This is an interview with Michael Billington which appeared in special issue#21 (May 1996) of the UK magazine "TV Zone".
UFO'S RESIDENT ACTION MAN
With the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, producers Gerry and Sylvia Anderson found themselves at a crossroads in their careers. After almost ten years of successfully entertaining television audiences with such creative puppet series as Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds, they longed to use their abilities on a live-action project. It was Sir Lew Grade, then the head of Britain's ATV network, who gave the Andersons the go-ahead and, thus, the Science Fiction adventure UFO was born.
Set in the year 1980 the series pits Humankind against a race of highly advanced aliens. Hidden behind the facade of a film studio, Straker Studios, a defense organization called SHADO (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organization) is established and put under the command of Ed Straker. With bases on land, sea and the moon, Straker combats this threat against Humanity with the help of a highly trained and dedicated staff.
Last-minute cast changes required the addition of another male lead, a handsome young hero who could handle the physical demands of a series such as UFO. Enter the character of Paul Foster and a 29-year-old actor named Michael Billington. The rugged, good looking and slightly impetuous Foster was an immediate success, particularly with the female viewers, and Billington found himself in his first regular television role.
Sportsman, lawyer, journalist, school bus driver and actor were just some of the careers Billington thought about as a young child growing up in Blackburn. While at school he studied engineering and took up amateur dramatics. He also made a point of seeing everything at the local cinema, especially musicals, and imagined himself as Gene Kelly. "One day I saw Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and James Booth in Jazz Boat and thought, 'Hey, that's me.'"
The actor broke into the business by doing one-and two-day roles in film and television productions including a short underground film which still circulates at European Art Festivals and an early BBC soap opera about a soccer team. In 1967, while working on a one-day assigment Billington was cast in a small role in A Change of Mind , an episode of The Prisoner.
"We never quite understood what was going on in The Prisoner and so, not knowing who he was or what we were involved in, I chose to ignore the only piece of direction McGoohan gave me, which was to slow it all down. I had been told by every other director to speed things up and this is what I did. How right he was. I was far too fast and ineffectual in my final line, which I had to deliver at the end of a fight we had. I cannot watch it now without the sickening feeling that I would crave to do it again."
In 1969, while attending the Cannes Film Festival, Billington phoned his flat in London to discover that Sylvia Anderson had personally called looking for him. She wanted to see Billington about a regular role in a new series called UFO which she and her husband Gerry were producing. Looking tanned and relaxed, Billington returned to England to meet with the Andersons and film a screen test for the role of Paul Foster.
"The test went OK but, like all tests, it was a bit fraught with mishaps. I remember the director Dave Kane suggested that I should take a brief pause when I entered Straker's office through the automatic doors. I did this, but before I had a chance to enter the office the stagehand operating the doors, who could not see me, promptly closed them again thinking I was inside, which, of course, I wasn't. Everyone collapsed into fits of hysteria. This relaxed us all a bit and the scene went as well as could be expected."
With the majority of filming already completed on three episodes of UFO, including the opening episode, Identified , scenes had to be inserted into each explaining the absence of Billington's character who was introduced in Exposed , the fifth episode filmed and the second broadcast. When a plane piloted by civilian test pilot Colonel Paul Foster is destroyed by an exploding UFO, it sets off a chain of events which leads Foster not only to SHADO, but also to a new career.
"The rest is, as they say, history. I was in front of the cameras very quickly filming the first scene in Survival . I was holding a drink tumbler in Ed Straker's office and feeling deep remorse and guilt at the passing of my buddy whom I could not save. Although I did the best I could with the scene I remember the director Alan Perry telling me the next day how disappointed he was with the rushes and my performance in particular. I thought, 'Well, I can only improve.'
"This was my first big acting role and in the beginning I had a struggle with the sets and costumes," recalls Billington. "The dialogue was very technical and not like anything I had ever had to handle before. As I was a replacement for another actor, I did not have much time to prepare, and, as a result, spent much of that first episode expecting to be fired for being inadequate.
"I know Gerry [Anderson] wanted me to express anger without shouting. One night after filming he invited me up to his office. He put a glass of whiskey in my hand, and, with his back to me, growled the words, 'I hate you.' It was very effective. He was right, of course. Thank you, Gerry. I never did shout again and I always try to avoid shouting when I act now."
Billington and his fellow cast members spent the next few months at MGM's British studios at Borehamwood filming the first nineteen episodes of UFO. A particular favourite of the actor was Ordeal in which Foster is abducted by two aliens and transformed into one of them. It is an episode he feels seems to work on a level much different to many others of this first group.
"People often mention the scene where green liquid is pumped into Foster's helmet" he says smiling. "They still ask how it was done, as if I should be congratulated as an actor for surviving the ordeal. It was really simple. The face visor was double-thickness and was just filled with coloured water. I remained perfectly dry. The rest was 'acting' -- not King Lear , as we would say.
'I quite liked Kill Straker for quite different reasons. It is full of double entendres and worked beautifully as a self-mockery of a latent homosexual attraction between Foster and Straker -- if I can't have you then nobody will.'
With MGM studios closing down, the Andersons had to film the remaining seven episodes of UFO's first series at Pinewood Studios in Buckinghamshire. "Ours was the last production in the studio," he recalls. "There is a scene in The Dalotek Affair where I am spinning around surrounded by coloured lights and dreaming of kissing a character played by Tracy Reed. That scene was filmed at the end of the shoot and was added because the episode was under time after editing. I think part of the reason that it was so short was that the director made me speed up so much of the dialogue during the moonbase scenes."
