Perhaps, I should have stated the title in the negative, but the story of Michael and James Bond reads like a saga worthy of Coronation Street. Personally, there seems little doubt to me that Michael Billington would have made a top-line secret agent with his aristocratic English features and wide-ranging acting skills seemingly perfect for the part of a gentleman spy. Unless you have read the Bond story on Michael’s website, you would hardly be aware that he had been considered off and on for the role for almost 15 years. Not bad for a fellow who was not a keen fan of the franchise. Since that time we have had five Bonds of varying styles, some shaken, some stirred, and Michael’s life has gone on quite undeterred with a KGB appearance and a host of wardrobe changes the sum total of his experience. And people still say that the casting for a lead in GWTW had been awesome!!!
Throughout that period, Michael also made two of the most popular British series of all time. One was the sci fi classic, UFO and the other, the seafaring drama, The Onedin Line. Two more disparate characters you could not hope to find as an actor, but Michael enjoyed both roles and enjoyed much success around the world where these series are still shown regularly on cable TV.
If you want to read more about Michael’s fine career, from guest roles as varied as The Prisoner, The Professionals and Magnum P.I. to his stage plays, then you can check out the stories and great photos at www.michaelbillington.org.uk*
(* now defunct)
You might even catch him in bed with Barbara Bach!!!
David: G'day Michael. I was wondering if you could tell us the story of how you got into acting and what these early days were like for you?
Michael: I had a motorcycle, I was seventeen and unemployed and collecting speeding fines for a hobby; as you do. My sister, a few years my elder, was in regular work and gave me money to pay them off. She suggested that I join the local Operatic Society, which was short on ‘men’ so they could do a production of the 20’s Musical Comedy ‘No No Nanette’. Well, I thought, it’s a way of repaying her for her kindness and at least I didn’t have to wear tights! I couldn’t sing, dance or act, but they gave me a role anyway so I just ‘showed off a bit’ and the audience laughed. I never knew quite why but I liked the feeling.
However, by the mid sixties, I had acted in a number of stage productions and was now desperate to be a film actor. A casting director called Miriam Brickman saw a photograph of me and arranged for me to meet with John Schlesinger about the lead role in A KIND OF LOVING. I had no real experience, but in Black and White Films in England in the ‘Swinging Sixties’ nobody seemed to mind that. In fact it was considered an advantage not to have had a ‘formal’ acting training. However, the role wisely went to Alan Bates who was then and is now a fine actor.
A few weeks later Miriam called me at home and asked me to go and see this director who was shooting his first film. It would help if I had some ‘footage’ for her to show other Directors for future reference; so naturally the job was for no pay. It was to be about an hour long or so and the subject matter was quite bold for the time. It was about a ‘gay’ relationship. I never knew my first screen kiss would be with a ‘bloke’ as I am totally ‘straight’ which I explained to her; but she said go and see the guy; as nobody will ever see it. ‘Close your eyes and think of your career’.
It turned out to be a nightmare. It was all very ‘symbolic.’ That was the ‘underground movie’ style of the day. However, the story laboured on about these two guys who were respectable business men who were taking a trip in this car when they are pulled over and imprisoned in this derelict building by this Rogue Traffic Cop who just so happened to symbolise the repressive same sex laws of the day.
Fortunately it was cut down to about fifteen minutes and appeared in a few ‘Gay Film Festivals’ I suppose it broke new ground for the day; the on screen kiss being the ‘highlight’. Tame stuff now. The ‘little masterpiece’ was called DREAM A40 ; A 40 being the number of the highway we were travelling on. Get it? Perhaps if the route was different it might have been called ‘DREAM BIRMINGHAM RING ROAD’ or the Roman Equivalent, ‘DREAM APPIAN WAY.’ The options were limitless. Naturally it all turned out to be a bad dream. That bit I didn’t need to act. However the ‘upside’ was that the car came in handy. I used it to take my ‘date ‘at the time out night clubbing. My date was an ‘unknown’ dancer named Liza Minnelli, who was seventeen then, just before she did THE STERILE CUCKOO. What became of her, I wonder?
I never did get a call from Miriam Brickman again. She must have seen the ‘masterpiece’ and immediately lost my phone number, no doubt. Thanks anyway Miriam.
I think I consider my first real acting job to have been in a twice weekly ‘Soap’ about a football team called UNITED for the B.B.C. in 1966. I played the replacement goalkeeper with marital problems, but my on-screen wife and I were such an annoying couple that we were ‘canned’ after only thirteen weeks. I managed to see myself on the screen for a long period of time ; It was in the early days of Recorded Video Replays and I must admit that I was horrified by my performance; but in time I improved. THE PRISONER followed shortly afterwards.
I can’t recall precisely what I spent my first cheque on but I’m convinced I had a damn good time with it. That’s what we did in the 60’s.
David: When did you sign your first autograph?
