Michael Hornby Billington was born at the Springfield Maternity Home in Blackburn on Christmas Eve, 1941. Michael lived with his parents Eric & Helena at No.6 Kelsall Avenue until he was 18 months old and his family moved to Wembley in London. As a young child growing up in London he thought about being a Lawyer, a journalist, a school bus driver or an actor. He watched everything he could at the local cinemas, especially musicals and once imagined himself as Gene Kelly. He saw Albert Finney in "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning" and James Booth in "Jazz Boat" and felt a connection with the characters they played. Looking back in later years Michael thought that actors like James Booth & Albert Finney opened the door for the working class actor.
He was 17, unemployed and spent most of his time driving around the streets of Ruislip and Rayners Lane on his white Triumph motorcycle trying to look like his idols and picking up numerous speeding tickets at the same time.
It was these unpaid speeding tickets that led Michael into the acting profession. He went to his older sister for some money to pay the fines but she would only give him the money if he helped her out. The Amateur Dramatics group that she attended wanted some “bodies” to fill up the stage in a production of “No No Nanette”. Michael agreed, “I couldn’t sing, dance or act, but they gave me a role anyway so I just showed off a bit”. He went to study engineering in London but returned to acting and eventually thought it might be fun to “give it a go” professionally. Michael found some acting workshops and his career started from there. He started out with a job at The Windmill Theatre, which featured vaudeville-type acts, including playing straight man to Danny La Rue for a year! He also appeared in the West End production of “Incident At Vichy” with Alec Guinness & Anthony Quayle & eventually worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company. By the mid 1960’s he had acted in a number if stage productions but was desperate to become a film actor.
Miriam Brickman, a casting director, saw a picture of Michael and arranged for him to meet John Schlesinger about the lead role in a forthcoming film “A Kind Of Loving” but the lead role eventually went to Alan Bates. Michael must have made an impression as Miriam called Michael back a few weeks later and asked him to meet a director who was shooting his first film, Lloyd Reckord. The subject matter was very bold for the time as it was about a relationship between two men and little was he to know but that Michael’s first on-screen kiss was to be with a man. When Michael mentioned his reservations to Miriam she replied “Close your eyes and think of your career!” The film was only about 15 minutes long and Michael was to appear for free in order to obtain some footage that could be used to show other directors in the search for work. “Dream A40” was named after the highway the characters were travelling on, as Michael put it later, if the route was different it might have been called “Dream Birmingham Ring Road” The only upside to the job was the car that was used came in very handy to take his “date” nightclubbing, his date at the time being an unknown dancer called Liza Minnelli!!
Michael’s first real acting job was at the BBC in a twice-weekly 30 minute “soap” about life at Brentwich, a fictional Second Division football team in a series called “United” Filmed at the Victoria Ground, the home of Stoke City, but despite attracting audiences of 6 million, the series was viewed a disappointment by the BBC and it was cancelled after 147 episodes and all episodes were subsequently wiped and none survive today. Michael played the replacement goalkeeper with marital problems but he and his on screen wife’s contracts were not renewed and after 13 weeks they were released from the show. His performances between the sticks however prompted the football coach on the series to encourage Michael to take up goalkeeping as a profession but he wanted to stick to acting, if the offer had come nowadays with the multi-millionaire lifestyle footballers now enjoy, he might have made a different decision! So Michael received his first paycheck, he can’t remember what he spent it on “but I’m convinced I had a damn good time with it”. It was around this time that he was first asked for his autograph, during a Charity Football Match in which the cast of “United” played an old International XI team. Children surrounded him at the interval asking for his autograph and then asking “Who Is It?” not really knowing who he was.
Shortly afterwards, in 1967, Michael was cast in “A Change Of Mind” an episode in the First Series of the TV show “The Prisoner” starring Patrick McGoohan. This led however to one Michael’s biggest regrets – ignoring advice from Patrick McGoohan who told him to slow his delivery down. “How right he was…I was far too fast and ineffectual in my final line…I cannot watch it now without the sickening feeling that I would crave to do it again”.
