On January 21st, 2021, science fiction fans were shocked and dismayed by a tweet announcement from Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczynski: Mira Furlan, best known for playing Delenn on the acclaimed sci-fi series as well as Danielle Rousseau on ABC’s Lost, had died at the age of 65. She’s survived by her husband, director Goran Gajić, and their son, Marko Lav Gajić.
“Mira was a good and kind woman, a stunningly talented performer, and a friend to everyone in the cast and crew of ‘Babylon 5,’ and we are all devastated by the news,” the post continues.
According to Furlan’s manager, Chris Roe, Furlan died Wednesday in her LA home of complications from West Nile virus.
Furlan’s passing is sadly just the latest period of mourning for fans of the Babylon 5 cast; many of the show’s principal actors have passed before their time, including Michael O’Hare (Sinclair), Jerry Doyle (Garibaldi), Stephen Furst (Vir), Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar), Stephen Biggs (Dr. Franklin), and Jeff Conaway (Zack Allen).
But like those actors, she leaves behind a legacy of thoughtful, considerable work that extends beyond the realms of genre television – even as she left a powerful footprint on the shows for which she’s best known in the West.
Born in former Yugoslavia in 1955, Furlan made a significant name for herself early in her career as a staple of Yugoslavian theater and cinema. She was a member of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb, and build a substantial resume on the Yugoslavian screen, with dozens of credits to her name including Beauty of Vice (1986), In the Jaws of Life (1984), and Three for Happiness (1985). One of her earliest breakouts was in 1985’s When Father Was Away on Business, directed by Emir Kusturica, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film that year.
Unfortunately, her career in her native country would be cut short not by opportunity, but by conflict, as the Yugoslav Wars made living there too dangerous. “My position as a very well-known actor [in film, TV, and theater] put me in a very sensitive spot,” recalls Furlan in an interview with USA Today in 2007. “I was very outspoken about the war, and that brought me death threats.”
She and her family emigrated to America in 1991 to escape the turmoil. Landing in New York City, Furlan joined the Actors Studio and began appearing on the stage in productions in both New York and Los Angeles throughout the early ‘90s.
Landing on Babylon 5
It was around that time that she joined the cast of Babylon 5 as Ambassador Delenn, the mysterious, mercurial delegate from the Minbari, a race of technologically advanced but socially stratified aliens. While the show was notorious for its vastly rotating cast, Furlan’s Delenn was one of the few characters to hold out from the beginning of the show to its end.
She was even there for the show’s pilot, ‘The Gathering’ – the first of five Babylon 5 TV movies – though in a much different form than fans would come to know her. Straczynski’s initial plan was to have Furlan play Delenn as a male character to make them seem more ‘alien’, filming ‘The Gathering’ with her in thick prosthetics that added accentuated male features onto her face and altering her voice in post-production to make her sound more masculine.
Naturally, that fell through for a number of reasons, chief among them Furlan’s discomfort over the extensive prosthetics required for the masculinized Delenn. (Also, the pitch-correction wasn’t very successful.) So when the show went to series, they committed to making Delenn a female character, allowed Furlan to keep her naturally-reedy feminine voice, and softened the prosthetics to allow her real face to shine forward.
Originally, the plan was for Straczynski to have Delenn undergo a biological transformation from male to female partway through the series; however, given Delenn’s establishment as an explicitly female character, she instead underwent a mysterious ritual to make herself more human, which allowed for a further rollback of the prosthetics Furlan needed to put on to just a small bone ridge that would wrap around her long brown hair. (This was fine by Furlan, since she loathed the Minbari prosthetics and makeup; Delenn would gradually look more human as the series progressed.)
That sense of transformation was reflected in Delenn’s own character, someone dramatically impacted by her experiences on Babylon 5 and the people and cultures she spent such close proximity to for five-plus years. When she began, Delenn shared roughly equal footing with other B5 ambassadors like Kosh, G’Kar, and Londo Mollari – representatives of vastly different alien species forced together by diplomacy.
A member of the Grey Council and a religious leader of her people, Delenn approached situations on the station with bemused, distant curiosity. She was mysterious and menacing, but empathetic as well, often sharing heart-to-hearts with Commander Sinclair (and later Captain John Sheridan) on the intricacies of interstellar diplomacy and the curious behavior of humans.
But that curiosity towards mankind eventually led her to transform herself into a human-Minbari hybrid at the start of the second season. This allowed her to further explore the nuances of human behavior in both its lightest and darkest moments – and eventually fall in love with a human, Sheridan, and marry him.
While Furlan’s journey with the character would make her one of the less visibly alien aliens in the show’s menagerie of thick ‘90s prosthetics, she nonetheless carried herself with remarkable import and exoticism. She always played Delenn with a vibrant mixture of bemusement and pathos, a centuries-old being who nonetheless kept searching for new, terrifying frontiers to explore.
One of her best performances comes in ‘Confessions and Lamentations’ (S2, Ep18), when Delenn visits an isolation ward where an alien species, the Markab, have secluded themselves due to a deadly plague. It’s a nearly-wordless performance as she exits the ward, only to collapse in Sheridan’s arms, mouth open in a silent cry of anguish and grief – evidence of Delenn’s incredible empathy, and the horrors that can tug at her heartstrings.
