Chris Bentley interviewer.
From the top: Straker (Ed Bishop) gives Jo Fraser (Jane Merrow) the keys to his car (UFO: The Responsibility Seat).
Straker in Conflict with General Henderson (Grant Taylor).
Ed as Scott Douglas in Breakaway: The Local Affair (1979)
Ed as Colonel Stewart in Brass Target (1978)
Straker's women - Ed with Wanda Ventham as Colonel Virginia Lake in UFO: Timelash and with Suzanne Neve as Mary Straker in UFO: Confetti Check A-O.K.
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 Battle Beneath The Earth.
Ed received critical acclaim for his portrayal of John F. Kennedy in Joan Littlewood's production of 'MacBird', and made numerous television appearances 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 Doppelgänger feature film 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. In the second part of this interview, Ed discusses UFO and his guest appearance in The Protectors episode The First Circle.
FAB: UFO wasn't afraid to make what were at the time quite controversial stances on various issues - feminism, racism, drugs. I think one of Straker's most powerful speeches in the series is where he tells the black pilot Mark Bradley that it's his ability to do the job that matters, rather than there being anything to do with his colour. Were you aware at the time of the ground-breaking nature of that, and also having women in positions of authority?
ED BISHOP: No, I don't think we were aware of anything like that, but at that time in the late Sixties and early Seventies, there was a lot of racial tension in America, and to even touch on that was a brave step for the scriptwriters.
I must say that I myself personally claim the credit for bringing in Wanda Ventham as Straker's number two, because they were looking at a lot of actors when George Sewell left, and I don't know whether I was just afraid of them bringing in another actor who would maybe compete with me - there's probably a portion of that - but I just felt somehow, instinctively that we should get a woman. I had three daughters at that time, my wife had been to university, and attitudes towards women were kind of changing, so I put in that idea. I didn't suggest Wanda per se, but I did suggest and push that they consider a woman, and I'm glad to say they picked up on it and brought Wanda into the picture. I really did enjoy working with her.
Looking back at it, there was no sexual tension between Straker and Colonel Lake - they were just good friends. I always think of it as like Laurel and Hardy, sitting up in bed together: even in this permissive age, there's never any smattering of any kind of relationship other than that which you see on the screen. It's a pure cinematographic theatrical event that you accept totally. I mean, I've never read anybody writing a treatise on the latent homosexuality of Laurel and Hardy! It just didn't exist. With UFO, there was just some magic or other between Wanda and I. We just achieved that chemistry but the sexual thing just never came up, although she was a beautiful woman. I was younger then, so a sexual relationship between the characters could have been possible, but I think it worked well as we played it.
The first seventeen episodes of UFO were shot at MGM in Borehamwood, but then the studio was closed at the end of 1970 and you moved over to Pinewood for the last nine. Aside from the fact that George wasn't there and Wanda was, were there any other discernable differences in the atmosphere between the episodes?
Oh, yes, absolutely. That was a big turn of the wrench, and I think that if Gerry and Sylvia had done what they did earlier, we would probably still be making them, because we came very, very close to renewing. CBS wanted to pick up their option. We came to within a whisker of making another 26 episodes, and I think if we had made the second 26, they would have been much more successful in the mainstream rather than just for connoisseurs.
They simply cut the shooting time from ten days to nine, which meant that we had to work even harder and faster. They got a lot of different directors, who are what they call 'hack' directors. These guys were series directors, and they could make these half-hour and hour series. They'd work on Man In A Suitcase, The Saint, The Baron and all these popular series which ITC was making at the time, and those guys could look at two or three pages of dialogue and shoot it in such a away that all the editor had to do was join the ends together and it worked - people like Jeremy Summer, Cyril Frankel, and Dave Tomblin, who is now one of the biggest first assistants in the world. They were wonderful directors, and they didn't indulge we actors so much. The other boys, Ken Turner, Alan Perry and Dave Lane, they were wonderful guys, but if you said, "Hey, how about a shot of me just thinking?" they'd say, "Yeah, that's good," but the other guys would say, "No, let's get on with it - move it, move it, move it!" And that was a much better formula for the series - cut out all the fat. In some of those early ones, the audience is there before the actor is, and that's bad news. When the audience has worked it out before the guy on the screen, you're in big trouble.
