Welcome to Michael’s Interview for “PHASE II” Page
Phase II’s website is www.geocities.com/skywalker77.geo/billingtoninterview
Mr. Michael Billington is an English actor that’s been everywhere. You may have seen
him on the Gerry Anderson sci-fi series “UFO”. His heroics as Colonel Paul Foster along
with Ed Bishop and George Sewell kept the earth safe from the aliens that stole human
body parts week after week. He has also tested for the role of James Bond several times
and tried to eliminate 007 in the opening sequence of “The Spy Who loved Me” in 1977
(look for his screen tests as Bond in the special edition DVD of “Moonraker” soon). He’s
also guest starred on American television in “Magnum P.I.”, “Hart to Hart” and “Fantasy
Island” to name a few.
INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL BILLINGTON
by Barry King
Q. What can you tell us about one of your first roles on “United” in 1965?
A. United was a ‘soap’ about Football which went on the air twice a week for the B.B.C.
in which I played the ‘replacement’ Goalkeeper. It was done on the early video tape
system in 1966 so it allowed me to see myself on the screen in a long two handed scene
for the first time. It also allowed me to practise my football skills and judging by my
performances in the first couple of episodes I was a far better goalkeeper than actor.
I was shocked how little emphasis I gave to the lines and how casual I seemed on the
screen. I really wasn’t convincing at all. Also, I was not good at accommodating the
wishes of the actress who played my wife who was far more experienced than I was so
the tension between us was evident. I suppose I was thinking that I was a ‘method’ actor
but now, having taught it in my later career I see now how far I was away from ‘being’ it.
I had clearly seen too many Marlon Brando films. The writers soon latched onto this and
my wife and my marriage quickly was ‘on the rocks’; a sure sign that we were on our way
out of the show. Once I was told that my contract wasn’t to be renewed, I relaxed and
almost over night my performance became ‘real ‘ and ‘convincing’. The Producer was
shocked by the sudden improvement but not enough to reverse his decision so after
three months I was back on the streets. The trainer of the professional football club who
trained us, the actors; suggested that I should trial for the team as a ‘keeper’ but my
mind was made up; I wanted to carry on acting. Not sure I would make the same
Q. In 1970 you landed the role of “Paul Foster” on UFO. How did you wind up
getting that part?
A. The role of Paul Foster came by chance. The series was in Production and it was
decided to change one of the Actors, mainly because he had a strong accent which
might not have registered well with American Audiences. Sylvia Anderson saw a
photograph of me and thought I might be right as a replacement. Tests were held and
I got the role.
Q. How did you approach playing “Col. Foster”? And, were or are you a fan of
A. I hadn’t played a serious lead character before so it was a bit of a challenge .It took
some time to get the right ‘look’ and in that time I developed the character along with the
writers to be a sort of embryonic James Bond; with a kind of neutral accent and without
the private gentlemen’s club dimension. The rest I suppose was me as I was then, bit of
a ‘rough diamond’.
I hadn’t seen much Science Fiction but I did like Forbidden Planet when I was a ‘kid’ and
I remember vividly The Day The Earth Stood Still. Both films made a strong impression
on me and still try to catch them in re runs on T.V.
Q. Gerry Anderson had already built up a reputation as a producer of successful
television shows at the time. Was this a comfort to you being in a show
produced by him?
A. I knew the success Sylvia and Gerry had had with Thunderbirds and I knew that they
knew what they were doing. Everything seemed pretty well planned so I just ‘dug in’ and
left it to them.
Q. What was your overall experience working on UFO? Any interesting stories
about being on the set or working with the special effects and props?
A. I really didn’t involve myself with anything else except the playing of my role and
knowing my lines. Each script as it arrived was a complete surprise and rarely got
changed. It was all pretty straightforward. Some days were harder than others,
especially on Moonbase which was very hot and very technical. One or two of the
speeches were very technical and complicated and I had to learn them ‘like a parrot’ and
I can still quote them to this day.
Q. Did you happen to stay in touch with any of the crew or cast of UFO (Ed
Bishop, Gabrielle Drake, Gerry Anderson)?
A. I have stayed in contact with Sylvia Anderson and I consider her one of my closest
friends. I occasionally see Ed Bishop and met up with Gabrielle a couple of years ago,
but that’s all. We all pretty well went our separate ways after the series ended.
Q. UFO still has a huge fan following and you attend the conventions frequently.
What are your thoughts on why it’s lasted as long as it has?
A. I think the reason it has remained popular is the imaginative detailed model work and
the fact that nearly all the stories are ‘character driven’. It took a lot of courage to make
episodes like ‘Kill Straker’ which is really a two hander between Ed and Myself, and
the episode ‘A Question of Priorities’ which was really all Ed.
