Chris Bentley interviewer.
Above: Ed Bishop in four roles for Gerry Anderson. From top - the voice of Captain Blue in Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Commander Ed Straker in UFO, David Poulson in Doppelgänger, and Colonel John Hunter in the Protectors episode The First Circle.
Out Of The Unknown
In 1969, just prior to taking on the role of Commander Straker in UFO, Ed Bishop appeared as Commandant Ton Decker in the Beach Head episode of BBC2's Out of the Unknown series. A science-fiction anthology series of one-off hour long dramas which drew heavily from the written works of authors such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, John Wyndham and Frederick Pohl, Out Of The Unknown ran for four seasons between 1965 and 1971. The series regularly attracted high-calibre casts and features notable appearances by Anderson series stalwarts Paul Maxwell, David Graham, Francis Matthews, David Healy, Charles Tingwell (three times), Wanda Ventham and Jerome Willis.
Beach Head was the fourth episode of Out Of The Unknown's third season and was broadcast in colour on January 28th, 1969. Written by Robert Muller from a story by Clifford Simak and directed by James Cellan Jones, the episode focused on Commandant Decker, the disenchanted veteran of 36 faultless space missions, who discovered the cause and cure for his dissatisfaction when a new planet subtly defeated his previously infallible technology. Ed's co-stars in the episode were Helen Downing, John Gabriel, James Copeland, Robert Lee, Vernon Dobtcheff and Barry Warren. Describing the role of Decker as "My first sci-fi part!", Ed vividly remembers the production:
"It was a wonderful story that we shot at the BBC's Lime Grove studios. I was the Captain of this spaceship who goes bananas, sort of like 'The Caine Mutiny', and we get stranded. I remember one scene where all the guys had come up and given me this petition, and this Captain I was playing was insane, so they gave me this petition on a big piece of paper. They all sat down in a circle talking to me and I though I had to do something, so I slowly made this aeroplane out of the paper. At the end of the scene, the director said, "That's great, Eddie!" After all, there's noting duller than nine guys sitting around talking and so I just sat there folding a paper aeroplane and at the end of the scene when they say, "Well, Captain, what do you say?" I just threw the 'plane out, it circled, hit the deck and that was the end of the scene. I'm particularly fond of that scene."
Ed Bishop was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1932, but has spent the greater part of the past 35 years living and working in England. He made his professional debut as an actor in Granada Television's Drama 61 presentation, Edge of Truth, and went on to appear on stage in 'Look Homeward, Angel' and 'Bye Bye Birdie'. He made his feature film debut in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita and subsequently appeared in the War Lover, Mouse on the Moon and You Only Live Twice.
Ed received critical acclaim for his portrayal of John F. Kennedy in Joan Littlewood's production of 'MacBird', and made numerous guest appearances on television in series such as The Saint, The Baron, Court Martial, and Man In A Suitcase before being cast in the co-starring role as the voice of Captain Blue in Gerry Anderson's Captain Scarlet And The Mysterons. He went on to appear in Anderson's live-action feature film Doppelgänger in a part which led directly to the starring role as Commander Ed Straker in UFO. He has subsequently gone on to appear in over 25 feature films, has made over 60 television appearances and continues to work both in the theatre and on radio. Chris Bentley spoke to Ed Bishop at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television last July, prior to a special screening of Doppelgänger.
FAB: I understand that in your early years you were encouraged to take up banking as a career. How, then, did you come to be drawn into acting?
ED BISHOP: Well, my background is very 'WASP', White Anglo Saxon Protestant - what you'd call middle class, staid. My father's people left Guildford, Surrey in 1639 and settled in Guildford, Connecticut, so it's a very old, respectable (and impoverished, I hasten to add) family. Everybody did everything that they were supposed to to - you were a schoolteacher, you were a lawyer - and the idea that somebody wanted to be an actor was an absolute anathema to anybody in our family.
When I left Harvard University in Boston, they did a survey of the most respectable professions an trades in America that you could be in: number one was a doctor, number two, I think, was a lawyer, and then maybe a dentist, a teacher and so forth. And down at the bottom of the list - I think it was twenty-third of all the trades and professions - was a migratory farm worker: these guys who go around picking fruit. The one just above that was 'actor'! So there was a lot of social pressure against you to go in that way. May father had been in banking, and there was a lot of pressure for me to follow in his footsteps, so that's why I didn't get started until I was very late in the business.