Of course, one of the most stylish aspects of UFO, that kind of set the tone for the series, was the costume design. As someone who had to wear those suits, what did you think of them?
I was 100% for them. I trusted Sylvia Anderson implicitly, because her sense of colour and style was absolutely impeccable. She had the whole visual concept for the character: the hair, the colour and everything. I think it was very successful, because for a lot of people, the one thing that they remember about the series is the visual impact of it.
We had recurring extras who were in more or less every episode, and Sylvia would hand-pick these girls and young men, the operatives in the back and all the rest of it. It was her contribution in that which was enormous. If she said I looked good in something, I believed it. I would do it without question.
I never forget when we went to a fitting for a costume down in London, and I was wearing a bow tie. She said "Ed, take off that tie and let me buy you a necktie," and I said, "Oh, sure, OK." And she said, "Don't EVER let me see you wearing THAT bow-tie again!" She had wonderful taste and you just trusted her. It was like Derek Meddings - if he said the best way to do this special effect was this way, you did it. There was no question about it.
What were the cars like to drive?
They were an absolute nightmare. As soon as you saw a sequence in a car, your heart sank, because the gull-wing doors only ever worked when there was a prop man just out of shot lifting them up. You never see absolutely clear - there's always a little bit you don't see on the screen, and that's Fred or Bert down there. They had no ventilation. They would mount the camera in there and it was a very closed-in set. No, I didn't like working on the cars at all.
I very foolishly got banned from driving as a result of a drink-driving conviction, and I was driving the car around on the road, when a guy in the crew came up to me and said, "You know, Ed, you gotta be careful driving these cars on the Queen's Highway." And I said, "Why?" "Well," he said, "You know you're banned." I said, "Yeah, but this isn't really driving." He says, "You tell the cops that!" I said, "My God, I didn't think about that - I'm driving a car on the Queen's Highway!" You get into costume and make-up and you get divorced from reality. So I went to the production manager, Norman Foster, and I told him, "Man, I can't touch another car! That's it." So when we did cars, they unfortunately had to go to the additional expense of putting a car on a trailer, and then it would be pulled along behind a camera car - and all because I was stupid enough to go out and have a couple pints over the limit.
But the cars were always a bit of a drag, they really were. It was just no fun in there. And that travelling drum that you saw when they shot in the studio, that was even worse to work with, because things were always going wrong with it. The other cars that we drove, like when we used Reg Hill's Jensen (in Confetti Check A-O.K.) - that was a pleasure. But those plastic cars, they were just shells dropped on a Ford Cortina chassis, and the exhaust didn't work. No, they weren't any fun.
Every fan has their own favourite and least favourite episodes of UFO, but which are the ones that are the most memorable for you?
Well, I think the favourite ones would have to be the one or two that I did with Suzanne Neve, when it was Straker in flashback (Confetti Check A-O.K.), and the situation with his son (A Question Of Priorities), because actors would prefer to get involved with inter-relationships rather than gadgetry.
I also liked Sub-Smash. We had a lot of controversy on that. Straker thought he was going to die - he's in the submarine and he told Foster to get off the boat, because he was the only guy who could get away or something like that. So he's making this entry into the diary and I took a little verse from the burial at sea. I said, "We therefore commit ourselves to the deep," - a little schmaltzy, but it's very moving. Now, when I started to work on the series, I promised myself that I would never try to give a performance where I knew the end of the script, because otherwise that was dull. It was like Captain Scarlet - Francis always knew he was back next week, but it was more fun to say, "Jesus, this might be it!" Well, everybody in the crew was divided over this line, because in a family everybody expresses their opinions, and some said , "Oh, it's schmaltzy sentimentality," but I though it was kind of interesting: here's this guy, with all this power, all this authority and all this omnipotence, with all this secretiveness, and yet at a time when he's close to death, he thinks of something that's very simple. I thought that contrapuntal thing was an interesting facet. I would find that interesting about a guy if I saw it on-screen.