1969 brought an appearance in a TV production of Alfred The Great and in several episodes of the Second Series of Hadleigh starring Gerald Harper. Then while attending the Cannes Film Festival, Michael called his London flat to discover that Sylvia Anderson had personally called looking for him. She wanted to see him about a regular role in a new TV series called U.F.O. so he returned to England and filmed a screen test for the role of Colonel Paul Foster.
Gerry & Sylvia Anderson were at a crossroads, after 10 years of making successful puppet series such as Fireball XL5 & Thunderbirds, they were looking to create a live action TV series and UFO was born. Set in the year 1980 the series revolves around S.H.A.D.O. (Supreme Headquarters of the Alien Defence Organization), an organization designed to protect the Earth from a race of advanced aliens, hidden behind the facade of a film studio and has bases on land, sea and the moon. It is led by Commander Ed Straker, played by Ed Bishop. Late cast changes had required the addition of another younger male lead.
The screen test however didn’t go without its mishaps. “I remember the director suggesting that I should take a brief pause before I entered Straker’s office through the automatic doors.” recalled Michael, “I did this but before I had the chance to enter the office the stagehand opening the doors closed them, 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”. Although about 5 other actors tested for the part, Michael felt that Sylvia strongly favoured him for the role. His character was an immediate success, particularly with the female audience and he found himself in his first regular TV role. Also appearing in the series were regular cast members George Sewell, Gabrielle Drake & Wanda Ventham. 26 episodes were made of the series before it was replaced by Space: 1999.
Michael enjoyed working on the series, particularly with Ed Bishop, whom he had nothing but the highest admiration and respect for. In 1996 there was an unsuccessful attempt to revive the series but despite the project receiving Gerry Anderson’s blessing and that Ed Bishop stated he was interested in reprising the Straker role, it came to nothing. When asked if UFO still stands up as a programme 30 years on, Michael felt that the series was a milestone in science fiction and without it, films like Star Wars and the like would have never been made. He thought that his Colonel Foster role was the forerunner to the Han Solo part in Star Wars and is happy to be remembered as UFO’s “Action Man”.
An appearance in a mini series “War & Peace” was only notable for the fact that he got to work with Anthony Hopkins and he didn’t have to audition for the role as Lt Berg. Then came “The Onedin Line” the story of the rise of a shipping line, named after its owner James Onedin. The show became a classic and ran for 9 years despite competition from ITV’s “Upstairs Downstairs”. It regularly drew audience figures of over 12 million and became unmissable Sunday night viewing. Michael played the part of Daniel Fogerty for 3 series (34 episodes) between 1971 and 1974. Michael was particularly proud of his work in The Onedin Line, more so than UFO. Mainly this was because he felt the character of Daniel Fogerty had more “layers” than Colonel Paul Foster. Michael left after the end of the Third series due to the fact that he was getting a lot of offers to do other things. Even so, the character of Daniel Fogerty remained one of his favourite roles.
Michael will forever be remembered not only for the roles he played, but also for the role he didn’t play – James Bond.
Although he wasn’t a big fan of the Bond franchise, he would screen test for the role of 007 more than any other actor, without success. His first involvement in the Bond role was when Bud Ornstein, then head of Production at United Artists in Europe, saw Michael in a late night theatre doing stand up and asked him to meet him at the U.A. offices. Michael did a photo shoot and the photographs were shown to Harry Saltzman but although Michael’s agent had an “insider” it came to nothing and the role was given to George Lazenby. While Michael was working on UFO, Harry Saltzman, then co-producer of the Bond films, contacted Gerry & Sylvia Anderson and looked at footage from UFO to see if he was suitable to replace Connery who had just made “Diamonds Are Forever”, in “Moonraker", which was to be the next Bond film (as it turned out “Live and Let Die” was made next, “Moonraker” didn’t reach the screens until 1979), but again nothing came of it.
It wasn’t until “Live And Let Die” that Michael first screen tested for the role. He tested with actress Caroline Seymour (Abby Grant in the 1970’s TV classic “Survivors”) and he felt that the test went well and was told by his Agent’s “insider” that an offer to play Bond was going to be made and the national press also thought so but Michael was stunned when Roger Moore won the part but felt that time was on his side and he hadn’t heard the last of James Bond.
