Welcome to Michael’s Starlog Article Page
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 Goldberg
The 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
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 .
“Cubby 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 think
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.”