I didn't turn professional until I was twenty-nine years old. By that time, all the young parts had gone away. But I started out with two years in the army, and then I had two years of business school, and I worked for a year in a bank. And then in '58 I said, "To Hell with it!" I wanted to go to Boston University to be an actor, which is what I did. And then I got the scholarship to LAMBDA which brought me to London.
Once you got here, of course, you stayed. Why here particularly?
Well, the simple reason was that I just got busy. I left LAMBDA on July 14, 1960, and I had a job in August in a theatre in Croyden. Then I got into three consecutive West End productions, one right after the other. As a matter of fact, when they put the notice that one musical I was in was closing, I was rehearsing during the day on another show. So I had three shows, a year and a half had gone by, and I hadn't stopped working. It was incredible!
I was writing to my actor friends in America, and they'd be selling liquor, or working in real estate, and they'd say, "MY God, Bishop, you're going to do another show!" They were delighted and I was pleased - I had an agent by that time, I'd met someone and we'd got married, so it just seemed like a natural progression. As long as I was employed and, eventually, paying my bills for my family, I was content to stay here. And I didn't think America needed another out-of-work actor - I thought they had enough. As long as I was working, that was the only criterion I used.
By that time, you had changed your name - from George to Edward?
Yes, because there was already an actor in Equity with that name. You can't have two actors with the same name, so I had to chose another, and that's why I became Edward Bishop. And when I worked with Gerry, he suggested I should drop the 'ward' off the Edward, so that's how I adopted the name of Ed Bishop.
Was there any particular reason why you picked Edward?
No - it's very hard to change your name in mid-stream. As I say, I was about thirty years old, and to suddenly have to change your name is kind of amusing, so I just went through the names, and Edward seemed all right.
You mentioned your involvement with Gerry Anderson and, of course, you first worked for him on Captain Scarlet and The Mysterons, providing the voice of Captain Blue. When you started recording the dialogue for that show, did you have any idea who and what the characters were, or were you just going in and reading the script?
Well, the whole Century 21 organisation - Gerry with Reg Hill and the writers such as Tony Barwick - was 150% professional, they really were. There was nothing cheap or corner-cutting about them. All the actors were on the same money, even if they were playing a small part (which is a good psychological thing), and it just made for a happy environment every time we got together, two days a month. If they had a small character come on, with maybe four or five lines as a guard, what most companies would do is they'd say, "Hey, Eddie, can you do a funny voice for that guard?" and you'd do it, but it's El Cheapo. But with Gerry, if they had a guy come in for six lines, they'd book an actor and pay him the same fee, and I was very impressed by that.
But in terms of the preparation about the characterisations, which is what I think you're getting at there, I think we had a get-together for about two or three days where we'd discuss the various aspects. But we had no illusions: it was a one-dimensional thing. It was heroics - no sense trying to imbue them with more than they were. But the first thing you did when you got the script was to leaf through it to see if you died at the end! Of course, Francis Matthews was all right because he was Captain Scarlet and he's indestructible, right? He just sat there, nice and cool with his script because he knew he was back next week, but the rest of us...!
Looking back on that series, I think Captain Blue got a raw deal, because he was very heroic, you know. He was very close to Scarlet, and I pulled him out of some very sticky wickets!
I think it was last year that Francis and I did about seven or eight commercials as Blue and Scarlet. I don't see a lot of Francis, but we meet up occasionally. His hair is snow white, we both wear glasses, and it was so funny to see these two old guys, getting their scripts out and there I am saying, "S.I.G., Captain Scarlet," to this white-haired old guy with glasses! It's great to see that.
You're a very experienced radio actor. Was recording Captain Scarlet essentially like doing radio?
Oh, yes. I like the medium very much. It doesn't pay a lot of money, but it's a wonderful medium to work in, because you can try so many different things. There's a wonderful thing that BBC Radio does: you can play a leading part and then next week they'll call you up for a smaller part, and you don't get penalized ("Oh, he only does small parts" or "He only does this") because you can go across the spectrum in the size of parts. There are lots of bread and butter jobs on radio, from reading extracts on Kaleidoscope - if they're doing an American novel I'll go down there and read stuff like that - to short stories to books at bedtime. It's a wonderful discipline.
I saw an interview recently about the Disney animation features, and one of the voice actors was talking about how it was very demanding to act without moving your body, because if your clothes rustled, or your feet sounded on the floor, the tape was ruined. Would it have been like that on Captain Scarlet, or was the recording not so exacting?
I think that looking back on it now, we just did them as a standard radio performance, and to go back to this professionalism again, we never had to match anything to what the puppets did. If you said your line in a certain way that had, let's say, a smile in your voice, they'd make the puppet smile, which was good because it gave you the freedom to explore things that you could do just with the sound of your voice. Then they would make the puppet fit that.