A couple of Bond movies went by until Producer Cubby Broccoli rang and offered him a part in “The Spy Who Loved Me” as Sergei, Barbara Bach’s lover and is ironically killed by James Bond before the opening credits. Michael knew that taking the role might hinder his chances of playing Bond at a later date but eventually decided “Why Not? Getting paid for couple of weeks to ski in San Moritz, What did I have to lose?” Willie Bogner, a successful skier in the 1950’s, did most of the work on the opening scene, skiing backwards with a camera between his legs pointing behind him. Nevertheless, the opening scene was shot in record time and “Spy” was a great success.
Michael had just finished filming on The Professionals when he got the call to go to Paris for another series of screen tests. They wanted to look at Bond girls for “Moonraker” and he screen tested with a number of girls including Shelly Hack (Charlie’s perfume girl and replaced Kate Jackson on Charlie’s Angels), Susan Reed, Cyrielle Besnard & Sylvia Krystel (Emmanuelle). Afterwards Michael was invited to lunch with Cubby Broccoli, his wife and daughter, Lois Chiles (who eventually got the Bond girl part of Dr Holly Goodhead) and John Glenn the director. No offer was made and Michael flew home the next day.
Time passed and “For Your Eyes Only” was on the horizon and Michael was touted for the role once again. Roger Moore was being “coy”, reputedly about the money so other options were looked at, including Lewis Collins from “The Professionals”, but rumour had it that he was shown the door after asking for a £1 million fee. Cubby had Michael flown to Corfu for a wardrobe fitting and a picture shoot. Again Michael was thwarted due to Roger settling his differences and signing on as Bond again.
Michael’s final attempt to play Bond came around when “Octopussy” came around. Michael was tested once more with Deborah Shelton (Dallas) & Susan Penhaligon (A Fine Romance) but Roger finally signed on once more. Michael wasn’t too disheartened “…with all the will in the world, I couldn’t quite see myself dressed as a circus clown clutching a Faberge Egg…”
After “The Spy Who Loved Me” Michael continued to appear on our TV screens in programmes such as Spearhead & The Professionals where he shared the screen with fellow James Bond wannabe Lewis Collins. In The Professionals he plucked his eyebrows off to play the role of an ex-boxer, John Coogan, which he felt would make him look more insane! He regretted his actions later on as he admitted that it took years for them to grow back properly. In 1980 he sold his only filmed screenplay, Silver Dream Racer, the motorbike racing film which starred David Essex and moved to Hollywood to study with Lee Strasberg and appeared in KGB: The Secret War, Magnum P.I., Hart To Hart & Fantasy Island.
It was a guest appearance as a villain on “The Greatest American Hero” that won him a role on the short-lived series “The Quest”. It was pulled after they made only 9 episodes and only 4 were shown on TV. Shooting began before the part of the evil Count Dardinay was filled having being offered to Louis Jourdan (the bad guy in Octopussy) who turned it down. They needed to find someone in Los Angeles who could step into the role – enter Michael Billington.
On his return from the USA, Michael’s last major role came in 1986 when he was given the role of Tom Gibbons in “The Collectors”. He was originally offered the smaller role of Chris Lucas but after meeting producer Geraint Morris was offered the larger role of Tom Gibbons. The Series was set in a Customs Office and based around the everyday duties in Customs & Excise. Unfortunately the excitement of keeping the Samples Cupboard Tidy meant that the series was not a success and only ran for 10 episodes. The BBC had just lost the “Dallas” series and thought this would be a good replacement. As Michael himself put it “To quote McEnroe – Can You Be Serious?” The series virtually ended Michael’s career in England and he never worked meaningfully in TV again.
