Michael Billington (1941-2005)

Actor Michael Billington, who portrayed Colonel Paul Foster in 21 episodes of Gerry Anderson’s UFO series, was born in Blackburn, Lancashire, on Christmas Eve 1941, the son of a former factory manager. From school he joined the estimating department of a neon sign factory but was so keen on amateur theatrics that he left after six months to try to get into show business. After a stint in distribution at Warner-Pathe, Mike found work on stage at Soho’s famous Windmill Theatre and subsequently drifted into musicals as a hoofer, appearing in How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Little Me, and the television series Broadway Goes Latin. He also did cabaret work and played straight man to Danny La Rue.

Realising that he wanted to turn his talents towards straight acting, Mike took drama and voice production lessons and landed a small part as a police guard in the West End production of Incident At Vichy with Sir Alec Guinness and Anthony Quayle. He also appeared as Neil Hall, one of the Brentwich United footballers, in the BBC’s United! series and then worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company as a small- part player and understudy.

In 1967, he appeared in a small role as a thug who tried to beat up Patrick McGoohan’s character in the A Change Of Mind episode of The Prisoner. From there, he went into the feature film Alfred The Great (1969) playing Offa, one of the nobles, but UFO‘s casting director, Rose Tobias Shaw, remembered him from The Prisoner and cast him as Colonel Paul Foster. He joined the series from the fourth episode, Survival, and went on to appear in a further 20 episodes. Shortly after UFO was completed, he guested in two episodes of Yorkshire Television’s Hadleigh and took a leading role as Daniel Fogherty in the BBC historical drama series The Onedin Line, but he left the programme after the first series and was replaced by Tom Adams.

Mike then appeared in the BBC’s epic dramatisation of Tolstoy’s War And Peace, toured in a production of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth as Milo Tindle (the role played by Michael Caine in the 1972 feature film), and featured in a small but important role as Barbara Bach’s Russian lover Sergei Barsov in the pre-credits sequence of The Spy Who Loved Me(1977). He was subsequently cast in the lead role of Colonel-Sergeant Jacko Jackson in the first season of ITV’s army drama Spearhead, guested in an episode of The Professionals and turned his hand to script-writing, penning the original draft of Silver Dream Racer (1980).

In 1982, he decided to jump-start his career in Hollywood where he landed guest roles in episodes of Hart To Hart, Gavilan, The Greatest American Hero, Fantasy Island, Marlowe – Private Eye and Magnum, p.i. He also appeared in a regular role as the villainous Count Louis Dardinay in ABC’s short-lived adventure series The Quest.

On his return to Britain, he was cast in a leading role as customs officer Tom Gibbons in the BBC’s The Collectors, but the series was not favourably received by critics or viewers and Mike later admitted, “This pretty well ended my career in England. I never worked meaningfully in TV again.” However, he did go on to star in Dwight H Little’s acclaimed spy thriller KGB: The Secret War (1986) and appeared in Kirk Henderson and Peter Winograd’s satire on matinee movies, Flicks (1987). His last screen appearance was a guest role in ITV’s Maigret in 1993. Earlier this year, he had been due to take the role of the Frankenstein monster in William Winckler’s Frankenstein Vs The Creature From Blood Cove (2005) but a problem with his American work visa sadly prevented him from taking part.

Mike tested for the role of James Bond more times than any other actor for Live And Let Die (1973), Moonraker (1979) and Octopussy (1983) and he was reportedly producer Albert R. Broccoli’s first choice for the part should contract negotiations with Roger Moore have fallen through on For Your Eyes Only (1981). His theatre work included roles in productions of The Merchant Of Venice, The Circle and Death Of A Salesman.

Michael Billington died on Friday, 3rd June 2005, aged 63. He is survived by a son, Michael Jr.

Originally published in FAB 53.