Michael Billington

Colonel Foster in the cult television series 'UFO'
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The Independent Online

Michael Billington, actor: born Blackburn, Lancashire 24 December 1941; married (one son); died 3 June 2005.

Michael Billington was a bronzed and ruggedly handsome leading man who screentested on a record five occasions for the role of James Bond. He came very close to replacing Sean Connery, George Lazenby and Roger Moore, but was ultimately happy to settle for the small but memorable part of the smooth Soviet agent Sergei Barsov in The Spy Who Loved Me (1977).

Born in Blackburn in 1941, he trained as an engineer, but left his job at a neon-sign company when he landed small roles in musicals and a year-long stint as Danny La Rue's straight man. Private drama and voice lessons led to the more serious parts he yearned for, starting with Incident at Vichy (Phoenix, 1966) with Alec Guinness and Anthony Quayle, and spear-carrying at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

After 13 episodes in the footballing soap United! (1965) and a bit part in Patrick McGoohan's mind-bending series The Prisoner (1967), Billington finally won his first major television role. As Colonel Paul Foster, he was one of the leads in the Thunderbirds supremo Gerry Anderson's first foray into live action drama, UFO (1970). The series concerned the covert alien-hunting outfit SHADO, and despite running to only 26 episodes remains a cult classic. Though sometimes unfairly dismissed for its naïve prediction of 1980s fashions, it is generally regarded as a successful attempt at uncompromising, character-driven and adult sci-fi. Billington worked particularly well in some highly charged scenes with his co-star Ed Bishop: the two men sparking off each other to palpable effect.

The part of the passionate yet sensitive Daniel Fogarty in the classic boating drama The Onedin Line (1971) was his personal career highlight. He relished playing such an earthy, well-rounded role in this immensely popular series, but left after three years. Other notable television credits in Britain included Freddie Hepton in Hadleigh (1971), Lt Berg in War and Peace (1972, starring Anthony Hopkins), Tsar Nicholas in the Bafta-winning Edward VII (1975) and Jacko Jackson in Spearhead (1978).

Aware that American casting directors enjoyed employing Brits in villainous roles, he moved to Hollywood for a while. He had guest slots in Hart to Hart (1982), Fantasy Island (1983), Philip Marlowe Private Eye (1983), and Magnum PI (1984). He also starred in KGB: The Secret War (1986, winning a role which the successful Bond applicant Timothy Dalton was also up for). He returned to England to play Tom Gibbons in the BBC's customs and excise drama The Collectors (1986), but the show garnered disappointing ratings, and Billington later credited it with effectively killing off his acting career in the UK.

Laudably for an untrained actor with a heroic countenance, he refused to rely on his beefcake image, and continued to study his craft, ultimately teaching at the Lee Strasberg school in London. He also penned the story Silver Dream Racer which became a 1980 film starring David Essex.

He spent his latter years living in Kent, encouraging his son Michael's footballing aspirations, working on his autobiography and attending Cult TV events. He died just five days before Ed Bishop.

Toby Hadoke