By the time he had finished filming the first set of 19 episodes, Billington felt he had marginally improved as an actor, but, "my sense of humour had developed beyond expectations," he says. Production began on the next group of stories with Destruction , in which the Earth's population is threatened by a deadly nerve gas. "I liked this episode", says the actor, "although there was some tension while we were filming it.
"Gerry and I fell out over something quite trivial. We were not allocated stand-ins on that shoot and I brought in my own, which Gerry felt was outside my authority. I would not apologize, and, as a result of this, was told on good authority that I was going to be phased out of the series. I believe The Long Sleep , our last episode, was rewritten to feature Straker instead of Foster. C'est la vie . I don't think I was mature enough to apologize to Gerry and he wore it badly. Nevertheless, Destruction had many of the necessary ingredients for a good adventure."
While working on UFO, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were contacted by Harry Satlzman, then co-producer of the James Bond films, who was planning the Bond adventure Moonraker. "They took footage from UFO along to a screening with him and suggested that I might be suitable to take over from George Lazenby as there was a rumour that he would finish after On Her Majesty's Secret Service.
"Before this I had been approached by a man called Bud Ornstein who was the head of production for United Artists Europe," continues the actor. "He had seen me in cabaret doing what would now be called stand-up and thought I might be right to take over from Sean Connery if he ever flew the coop.
"He arranged for me to do a photo session in a Bond-like setting. I don't know if the photos ever got anywhere, but I was eventually called in to meet with Peter Hunt for On Her Majesty's Secret Service. I think they had George firmly in mind at that point and believed that Sean would give in so it never went any further. It wasn't until Live and Let Die that I was finally given the first of many subsequent tests that I did for Bond."
In The Long Sleep , the last UFO episode filmed, Ed Straker confronts a woman who has regained consciousness after being in a coma for ten years. She recalls seeing two spacemen burying something in a deserted farmhouse but cannot recall exact details. Certain that the object buried is some kind of explosive device, Straker urges her to remember all that she can in order for him to locate the bomb and save the Earth.
"The final shot, I recall, was one where a bomb disposal expert is defusing a device which was the main object of The Long Sleep . I said the last line to the bomb disposal expert which was, 'Good luck'. As I said it, there was a change in my voice. I must have projected a new sort of energy which Ed responded to. I sensed the hint of a smile break into his voice. It seemed refreshing as the character of Ed Straker rarely smiled. I don't know what actually happenend but I felt in some way, "Why couldn't it always be that simple?'"
Although UFO was only a marginal success in Britain it fared better in the United States. A second series of the programme provisionally tided 'UFO2' and then 'UFO: 1999' was talked about but was never to be. The entire concept was revamped, the cast and characters changed and the end result was Space: 1999.
"On reflection, I would liked to have continued with the character of Paul Foster," muses Billington. "When you have children, as I do, these are the shows that matter. They really aren't interested in watching a two-hour restoration theatrical television production you might be particularly happy with."
From spaceship to sailing ship, the actor found his next major role more down-to-earth. He appeared as Daniel Fogarty in the BBC's long-running nautical drama The Onedin Line. The programme kept up to twelve million people glued to their television sets every Sunday evening and gave Billington another substantial role in which to sink his teeth.
"I liked the passion of my character and today it still remains one of my favourite roles," he says. "Fogarty was very much what I was at the time: someone from humble beginnings, ambitious, proud, principled and a loner -- someone who was strong yet sensitive."
Throughout the Seventies and Eighties the actor appeared in numerous television programmes, including War and Peace, Edward the VII, The Professionals, Magnum PI, Heart to Heart, Fantasy Island and The Quest as well as the feature films The Spy Who Loved Me and KGB - The Secret War. Nowadays Billington divides his time between Britain and the United States, not only acting but teaching others how to act. A student of the late Lee Strasberg, he was invited to teach similar workshops by Strasberg's widow Anna. It is a responsibility he is passionate about and one he takes very seriously.
"The key to good acting, and this may seem obvious, is the eradication of tension," explains Billington. "This will unlock the path to simple, clear, emotional expression. The other factors that must be exercised other than relaxation are concentration, imagination and interpretation."
Looking back at his career, is there a certain character or one plum role the actor still hopes to have a chance to play? "Perhaps I will put to work the wit that has kept me sane over the years and try my hand at stand-up comedy. Many successful actors have emerged from that direction and made a damned lot of money in the process, so why not?"
This article is four pages long and features these 8 photos, which are all from UFO, and all in black & white.
- A 1/2 page closeup of Foster in the sauna from the episode ORDEAL. Caption: "Michael Billington as Colonel Paul Foster in UFO, currently enjoying a showing on Bravo".
- A 3/16 page photo of Foster and Straker in the Moonbase Command Sphere from the episode KILL STRAKER. Caption: "Top row: Filming Kill Straker".
- A 3/16 page photo of Foster in the sauna from the episode ORDEAL. Caption: "Michael Billington soon became popular with many viewers".
- A 1/16 page photo of Foster recuperating from the sauna in ORDEAL.
- Another 3/16 page photo of Straker and Foster in the Moonbase Command Sphere from the episode KILL STRAKER.
- A 1/16 page photo of Foster and Straker aboard Skydiver, from the episode SUB-SMASH. Caption: "Michael Billington, and Ed Bishop as Straker in UFO".
- Two 1/32 page behind-the-scenes photos of the Straker/Foster/KILL STRAKER scene being filmed.
- A 1/2 page photo of Foster preparing to shoot Straker in KILL STRAKER. Caption: "Ready for action..."