But with radio, you have to convey everything in the voice. There are lots of little shorthand techniques: for example, when you 'meet' somebody on radio, if you just reach out and shake your hand, that "how do you do" will be somehow registered in your voice. When I started out, I'd watch these old actors who'd done millions of radio shows, like Carlton Hobbes and Frankie Francis, all wonderful people because before television took over, radio was really prestigious. If you were on a Saturday Night Theatre on the BBC, that was like playing the lead in the National Theatre. And I was pleased to be able to work with that generation of actors, because to watch those guys work and listen to them and the subtlety that they could manifest was wonderful. I remember working with a wonderful director: I shrugged my shoulders in a line and he said, "Don't do that, Eddie. Get the shrug in your voice," which is very clever. So it's always a challenge, and it's a mistake to think you can just walk in, read the words and go away. But I love the medium.
One of your co-stars on Captain Scarlet was the late Donald Gray, who I understand was a bit of a controversial figure.
Well, yes, Donald was very conservative. I think he played a lot of Majors and Brigadiers in his career and maybe it got to him? But he was an ultra-conservative guy, politically, and actors are mostly a liberal, radical rabble! We had a black actor in the company, Cy Grant, who was doing the voice of Lieutenant Green. Rhodesia had declared UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence), and because of apartheid and all the rest, it was very, very tense in those days in the sixties. One day, Donald drove up in his car and he had this sticker on it saying 'Support Rhodesia' and Cy Grant said, "Hey Donald, I want to have a talk with you about that, man!" So there was a little bit of tension, but that's something that happens very infrequently in the theatre. Donald was a nice man, but he had lost his arm in the war and I think he felt that his career had been curtailed, although he did a series called Saber of London which I saw in the States. No pun intended, but he seemed to have a chip on his shoulder and maybe that was it.
But it was an interesting chemical composition, all we actors together on that show, because after a while we would get to argue about our characters and say, "I would never say that!" We'd be told, "Relax, fellas, they're only puppets. Don't get carried away here." But it was a wonderful job, and it's down to the professionalism of Gerry, Sylvia, Reg and all the crew that Gerry had around him at Century 21, and they brought that forward into Doppelgänger. It was a very happy experience working on that film, and it was that film that they showed to Lew Grade and some of the magnificos at ITC when they said, "We want to use this guy, Ed Bishop, to play Straker." So I'm very, very grateful to it. Unfortunately, Patrick Wymark is gone now and Ian Hendry, too. George Sewell and I came into UFO as a result of that film, so I'm looking forward tio seeing it for the first time.
You came into the production quite late in the day. Most of your scenes had already been shot by Peter Dynely.
That's right. I was a cast replacement because Patrick Wymark had a lot of scenes to play with this one character, and Peter Dyneley (who had done the voice for Jeff Tracy in Thunderbirds) was playing the part. The guys looked at the rushes and they said, "They're so similar." They were both portly, middle-aged men who looked and sounded very, very similar, so they thought that they would revamp it and just get a young actor in. They tested me, Shane Rimmer and a couple of other guys, and I just landed the part. I was very lucky.
But again. to show the professionalism of Gerry, Peter Dyneley had worked with him for a long time, and he felt no animosity about it whatsoever. Gerry just said, "Well, look, you're too old, we made a mistake, we're sorry," and Peter said, "Oh well, that's all right, that's showbiz." So there was none of the usual great trauma for an actor when he gets fires, because he was part of the family - that's the way you felt about it.
The director of Doppelgänger was Robert Parrish, who died in 1995. I understand that he and Gerry didn't get on very well. Gerry said recently that, as far as he was concerned, the film was a very unhappy experience and he was very disappointed with it in the end.
As far as I was concerned it was a great experience. I enjoyed it - I was working, the part wasn't bad and I enjoyed working with Gerry again, but there were tensions. I'll say this quite categorically: my feeling is that Gerry exists best and workd best in his own atmosphere. I think he found it difficult to go from his atmosphere, which is being surrounded with the directors and the special effects guys and all the rest of the crew, and then having to open it up to do a live-action movie where he got a director with his own ideas imposed upon him by the film company. I think Gerry probably found that a tension. On UFO and the other projects that he did, like Space:1999, he had his team around him, and he feels secure in the environment, and I think that's probably the reason Gerry had tension on that picture.