Q. The DVD for UFO is out and they have been remastered and the episodes
look better than ever. Have you seen the new prints and do you still watch the
A. I have the D.V.D. box set but I must admit to not having seen it. Maybe my son will
show it to his kids one day? Apart from clips at conventions I don’t get to see it much.
Q. You did a guest star spot on “The Prisoner” in 1967. This is another show
that has developed a big following over the years. How was it working with
A. I have nothing but praise for Patrick McGoohan. I did not experience any difficulties
working with him on The Prisoner, although I really didn’t have much of a part, mainly
fighting which was a pleasure for me to do. It gets the tension out of the body; and actors
like to physicalize their roles as much as possible, I think. The direction he gave me was
minimal and effective, as though the master craftsman was instructing his apprentice in
clear terms. I’d like to have worked more with him but unfortunately it didn’t happen ever.
Q. In 1973 the mini-series “War and Peace” came along in which you portrayed
“Lt. Berg”. This was a rather epic series with a huge star-studded cast. Did this
help propel your acting career? Did bigger offers come your way because of
A. War and Peace came along as a surprise as I did not have to audition for it. I was
overwhelmed at the prospect of doing something so ‘lofty’ and although my role was
not large it was unlike me and I would have to characterise it, which I relished. I also
got to see Anthony Hopkins up close and was very impressed with his Pierre; a far cry
from Hannibal Lector which I’m sorry but I can’t take too seriously. It’s pure comedy!
I can’t say it did anything for my career. In fact I can’t think of any one role that
propelled me upwards; it was always in small, progressive steps and it stopped short of
its ultimate goal; to make intelligent and meaningful movies. I never got there.
Q. In 1977 James Bond (Roger Moore) shot your KGB agent “Sergei Barsov” in
“The Spy Who Loved Me” in the powerful opening sequence. Landing a role in
a Bond film is quite an accomplishment. You’ve read for the James Bond role
before, how did you wind up in this 007 outing?
A. Cubby tested me for Live and Let Die and liked what I did. Not enough to give me the
role though. He said I was too young and maybe I’d get a shot at it later; but like all things
there is a right and a wrong time. Live and Let Die, Man With The Golden Gun and
Moonraker would have been perfect for me and my type of acting. Everything that
followed after wouldn’t have been. The Bond Films changed organically. However,
Cubby called me up to do the small role in The Spy Who Loved Me in what probably
is the most famous sequence in any Bond film so in that way my thumbnail sketch of
Bond (with a Russian Accent) is immortalised on the big screen. A modest glimpse
of what might have been perhaps?
Q. Having read for the Bond character in the past and not getting it, if you had
gotten the role, how would you liked to have played him if given that freedom
with the role?
A. The Bond Producers have dug up one or two of my old screen tests and plan to
use them in the Additions for Moonraker and onwards. Their comments, and I haven’t
seen them, is that they have a nice ‘edge’; whatever that means? I suppose My Bond
would have been that way and I would have been very happy with that.
Q. There is a lot of coincidence surrounding you and the James Bond movies
and actors. Such as reading for Bond at times, then acting as a Bond villain,
beating out Timothy Dalton (another Bond) for the role in “KGB: The Secret War”.
Tell us, have you ever had an interest in being a secret agent?
A. K.G.B. The Secret War was a joy for me to work on. It was close to doing what I’d
always wanted to do; make small movies with young directors. Unfortunately, The film
didn’t work out well in sales, I think because something ‘more Bondlike’ was expected
rom me but the director wanted to get as far away from Bond as Possible. He certainly
succeeded, but the film lacked any big sequences and was not drawn on a large enough
canvas to satisfy true ‘spy’ fans; however it was an honest try on a tiny budget. The only
reason I got the role over Timothy, by the way, is I didn’t ask as much money as him.
Did I ever like the idea of being a Spy? Well... It might have been interesting.
Q. You provided the voice of the “Deputy Inspector” in the little known
animated film “Flicks”- a kind of funny Saturday morning matinee parody.
What is it like acting with just your voice only?
A. You know I have never seen ‘Flicks’- I didn’t even know it was a cartoon. When I did it
was a live action film starring Martin Mull and Joan Hackett; so how we became ‘pen and
ink’ amazes me!
Q.You’ve guest starred on a lot of British and American television (The
Prisoner, The Protectors, Hart to Hart, Fantasy Island, Magnum P.I.). What did
you notice was the biggest difference between performing in the U.K. as
compared to the U.S.?
A. Working in England gives you more time. The Brits like to rehearse so it’s usually built
into the schedule. You can do a guest role in the U.S. and never see many of the other
cast members and your dialogue can be changed ‘over lunch’ just before the camera
turns. It’s the perfect way to get indigestion! You never really feel you have developed
much of a character, but then Americans cast almost entirely to ‘type’ - that’s because
they have so many actors to choose from!
Thank you for this interview Mr. Billington, we appreciate it very much.