Michael: I think my first autograph was signed at a Charity Football Match which the cast of the Soap played an old retired International Football Team. At the Intermission, as I ran to the changing rooms I was swamped with Kids asking me to sign things although they clearly didn’t know my name. It was a strange feeling. After I had signed the first few I could see the others asking ‘Who Is It?’ ‘I Don’t Know’ came the reply, but they still asked for my signature until I was rescued by an Official. A sort of hollow triumphant feeling, I thought. Well maybe they’ll know one day!
David: Can you tell us a bit about your involvement with Cubby Broccoli and the whole Bond saga?
Michael: I felt for a long time that Cubby wanted me to play Bond, but from my own point of View I think the Bonds lost something when Harry Saltzman left. I would have happily played the part quite well for Live and Let Die, for which I tested for director, Guy Hamilton, and The Man with the Golden Gun, for which I didn't test.
The Spy Who Loved Me had a good opening, but I felt the Film fast became comic book; the same for Moonraker, which I did test for, and For Your Eyes Only, for which I was on 'standby.' They suited Roger's style, but wouldn't have suited mine.
The final test was for Octopussy, which had the feel of a 'turkey' about it which made me very cautious. I had a very good personal relationship with Cubby right up until his death so I was a little surprised when I was referred to only as 'the Russian Agent' in his postumiously published Autobiography. Seems I was edited out. Bit like the Watergate tapes in my view. Isn't life strange!
David: Could you recount one of your favourite autograph moments?
Michael: It took me some time to get used to the idea of giving autographs in public. Fortunately, I don't get stopped any more, but it used to be quite startling. However, I always tried to be reasonably available. It wasn't until I was standing in a crushing crowd outside the London Palladium Theatre, in the early years of my career trying to get through to the stage door where my old flame Liza Minnelli was appearing when I heard over my shoulder 'Can I Have Your Autograph Please?' I turned to see who could be so insane as to ask any minor celebrity under such impossible conditions when I realised that they were asking Ingrid Bergman who was a footstep or so behind me and also trying to get inside. It was clear that the hapless Fan was asking the great lady of the screen for her signature and not mine. To my shock; and without a moment’s hesitation Miss Bergman snapped out as loud as she could 'OH FUCK OFF!!' I've never seen a crowd part so quickly. That was an interesting lesson in the art of Celebrity/Fan relationship which I wouldn't recommend too often.
David: What memories stand out in your mind from making UFO and The Onedin Line?
Michael: U.F.O had a profound effect on my life. To this day it is my most popular role with regards to signings. At the time I did my best to try and 'Bury' it. I begrudgingly signed photos and hated the idea of a Fan Club. Although one developed, I wasn't very kind to the fans. I was stupid, I know that. It just wasn't 'fashionable' to be in Sci Fi back then, yet all those elite actors I rubbed shoulders with at the Royal Shakespeare Company all those years ago fight to get in them now. The Onedin Line was my saviour I believed. I still think of it as a 'class' series but it is not a 'cult' series. I think, with respect to fans, things have to be a little bit ''corny' to become 'cult'. Dr Who is a good example, with all those wobbly sets. In that respect I suppose I have become a 'cult' actor, although I hope not too wobbly?
David: Who are some of your favourite actors and your three favourite films?
Michael: I suppose all the actors I admired in my youth and all the films I appreciated are classed as 'old hat' now. Brando, Clift, Dean, Newman all inspired as did their films On The Waterfront, East of Eden, A Place in the Sun, Hombre; the list is long, but to refer to the later generations I would have to say that I like actors who can 'act' and who are not just screen personalities. Brad Pitt is a screen personality but Johnny Depp is an actor. All his characters are diverse from Ed Wood to Pirates of the Caribbean. As is James Spader in Sex Lies And Videotape and Six Days in the Valley. Quite different. Sean Penn can do it too. Sweet and Lowdown is far removed from anything else he has ever done. I admire them all. But what films are my favourite? For sheer enjoyment SINGIN IN THE RAIN - A NIGHT AT THE OPERA - MEET ME IN ST LOUIS. They delight! So look them up in your Video Library. You can thank me later.
David: Can you tell us about your current projects and where does life for Michael Billington go from here?
Michael: Well, like most actors who find it hard to 'get off their butt' I am writing my autobiography. And though I know it's customary for actors to reel off a list of upcoming projects and then go home and wait for the phone to ring, I have to be frank and say that I don't have any upcoming projects and that I stopped waiting for the phone to ring years ago. I do enjoy running my website and attending some shows in Britain. However for my fans there is some good news, The Onedin Line and U.F.O are released on D.V.D here in the U.K and I assume will be in North America and Australia too. So Enjoy!
Michael Billington will be missed by his thousands of fans and his many, many friends and was often seen chatting with autograph hunters at various shows across Great Britain.
Michael is survived by his adult son...
I will miss our emails....