Thursday, June 16, 2005

Goodbye to Old Friends and Alien Fighters

I just heard yesterday that Ed Bishop and Michael Billington, stars of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson's 1969-1970 sci-fi series U.F.O. had died. And on top of that bad news, Lane Smith -- familiar to TV viewers for his role as Perry White on Lois & Clark: the New Adventures of Superman and Nathan Bates in V: The Series - - has passed away as well.

These are all terrible losses to the long-lived sci-fi TV genre and the acting industry as a whole, and I offer my deepest condolences to all their families. We'll miss these performers.

Throughout his distinguished career, Ed Bishop appeared in films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Diamonds are Forever (1970) and Saturn 3 (1980), and performed a number of guest voices on the Star Trek animated series that aired in the early 1970s, but to me he will forever remain U.F.O.'s determined and grim Commander Ed Straker, head of S.H.A.D.O.

In his sleek nehru jackets and white punk haircut, Bishop cut a severe yet attractive figure. Unlike many heroes in science fiction television in those days (or in the 1980s, for that matter), Straker was a three-dimensional character, a man obsessed with a secret war against organ-plundering extra-terrestrials.

We witnessed the end of Straker's marriage in the episode "Confetti Check A-OK," saw him agonizingly choose duty over family in "A Question of Priorities" and detected his personal loneliness in "The Responsibility Seat." We saw shades of guilt in "The Long Sleep," his claustrophobia in "Sub Smash," and even Straker's physical resourcefulness in episodes such as "Timelash."

Bishop always played Straker with a sense of compassion, but without histrionics or other bells and whistles, and in the process gave the genre one of its finest, most underrated performances. Straker was a no-nonsense warrior, a man dedicated to his war against the aliens, but Bishop's humanity and the fine storytelling gave the Straker character an edge, an underside that was sad and just a bit pitiable. Bishop will be missed...and remembered.

As will Billington, who played test-pilot turned S.H.A.D.O. operative Paul Foster. Billington joined the series after it had begun its run, in the third, episode "Exposed," but very quickly became one of U.F.O.'s most valuable assets. This rugged actor brought overt physicality, sexual appeal, charisma and emotionality to the sometimes-slow-paced, intellectual series, and in the process became its undeniable action hero. Billington was often considered for the role of James Bond by the Broccoli's, and even appeared in The Spy Who Loved Me (as Barbara Bach's doomed Russian lover in the opening ski sequence...), but again, it is for U.F.O. that the genre will remember him best.

In a career stretching back to 1970, Lane Smith made an impression in both films (Red Dawn, My Cousin Vinny, The Mighty Ducks) and TV. He was the kind of actor who knew how to steal a scene, and how to demonstrate a character's layers without seeming showy. On the surface, he was folksy and down-home, but one always detected underneath that happy exterior a sharp intelligence and cunning sense of strategy.

In both of his genre roles, Smith put these talents to good use. As Nathan Bates, head of "Science Frontiers," on V, Smith played the ultimate power broker - a man who, because of his resources -- had both the Resistance and the Visitors by the balls. He used this power (a stockpile of the poisonous Red Dust) to make Los Angeles an open city, and also to ensure himself - always - a seat at the table during mediation. A ruthless corporate power junkie, Nathan Bates was an original. Lane Smith left the series after the first several episodes...and the series never recovered from his absence.

As Perry White, Editor-in-Chief of the Daily Planet on the romantic Lois & Clark, Smith combined the country-boy wisdom of a good mentor with the hard-nosed authority of an old-fashioned newsroom runner. He could kiss ass or chew it, depending on the situation, and in many senses, his honest, humorous performance was one of the high-points of this Superman re-vamp.

All three of these talents made a mark in the entertainment I cherished as both a child and a young man, and it's sad to realize that we can look forward to no further performances from Ed Bishop, Michael Billington or Lane Smith. But their body of work exists, and will be cherished for years to come.

UFO, V: The Series
and the first season of Lois & Clark are all available on DVD right now, and I urge you to rent 'em or buy 'em, just to see how the pros fought aliens.

1 comment:

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