Least favourite? I don't know, I suppose it would be some of that MGM stock we did. There were some that depended on a lot of gadgetry. Close Up, that was one. But it's very hard for me to pick one that I didn't like or one that I liked the best.
Talking about Sub-Smash, I understand that you really do suffer from claustrophobia.
Yes, I do suffer very badly from claustrophobia, but not anywhere near as badly as Dolores (Mantez). She was really in a terrible state. She had to crawl through that tube, which is bad news. She was really on the edge about that. But they had actually written that because of my personal claustrophobia, although I didn't find the set oppressive in any way. It's bothered me a couple times in films though.
Unfortunately it's academic, because it was cut out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I was the pilot of this spaceship, and there was a wonderful scene where this elevator opens and I step out. But before waiting for the shot to start, I was really getting panicky. There was nothing Mickey Mouse about Kubrick's set - every single thing worked, and this thing actually locked. I didn't get out until some guy pressed a button, so it was like being in a real elevator - you don't get out until the mechanism lets you out - so I was really getting quite bad on that.
And then I had to play this wonderful scene with this guy. I had to talk to him because there was only one passenger going up to Flavius and I had to find out what the score was. There was a scene between me and the co-pilot, and he'd say, "Hey, what the hell's going on? Why are we going up with just one passenger?" I'd say, "I'll try to find out." All of that was cut out of the picture. Broke my heart. And we had a scene with Bill Sylvester sitting there eating his supper, and then suddenly he takes his hands away and all the food starts to float up. Unfortunately, that was all cut. Then we had a couple scenes with the stewardess who walks upside-down, it was great fun. But Kubrick shot nine-hours worth of material and the final picture's three, so somewhere there's a good picture floating around about this spaceship pilot!
After UFO, you came back to work for Gerry on The Protectors. You did one episode, The First Circle, which seems to be generally hailed as the best episode of the series.
I certainly enjoyed working on that.
It looks as though it was a terribly difficult episode to film: it's basically a two-hander between yourself and Bob Vaughn, it's all shot on location in a deserted air-base, and it looks as though it was throwing it down with rain all the time.
Yes, it was raining, I remember. Tony Barwick wrote that episode for what he thought I could handle best, which was this kind of frantic, neurotic kind of behaviour, but I enjoyed that enormously. It had a wonderful director, Don Chaffey, and it was nice to work with Bob Vaughn and get to know him, so it was a very nice experience. It had a lot to say about the Vietnam war, because of course, it was still going on at that time and my character was traumatised by that war. As much as you can in a popular entertainment series like The Protectors, it made a nice little oblique comment, which I think is always good if you can sneak a little dimension to a project like that. Yes, I enjoyed that enormously.
I must tell you a quick anecdote about Bob Vaughn who is an awfully charming man. Some years after that, I worked on a film called Brass Target. All we actors assembled in the studio in Munich and there was George Kennedy, John Cassevetes, Bob Vaughn, Edward Hermann, all these stars. Now, I like doing military pictures, because you never have to worry about your costume - if you are wearing the right suit or anything - because you know that if you're a Colonel, you're just wearing a Colonel's uniform, and that's it. No problem.
