This is an interview with Michael Billington which appeared in issue#71 (June 1983) of the American magazine "Starlog".
An Actor and His SHADO
The "UFO" star discusses life after his televised encounters with alien death.
By Lee GoldbergThe roles Michael Billington says he will be remembered for haven't happened yet. The devoted fans of UFO would disagree.
They will always remember him as Paul Foster, the brash young SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization) officer who gunned down liquid-breathing alien invaders during the show's one-year syndicated run.
"I cringe when I see it," Billington says, over a cup of mint tea at the Polo Lounge of the Beverly Hills Hotel. "I've grown up so much since then, which was when I just got by with what I could get away with.
"To be absolutely frank--and I think I can be a decade later--the scripts are somewhat naive," he says. "I don't think they dealt with space in a very imaginative way. I remember they did several episodes where someone tried to kill Commander Ed Straker [Ed Bishop]. Even Foster tried once. Wasn't once enough?"
He unbuttons his jacket and stretches out in the cramped, little booth. "It was a moderately enjoyable experience." He frowns. "The limitations put on the actors were very hard to deal with. The directors had very little experience working with actors. It wasn't that they were bad, it was just hard for them to contend with directing real people ."
The series was produced by Gerry and Sylvia Anderson and was their first live-action TV series after making a long string of super-marionation puppet shows (Fireball XL5 Thunderbirds , etc.) for children.
Billington toyed with the idea of writing a UFO script at the time even though he was, he recalls, "still quite raw.
"I did have some creative ideas and, at one point, Gerry liked an idea I had for an episode," he says. "But it was never written, and I forgot what it was about. You have to have a very good relationship with a producer to get involved in the creative side. We really didn't have that kind of a relationship. We were coming from different ends of the tunnel, really. We got along, but we didn't share ideas or passions.
"I don't want to belittle the series. You have to put it into perspective. They pioneered the creation of convincing model work on television. Until then, all model work was somewhat crude and unsophisticated. Many of the technicians who worked on UFO have also gone onto other, bigger-budgeted SF films.
"UFO , though, has been somewhat blown out of proportion," he adds, pouring himself more tea. "I think space-like horror has its own cult following, and the fans will hone in on anything. They are hungry for material. Everything they get they relish. UFO was a moderately entertaining serial. I hardly think there are going to be any UFO festivals or anything."
He says there was an attempt to revive UFO shortly after its cancellation. Six scripts were written, but the project was ultimately dropped in favor of Space: 1999 .
It was a handful of unpaid speeding tickets that led Billington into an acting career. He went to his sister for the money to pay the fines, but she would only give him the cash if he helped her out. "She belonged to an amateur dramatic society, and they never had enough men for the parts. So, to repay her, I joined them. I started in the chorus and eventually, got into major roles." He went on to study engineering in London, but after awhile, returned to acting, beginning with a job at the Windmill Theatre, which featured vaudeville-type acts. From there, he worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and gravitated into UFO . After the SF adventure's cancellation, Billington worked on the British series The Onedin Line and was among the actors tested as James Bond during casting of Live and Let Die . Although Roger Moore won the part, producer Albert R. Broccoli remembered Billington and offered him a role in The Spy Who Loved Me .
"Chubby said it was not a big role, but that it would be a great sequence with a lot of impact," he says. "He was right."
He was the Russian agent who warmed Barbara Bach's bed and was killed by James Bond during the dramatic ski scenes before the opening credits.
Billington then came to the United States to study acting with the late Lee Strasberg, an experience which made him "aware of my instrument as an actor, more aware of what goes on inside.
"When I left UFO , I really didn't want to get into the image of being that sort of laid-back, athletic, be-yourself, happy-go-lucky leading man," he says. "I wanted to try a wide range of roles, to stretch a bit."
Then Billington hit the Hollywood casting circuit, copping roles in various series. "Pigeonhole thinking has typecast British actors in 007 type roles. Most Americans thing we're all one generation from George Sanders."
English actors are now being cast as villains rather than suave playboys on American television because, Billington believes, of the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark .
"Suddenly, an accent equals villainy," he explains, adding he had a great time playing an animalistic killer on the short-lived Gavilan series, which starred Robert Urich as a gadget-toting ex-spy.
It was an earlier guest shot as a villain on The Greatest American Hero , however, which snagged him as a regular role on ABC's The Quest , which had just been pulled from the schedule when he met to talk with us (officially on "hiatus," it is slated to play off its remaining segments sometime this season and is a virtual certainty for cancellation).
"TV is very different here, it's designed to sell products. End of story. The Quest was quite original so it was given quite a short rein," he explains. "The time slot [Fridays, 10 p.m.] was a mistake, and they only aired four of the eight episodes."
Billington played the evil Count Dardinay, a tycoon who was trying to foil the attempts of four Americans to acquire the throne of an enchanted European kingdom.
His role was originally offered to Louis Jourdan, the noted actor who portrays the villain in the upcoming Octopussy . Jourdan turned the part down because "it was really not a big enough role for him." Shooting began on the series without anyone signed for Dardinay, forcing the producers to find someone in Los Angeles who could step right into the role. Enter Billington.
Now that The Quest seems doomed to disappear from the airwaves forever. Billington is meeting with Sylvia Anderson to discuss some undisclosed ventures and is working on several screenplays (He wrote the movie Silver Dream Racer for David Essex shortly after the demise of UFO ).
Billington would like to do something similar to An Officer and A Gentlemen , what he calls "a nice movie which shows actors are back and films about human beings can do well at the box office without special effects."
This article is 2 pages long and features 2 photos:
- 1/3 page B&W photo of Michael today with a 1/16 page B&W inset of a scene from UFO. Caption: "A face of today: Michael Billington. Inset: Faces of yesterday as Billington (right) and co-star Ed Bishop team for a scene in UFO ."