Of course, we also got drunken actors and egotistical actresses on Doppelgänger. Those were very heady days at that time in the sixties - it was just before the big budgets came down and if the star actor was drunk, you shot something else. Nowadays, they don't put up with that nonsense, which I think is right. I've worked with too many drunken actors, and it's a pain in the neck!
I was working on a film called SOS Titanic with David Janssen, a charming man. He was an alcoholic and I got to know him quite well. We were shooting up in the Isle Of Man where they do the TT races, and they said, "You're off today, Eddie" and I said, "OK, great." Unfortunately, I missed the boat back to the mainland, so I told them, "Well, I'm going to walk all around the island." Apparently, poor David Janssen was too 'ill' to work so they said, "All right, we'll shoot the scene with Bishop and the girl." Somebody said, "Well, he's gone to the mainland... no, wait, he missed the boat!" So they sent a jeep going one way around the island and another jeep going the other way! A guy screeched up to me and shouted, "Ed, get in!" I said, "What's the matter" He said, "David Janssen can't work. We're going to shoot a scene with you." I said, "How the hell did you know where I was?"
That's how they worked in the movies back then, but that is all over now.
I understand that Gerry got around the problem of Ian Hendry turning up stone drunk one day by shooting the planet scene after the crash, where he's basically just lying there.
Yeah. That was very, very sad. Ian and Pat Wymark were very heavy drinkers. Peter Finch was out there at the studio at the time, and Oliver Reed... Oi Vay! It was just too much! And I drank... but I'd get up in the morning, I knew my lines, and I never drank when I was working. But there was a whole different atmosphere during that time. We were filming UFO down at MGM Borehamwood and one lunch-time we went down to a bar opposite the studios, and sitting in a corner were Richard Burton and Peter O'Toole getting, you know, merry. Champagne bottles and cronies all around them. They were going to do 'Hamlet'. I left but one of the guys on the crew stayed, and he said that they tossed a coin to see who would play New York and who would play London. They simply got on the phone: "This is Peter O'Toole, I want to do 'Hamlet'. Set it up." And he did it. He did it in New York and Richard Burton did it in London. That's the power that the stars had at that time. But that's all changed. Boy, you're into Perrier water and jogging - that's what they do now!
You mentioned working with George Sewell on Doppelgänger. Had you worked with him before, or was that your first meeting?
No. One of the things I consider to be a great accomplishment in my career was working with Joan Littlewood, the wonderful English director of the Theatre Workshop at Stratford East. I had a big success with her in the play about J.F. Kennedy, 'Macbird'. Well, Georgie Sewell was an old Joan Littlewood actor. She cast her plays from among the local characters up at the East End around the Theatre Royal, and she was a friend of the Krays and all the rest of it. Working up there was a wonderful experience and Georgie Sewell was always around. Although I didn't work with him, he would drop into the theatre so I kind of knew him before we worked together. The absolute essence of Joan Littlewood's theatre was that the actors kind of made it up, and all the big hits that she had - 'Oh What A Lovely War', 'Mrs. Wilson's Diary' and 'Sparrows Can't Sing' - she would work with the actors and all the dialogue was improvised. It was great fun.
There was a wonderful scene that we did in Doppelgänger. I don't think I'm giving away any surprises to say that Herbert Lom's character had an artificial eye, and it was a camera. He would take pictures of the secret plans and George Sewell's character killed him because he was one of the bad guys. So we had this scene that took thirty-seven takes to get right. Now, I'm standing here at the bar, the camera's over there right at the edge of the bar looking into a tumbler, and I have the glass eye in my hand. On "Action" I had to role that eye out into the tumbler and it had to land looking right into the lens of the camera. Now, how the hell are you going to do that? It's just luck, because in nine or ten takes it missed altogether, or it was right where it should be but the eye was looking off the other way! I had the first line of dialogue and I didn't know whether we're going to go on. If I heard the guy pull focus on the camera, I knew we were going to play the scene. Thirty-seven takes... God!
So we shot that part of it, and Pat Wymark was there. Bob Parrish didn't have an ending for the scene, because it finished kind of flat, so Wymark said, "Why don't I just walk around the bar on my own, ruminating..." which is wonderful, because the camera just follows him. Actors are notoriously selfish when there's a camera around! So as the camera went by with him ruminating, Bob said to George and I, "As the camera goes by, you guys just say a couple of lines, just sort of in the background, you know." To a couple of Joan Littlewood actors, that was a very dangerous thing to say! So as Wymark walked by on this rehearsal, I held up the eye and I said to George, "Does our side have anything like this?" and he took the eye and said, "We do now." Parrish said, "That's great, that's great! Pat you just keep walking out of the frame and I'll end up on the boys here!" Pat said, "Grrrrrrr!" But that's the kind of stuff that happens.