Well, for some reason, no matter how big actors are, they always like to impress other actors. I don't know why that is, because other actors don't employ other actors - I mean if you want to try to impress a producer, OK. So all these guys are sitting around, talking about "My last film" and "My last Broadway play" - there's a lot of money floating around - and all of a sudden, into this room comes this huge German woman. She looked like something out of Valhalla, the Valkeries. She had these golden hair braids tied to her head and she said, "All right! All you men, you vill now go to your racks and you vill pick off your uniforms!" They had racks of costumes labelled up as Rome, Los Angeles, London, all the different locations where you live. Well you never saw so many guys suddenly get their pants down, all these big shot actors! And this woman, who had this terrifying voice said, "Who is Robert Vaughn?" And Bob said, "Er, that's me." She said, "Mr. Vaughn, I have here now for you the things your agent asked me to give you." And she produced a pair of lifts, to go inside his shoes. The poor guy - he's a millionaire and a big star, and he turned crimson, absolutely crimson. And the funny thing is, nobody laughed, because we were so terrified of that woman. What would she say to us if we laughed? I never forgot that experience.
You have appeared in two of the James Bond films, You Only Live Twice and Diamonds Are Forever. What was it like to work on those?
Wonderful. Absolutely, fantastically wonderful, because on the earlier ones, the cost of the film was irrelevant. We had a guy on UFO, Basil Newell, who did our make-up. Every morning, I would go into his room and I would see this great big mattress of foam rubber that he had up on his shelf. I finally asked, "Basil, what is that mattress?" He said, "Oh, no, that's not a mattress." He had worked on all the Bond pictures, doing Connery's make-up. He said that one day he went to the production manager and said that he needed some sponge for his make-up. Now a make-up sponge is a very small thing, but the way they thought... get him a mattress! He had a lifetime supply of these things!
You work in pictures where you're thinking all the time about the budget and you've got to get the shot in three takes, but with Bond you had a wonderful feeling about it: that if something went wrong, they'd always go again. So it was a good adventure. I worked with Sean Connery on Diamonds Are Forever and he was a wonderful man. It was a great pleasure to work with him on that.
Patrick Allen, who did an episode of UFO with us, worked on one of the Bond pictures and he told me all about it. He had a very good part and they shot in Japan. When they came back to Pinewood and they were finishing off, apparently somebody said to Mr. Broccoli and Mr. Saltzman, "You know, it's too bad when we were in Japan, we didn't film those man-eating crabs." And they said, "What? Man-eating crabs?" This guy said, "Yeah, they got these big crabs and they attack living animals! Most crabs wait until the animal's dead, and they're like nature's Hoovers - they sweep up the garbage - but these attack you!" So Broccoli said, "My God, we gotta get them over here!" So they hired an aeroplane to bring over a tank-full of about a hundred of these crabs and they wrote some sequence where Sean fell into a vat or something with all these crabs. But nobody told them that these cotton-picking crabs were nocturnal and they only did whatever they did in the pitch-black - and it's very, very difficult to film anything, even a man-eating crab, when it's pitch black! Apparently, as soon as they saw light, they just went limp and they were out of action. They tried to get some sequence together: they put out the lights and all the 150 men on the crew were sitting around waiting for the crabs to get active. Then they'd go, "Right, lights!" and they put the camera on, but as soon as they did, the crabs would stop dead! So Broccoli said, "All right, we'll fix the bastards. We're going to have a crab-meat buffet! If they won't work in the light, they'll work in the boiling water!" But the RSPCA said, "No, no. No can do. You brought these crabs over as actors. You can't eat them!" So they had to go to the expense of putting them back on the 'plane in the tank and sending them back to Japan. That was the kind of atmosphere in those heady days, when money meant nothing.
Now, Michael Billington and I went to a convention in Los Angeles last summer. I hadn't seen Mike in fifteen or twenty years and we had the most enjoyable transatlantic trip from Heathrow to LA. He told me a lot of these stories about Bond and I got on my knees to beg him to write a book, because he was tested to play Bond SEVEN times! I didn't know that. And he never got it! But he was a personal friend of Cubby Broccoli's, because he had a romantic attachment to his daughter and they lived together in LA for about five or six hears. When we were out in Los Angeles attending this convention, he went to visit Mr. Broccoli who was in his Eighties, and when he came back I said, "Mike, did you never ask the man why you never got cast as Bond?" And he said, "No, I never asked him." I just couldn't understand that. Somebody must be able to say, "Well, Mike, we thought you were..." you know - something. There would be some reason. But he never asked him and Broccoli never volunteered it. But to be tested for a major part like that seven time, and not get it...! I think Michael really would have been wonderful, because this was just after UFO. Apparently it came down to a hair's breadth between him and Roger Moore, but they had been so badly stung with George Lazenby, who was a relative unknown, that they decided to go with Roger, who was a known quantity. But Mike was within a whisper of getting that part.
