Test Pilot Paul Foster and his co-pilot - who worked for the Ventura Aircraft Corporation - were at 200,00ft about to commence a flight test in the XV-104 test aircraft, when they witnessed an incoming 'spacecraft'. Then, they saw another aircraft intercept and destroy the incoming space vehicle. The devastating explosion also caused their XV-104 aircaft to crash. Paul's co-pilot Jim was killed, however Paul Foster (Michael Billington) survived, but was temporarily blinded. After waking in hospital and re-acquiring his vision, Foster claimed that the cause of the aircraft crash was a UFO, but his Ventura boss - William Kofax - and later a military investigator, Jackson apparently did not believe his evidence: a film and frames showing the intercepting aircraft - but not any sign of the UFO. Apparently, all this just pointed to pilot error.
Believing a cover-up was taking place, Paul undertook his own investigation in the events surrounding the crash. He was aided by the sister of the dead co-pilot. Paul's investigation lead him to Ed Straker, who agreed to meet with him at the Harlington-Straker Film Studios. Commander Ed Straker was in fact testing Foster to see if he is capable of joining the S.H.A.D.O. organisation. However, Foster passes the induction and Ed Straker revealed all about the UFO threat facing Earth, whilst revealing that both Dr. Jackson and Jim's sister were actually S.H.A.D.O. operatives.
Michael Billington quote: “In 1969 I took on the role of Colonel Paul Foster in the perennial Sci-Fi series UFO produced by Sylvia and Gerry Anderson, in which I played a ‘gritty’ kind of James Bond style Astronaut, alongside Ed Bishop, Wanda Ventham, Gabrielle Drake, George Sewell and Peter Gordeno”
What is your fondest memory of the work on UFO?
"You know I do have very fond memories of doing the programme. It was all done so fast and efficiently and rarely was there any temperament. The pedal was down all the time and we had to deliver quick. Ed was a master at this. The Cast and Crew were without exception professional and helpful to each other and I suppose that says a lot for both Gerry and Sylvia who had out utmost respect. It was also a good opportunity for me to practice my craft and learn how to deliver over a long period and so I enjoyed just going to the Studio every day. It was magic!"
Colonel Paul J. Foster (played by Michael Billington) is a former test pilot, his plane was critically damaged when S.H.A.D.O.'s Sky One intercepted and destroyed a UFO in close proximity to Paul Foster's aircraft. His persistent investigation of the incident threatened to expose S.H.A.D.O.'s existence, so Commander Ed Straker offers him a position within S.H.A.D.O. with the rank of Colonel.
Colonel Paul J. Foster appears in the following UFO episodes:
07 The Dalotek Affair
10 The Responsibility Seat
11 The Square Triangle
12 Court Martial
13 Close Up
16 Kill Straker!
This is an interview with Michael Billington which appeared in special issue #21 (May 1996) of the UK magazine “TV Zone”
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 Anderson's 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, Harlington-Straker Film Studios, a defence organisation called S.H.A.D.O. (Supreme Headquarters Alien Defense Organisation) 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: Michael Billington. The rugged, good looking and slightly impetuous Foster was an immediate success, particularly with the female viewers, and Michael 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.’”
Michael Billington 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, Michael 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 Michael Billington about a regular role in a new series called UFO which she and her husband Gerry were producing. Looking tanned and relaxed, Michael 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 David Lane 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 Michael's character who was introduced in 'Exposed', the fifth episode filmed and the second broadcast. When a plane piloted by civilian test pilot 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.”
Michael Billington and his fellow cast members spent the next few months at MGM’s British studios at Borehamwood filming the first seventeen 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 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 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 17 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 apologise to Gerry and he wore it badly. Nevertheless, 'Destruction' had many of the necessary ingredients for a good adventure.”
Test pilot, Paul Foster's plane is critically damaged when SHADO's Sky One intercepts and destroys a UFO in close proximity. Paul's investigation could expose S.H.A.D.O. . .
The failure of all the radio and video equipment on Moonbase is an alarming mystery. It means that the video link with Earth has broken down and that detection of alien intruders is threatened . . .
But when the radio equipment fails for a third time, just as a UFO has been sighted, it's clear that the scanner could not have been responsible . . .
Foster takes matters into his own hands and launches a Lunar Module against Commander Straker's orders, following the exact flight path flown by Maddox. He comes perilously close to disaster . .
While working on UFO, Gerry and Sylvia Anderson were contacted by Harry Saltzman, 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, 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 happened 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 Michael 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, Michael 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 Michael 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 Michael 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 Michael. “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?”
Early life and career: Michael Billington (Wednesday, 24th of December 1941 – Friday, 3rd of June 2005) was a British film and television actor. He was born in Blackburn, Lancashire, England.
In 1966 Billington appeared in Incident at Vichy at the Phoenix Theatre in London, but was best known for his role as Colonel Paul Foster in the 1970 science fiction TV series UFO,and for creating the character of Daniel Fogarty from 1971 to 1974 in the historical drama The Onedin Line. He also appeared as Sergeant Jacko Jackson of the Royal Wessex Rangers in the series Spearhead and as Czar Nicholas II in the ITV drama series Edward the Seventh (1975). He played gangster John Coogan in one episode ("The Rack") of The Professionals. Michael Billington lived in the U.S. from around 1979 until 1985. Although he had some good roles, notably as Count Louis Dardinay in The Quest (1982), he did not reach the same level of success as he had in Britain. Michael's last major TV role came in the 1986 BBC drama The Collectors, but his final appearance was in an episode of early 1990s TV series Maigret as a villain.
Michael was screen-tested for the role of James Bond more than any other actor, and was said to have been Albert R. Broccoli's first choice had Roger Moore not been available (see: 1981's For Your Eyes Only). Michael Billington did a photo shoot for On Her Majesty's Secret Service, and met the film's director Peter Hunt. He was also screen-tested for Live and Let Die (1973), Moonraker (1979) and Octopussy (1983). He ultimately appeared in 1977's The Spy Who Loved Me, playing Sergei Barsov, Agent XXX's ill-fated lover, at the start of the film. His other film credits included Alfred the Great (1969) and KGB: The Secret War (1985).
Michael Billington passed away due to cancer in 2005 at the age of 63, five days before the passing of his fellow UFO actor Ed Bishop. Michael was married to Katherine Kristoff.