In 1986 Michael appeared in an Independent film “KGB: The Secret War” in which he beat James Bond to-be Timothy Dalton to the main role of Peter Hubbard. The budget was tiny and Michael admitted himself that he got the role over Timothy because “…I didn’t ask for as much money as him.” His last film “appearance” was in the little known animated film “Flicks” which also featured Pamela Sue Martin (Dynasty, The Nancy Drew Mysteries), Richard Belzer (Law & Order: SUV) & Harry Shearer (The Simpson’s). The film was a Saturday Morning Matinee parody, including coming attractions and a cartoon. Michael only remembered filming it as a live action film along with co-stars Martin Mull & Joan Hackett so was unsure of how it became an animation flick!
As well as his Film & TV work, Michael did a lot of theatre work at home and abroad, including Christchurch, New Zealand playing The Vicomte de Valmont in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses”. He also featured at The Yvonne Arnaud Theatre in Guildford in “Death Of A Salesman”, “The Circle” & “The Merchant Of Venice” and with The National Touring Company, appearing in “A Streetcar Named Desire” & “Sleuth”. His last screen appearance was in an episode of “Maigret” called “Maigret and the Night Club Dancer” starring Michael Gambon & Brenda Blethyn in 1993.
In the 1990’s Michael was invited to teach acting at Lee Strasberg’s school in London by Strasberg’s widow, Anna.
Over the years Michael grew close to Barbara Broccoli, the daughter of the James Bond producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli and they were an item for 8 years before Michael married Katherine Kristoff in 1988. She died in 1998 after which he devoted himself to raising their son, Michael Jr, and developing his career as a footballer and he was at one time linked with the famous Ajax Amsterdam of Holland.
Michael set up an Official Website www.michaelbillington.org.uk. He was popular at conventions and appeared all over the world signing autographs and meeting his fans.
His last stage appearance was in “Never Nothing From No One” at the Cockpit Theatre in London in 2000.
Michael developed cancer and died on the 3rd June 2005 in Margate, Kent at the age of 63. He predeceased Ed Bishop, his UFO boss, by five days.
by Roger Booth with special thanks to Andy from the Mike Billington fans website and Marilyn for their time and help with information and use of the photos.
Dream A40 (1965)
“United!” (1965) TV series…Neil Hall
The Prisoner (1967) TV series (1 episode) “A Change Of Mind”…2nd Woodland Man
Alfred The Great (1969) TV…Offa
Hadleigh (1969-1971) TV series…Freddie Hepton
UFO (1970-1973) TV series…Colonel Paul Foster
War & Peace (1972) mini-series…Lt Berg
The Onedin Line (1971-1974)…TV series…Daniel Fogarty
Z Cars (1974) TV series (1 episode) “Intruder”…John
Edward the Seventh (1975) TV series (2 episodes) “The Peacemaker” & “The Years of Waiting”…Czar Nicholas II
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)…Sergi Barsov
ITV Sunday Night Drama (1977) TV series (1 episode) “Sister Dora: Part 3"…Kenyon Jones
Spearhead (1978) TV series (7 episodes)…Colour Sgt Jackson
The Professionals (1978) TV series (1 episode) “The Rack”…John Coogan
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Thundercloud (1979) TV series (1 episode) “Fair Shares All Round”…Ben Adams
Silver Dream Racer (1980)…writer of original story
The Greatest American Hero (1982) TV series (1 episode) “It’s All Downhill From Here”…Talenikov
Hart to Hart (1982) TV series (1 episode) “Vintage Harts”…Raymond Dumont
The Quest (1982) TV series…Count Louis Dardinay
Antony and Cleopatra (1983) TV…Ventidius
Fantasy Island (1983) TV series (1 episode) “King of Burlesque/Death Games”
Philip Marlowe, Private Eye (1983) TV series (1 episode) “The King In Yellow”…King Leopardi
Magnum P.I. (1984) TV series (1 episode) “Holmes Is Where The Heart Is”…Lever
The Collectors (1986) TV series… Tom Gibbons
KGB: The Secret War (1986)…Peter Hubbard
Flicks (1987)…Deputy Inspector (in segment “Whodunit”)
Maigret (1993) TV series (1 episode) “Maigret and the Night Club Dancer”…Oscar