He got into The Spy Who Loved Me. He played a Russian agent and got shot by Roger Moore right at the beginning.
But he was always around the picture, because when they were looking for Bond girls, he would go in and play Bond for the screen test with them. He'd be in LA and they'd fly him over to Paris first-class, put him up in a hotel... it's really rough isn't it? But I begged him to find the time to write it all down, because it's a wonderful phenomenon. Those days will never come back again.
You were briefly involved with Gerry's most recent series Space Precinct. I wondered how you thought it compared with UFO and Gerry's earlier work?
I haven't seen an episode. I don't know why that is - it's on at the wrong time of day for me or something. But I did the voice-over on the promotional trailer for him. They made a short film of the series to take to America to sell. This trailer ran for about five minutes, so I saw quite a bit of it. I thought it looked interesting, but it did get very mixed notices. I keep hearing conflicting stories as to whether they're going to go on making more or not.
I saw Gerry about a month ago. We were being interviewed for French television, because they're showing UFO out there, and I thought Gerry was wonderfully game to come out, because he no longer has any responsibility for UFO. He sold it off to other people. They asked him if he would mind saying something in French to these people - "Je suis Gerry Anderson, magnifique..." you know, some little phrase - and he had a real hard time doing it. He really tried on camera, it must have been shot after shot. He had enough clout to sat, "I'm sorry, I can't do it. Would you just cut?" and walk away. But he really, really tried, and I admired him for that.
Throughout your career, you have been cast in roles of authority, playing Majors and Colonels, rich executives, TV producers, managers and agents. Do you feel as though you have been typecast in your career as these 'men of authority', or have you taken on enough of a variety of other roles that you don't really think about it in those terms?
Well, I've done a lot of fringe plays over pubs. I've done some really bizarre, off-the-wall plays. I emptied the Latchmere Theatre in Bayswater doing a play by an obscure East-European playwright. So, I'm adventurous and I'll put my hand to anything. I've played at the National Theatre, in the West End, and all over. But in terms of the visual thing, films and television... yes, I guess that's down to my 'WASP' background and the chemistry that you bring to a part, but what you look like may not be necessarily what you feel in yourself.
I once worked with a wonderful old actor, Eddie Albert. I was in Norway for about five weeks with him. He's always played these kind of right-wing, Conservative Americans and I'm very much Left politically, so I met him with some trepidation. Reagan had just been re-elected and I said to him, "I suppose you're pleased that the Republican Reagan has got back in." He thought for a minute and said, "No, no, he's terrible, he's terrible! He's a lousy President!" I felt a little bit relieved, because he was a very Liberal, Left-wing guy. But he had been back-listed in the film industry back in the Fifties because he spoke out about 'fairness for this country' or 'that country' and so on, and the authorities were very nervous, with McCarthyism and all that. Fortunately, he and his wife were a song-and-dance team, so he could go and make a living in night-clubs in New York or wherever. He's still alive - I saw him last year in LA. So the persona of the person that you sometimes portray is not always what you are yourself, as an actor.
One of the reasons I got along with Mike Billington very well is that he was very ambitious, and I applaud that. But I've been very lazy in my career. I've never had any kind of plan to it at all. As long as the phone rang and I was making a living, I never worried about anything. If they cast me in similar parts, I've never said to myself, "Wow, I've got to get out of this mould." I'll play all the Generals and rich executives and captains of industry they want. As long as you're in demand, and your craft is sought after, why should I try to tamper with that?
Top Right: "This was taken in California in 1972. I like it, but no one else does. My West Coast 'laid back' look."
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.