the set. She was a true diamond in the rough. Anne Lockhart [Sheba] is a dear friend. I saw Laurette Spang [Cassiopeia] recently, and she's doing well. The entire cast was the most marvelous, talented and profession group of people with whom I've ever worked. We were under such stress to get the job done. we never got to show the world what we could have done on Galactica. Many of us moved on with our lives and careers, but there's still a bond like no other.
The sudden cancellation of Galactica came as "a big shock to all of us. The plug was just pulled." But Universal and ABC later realized that there might be more mileage in the series and commissioned Larson to come up with an eleventh-hour, ersatz sequel series for the next year -- Galactica 1980. Set half a generation later, the Galactica has finally reached Earth, and two pilots (Kent McCord, Barry Van Dyke) spend half a season surveying this strange new world. The series, to put it mildly, was regarded as felgercarb by Galactica fans. "I'm with the fans," admits Jefferson. "As an actor, I was happy to be employed, and there was always hope that it would get better. At least they promoted Boomer to a lieutenant colonel. But what good is that if they give you less responsibility?"
In Galactica 1980, Boomer (wearing a beard) stood around looking solemn and distinguished as the juvenile action unfolded around him. "I didn't get to do anything!" Jefferson laments. "It was very , very disappointing. Lorne and I were the only original cast members to return. I was happy to see Lorne again, but I missed my family -- the rest of the cast, the crew. Dirk did come back to do one show, a Robinson Crusoe in space theme, and he was wonderful."
Today, acting is only one facet of Jefferson's life. "I've been working 23 years now with the California Special Olympics. I've done work on Toys for Tots for the Marine Corps Reserve and worked with the California Paralyzed Veterans Association."
As for acting stints, "I played a paramedic in the pilot of ER, had a featured role in a film I was proud to be a part of, Apollo 13 [as a reporter] and a role in Outbreak. I just finished a film called One Dozen, written and directed by Lloyd Schwartz."
And could there be a reprise of Lt. Col. Boomer in the future? Jefferson, like many fans, is cautiously optimistic. "At conventions, the main question I get from fans all over the world is, 'Will Galactica ever come back?' What they don't realize is that it's out of my hands. According to Hatch, there is talk that Universal is considering bringing Galactica back into the first stage of redevelopment. Now what that means, I couldn't tell you."
Whatever happens, 20 years hasn't dimmed Herbert Jefferson Jr.'s appreciation for one of his best-known roles. "The fans want to see a revival," he points out, "and if they ever do one -- and if I'm invited -- I would be happy to get aboard Galactica again!"