There were quite a lot of your fellow UFO cast members who appeared in Doppelgänger: Vladek Sheybal, Keith Alexander, Norma Ronald, Jeremy Wilkin... It's almost as it the film was a cast try out for UFO. Do you think that was in their minds, or did the idea for UFO come later?
I really don't know how advanced Gerry's thinking was, because it wasn't all that long after Doppelgänger that we did UFO. Gerry had a very fertile imagination, and he and Sylvia were always cooking projects. Maybe they were thinking of a sci-fi series, but precisely whether he had it at that time, I don't know.
It is quite apparent from the earliest scripts for UFO that you were Ed Straker right from the beginning, and the part was written for you. Were you aware of anybody else being looked at for the role?
No, I don't think that they looked at anybody else for that part. They said, "We're going to shoot them on ten day schedules," and, "Well, Ed will be needed about three days about of that." But Tony and the writers liked the character, so he began to get more and more and more, so at the end I was working every day. The character kind of took over. But I must say I did enjoy it very much.
Originally on UFO you were to have a co-star by the name of Franco Derosa, an Italian actor, who was going to play the Moonbase commander. I understand that Gerry filmed about three or four days with him on the Moonbase and then he was let go. Did you ever meet him?
Yes, I met him. I had no scenes with him, but I heard all these horror stories that he was totally inexperienced, he couldn't remember his lines and couldn't hit a mark. It was a good idea, because he looked terrific, but on such a tight schedule you couldn't afford any fat like that. Everybody had to be on the ball, know their stuff and get on with it, but Franco was too inexperienced. It was a shame. And Peter Gordeno left, because he had some commitments to honour, but they weren't worried about me, the old fart, old reliable, old Yellowstone, because they knew I could remember lines. Sit me there behind the desk - that was the concept for Straker. He was going to be sitting there hard-assing everybody.
Sylvia especially was looking for a 'younger man', to make a discovery, and she had an awful lot of good-looking young men there, but they didn't have a lot of experience, so I think maybe the character of Straker kind of took over because of that.
They brought in Michael Billington, basically to replace Derosa. Do you think it was a good move to bring him in, or do you feel that it took something away from George.
Yes, George's character got kind of marginalized, because he started out in the first couple episodes as a kind of romantic, kidding person. And I don't know whether Sylvia thought that she could take him into a romantic mode, but George wasn't very happy with that. I think that they then wanted to go with a more conventionally glamorous thing, so there were little readjustments, one or two little tweaks.
You read books on the making of Star Trek and all the back-room work that the Americans do to develop things, so when they bring in the actors, that's the last piece of the jigsaw and they've got it all worked out. But I think that if I would make a criticism of UFO, I would say they didn't do a lot of pre-planning and there was a lot of making it up as we went along.
But something worked because the BBC is showing them again and they're on satellite, and it's still popular after all this time. I've even been contacted by a production company in Australia - they're negotiating now for the rights to make UFO 2! So it's going to be Straker in a Zimmer frame! I thought it was somebody from Candid Camera. The guy called me up and said, "I'm from Australia. I wondered, would you be interested in coming out and playing Straker in a reprise of the UFO series?" so I said, "Sure, why not!" Watch this space!
Above: Ed Bishop as Edward Barnard with Bob Sherman in the BBC's television production of Somerset Maugham's 'The Fall Of Edward Barnard', a role previously performed by Ed in a radio production.
Above: "This is a still from a TV commercial I did for the Prudential. Alas, it was never shown! It was based on the film High Noon. The sheriff tells his wife not to worry as he has a Prudential policy and if anything happens to him, she and the kids will be OK. The girl is Lisa Eichorn who had played my daughter in 'The Fatal Weakness' at Windsor Theatre. She starred in 'Yanks' and went to Hollywood to be a big star!"
In his best-known role as Commander Ed Straker, Ed poses with a SHADO operative during the filming of Timelash.
FAB would like to thank Bill Lawrence of the National Museum of Photograph, Film and Television for making this interview possible, and Jaqueline Dear for the use of her extensive photographic collection to illustrate it.
© 2000? Fandserson
Transcribed for the SHADO Library and Archives by D.A. Rorabaugh from materials donated by Amelia and Ed Rodgers.
Next issue: Ed talks further about his experiences on UFO, The Protectors and the James Bond Movies.