But of course, Delenn was more than a wilting, bleeding-heart philosopher; like many of B5’s characters, she had a core of darkness to her that Furlan unfurled to worlds-shattering effect. Her crowning moment as a character may well be ‘Severed Dreams’ (S3, Ep10), where she arrives at the station with a Minbari war fleet just in time to save B5 from an assault from an authoritarian Earth from which they’d just seceded. As the Earthgov fleet pushes back against her calls to withdraw, Furlan unleashes her iciest glare and delivers what might be one of the series’ most fist-pumping lines:
“Only one human captain has ever survived battle with a Minbari fleet. He is behind me. You are in front of me. If you value your lives, be somewhere else.”Delenn, ‘Severed Dreams’ – S3, Ep10.
Over the five seasons and numerous TV movies in which Delenn appeared, Furlan’s exoticism (buoyed by the musicality of her Yugoslavian accent) and patient, intellectual performance made her one of the most skilled actors in an already-impressive ensemble. She had to put on a lot of hats – mentor, friend, lover, warrior, prophet – and wrap them all into a character who felt real and immediate even amongst the show’s limited budget and often amateurish presentation.
Babylon 5 was pitched as a “novel for television,” presaging the era of serialized storytelling it would eventually herald; Furlan was one of the actors who best conveyed the swings and roundabouts of its epic scope and deeply-drawn characters.
Delenn wouldn’t be the last major role Furlan would play in the pop culture landscape, however; she dipped her toes back into sci-fi television once again in ABC’s hit series LOST, playing scientist Danielle Rousseau (aka “The French lady”) for 20 episodes across the show’s six seasons. Rousseau was a far different role for Furlan than the composed, elegant Delenn – she was raw, feral, a figure of supreme emotional brittleness who served as both ally and antagonist to the main cast of castaways depending on her goals in the moment.
Her wide, expressive eyes peeking through a dirt-covered face and matted hair, Furlan’s turn as Rousseau was always a welcome presence in the show’s initial seasons, lending an added layer of mystery to the island on which the series was set. The character perpetually toed the line between sanity and madness, Furlan walking that tightrope with expert precision. She was steely-eyed in her determination, yearning in her desperation, making for an unpredictable, compelling element of that show’s fabric.
The overriding super-objective for Rousseau was finding her long-lost daughter, Alex, having lost her to the Others after giving birth to her on the island years before the passengers of Flight 815 crash-landed there. That raw, single-minded sense of purpose gave Furlan a lot of layers to play, while still keeping her at a compelling distance from the other cast members. More than anything, she was a reminder of the cost living on that island for too long would exact on our characters – a cautionary tale of the long-lasting effects of isolation and trauma. (That Furlan could play such anguish so well likely reflects, at least in part, on the violence she had to escape in her youth.)
Even though Rousseau’s time on the show was shorter than probably the writers intended (rumors abound that Furlan asked to be written out, though this is disputed), she still left a sharp impression on the series, standing out even amongst that show’s expansive cast – one that rotated about as often as her last major gig. The fact that her farewell episode (where Rousseau is unceremoniously killed off in the fourth season, with nary a flashback episode to her name) caused such outrage among fans is as much a testament to Furlan’s signature presence as it was the strength of the character.
The One who was
It’s a strange feeling to reflect on an actor’s life through the roles they played. Babylon 5 and LOST fans didn’t really know Mira Furlan, not really; we can only imagine the kind of person she was like through interviews, the testimonials of friends and family, and the performances she gifted her audiences with.
We exist in a parasocial relationship with Mira Furlan, even in death: we love her chiefly through our associations with the characters we loved. In mourning Furlan, we’re partly mourning Delenn or Rousseau, the masks through which she communicated with us. And yet, it’s not like those feelings are any less real – for fans of those characters, Furlan means something to us, and the collective empathy we feel towards the tragic illness and death of a human being who did that for us, however many layers of artifice, distance, and time there may be, is still quite real.
The night of Furlan’s passing, Roe posted the following excerpt from a memoir that Furlan had been working on in her final years:
“I look at the stars. It’s a clear night and the Milky Way seems so near. That’s where I’ll be going soon. ‘We’re all star stuff.’ I suddenly remember Delenn’s line from [Straczynski’s] script. Not a bad prospect. I am not afraid. In the meantime, let me close my eyes and sense the beauty around me. And take that breath under the dark sky full of stars. Breathe in. Breathe out. That’s all.”Mira Furlan
A beautiful sentiment, to be sure, but I’d like to append to that something Delenn says in the final episodes of Babylon 5, when she and Sheridan depart the station for the final time:
“There is no corresponding word for goodbye in Minbari. All our partings contain within them the possibility of meeting again in other places, in other times, in other lives. So you will excuse me if I do not say goodbye.”Delenn, ‘Objects at Rest’ – S5, Ep21.
In the spirit of the character whom most of her fans will know her for, it’s fitting we do not say goodbye to Furlan in that way either. Hopefully, we’ll meet her again in other places, times and lives. And until then, we have her indelible body of work to reflect on and appreciate; in those works, she will live on.
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Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as a Senior Writer for Consequence of Sound. He’s also the host of the podcasts More of a Comment, Really…, and Travolta/Cage (with cohost Nathan Rabin). You can find other bylines at Vulture, IndieWire, RogerEbert.com, StarTrek.com, The Takeout, and others. He lives in Chicago with his wife, his cat, and far too many Criterions.