Lake Worth Beach resident Mark "Billy" Billingham leads training exercises for celebrity recruits on the Fox reality competition series "Special Forces: World's Toughest Test." (Credit: Pete Dadds / FOX. ©2022 FOX Media LLC)
Billingham spent nearly 20 years in Britain’s Special Air Service, reaching the rank of sergeant major while specializing in paratrooping, counterterrorism, sniper instruction, combat survival and jungle warfare. Now, he's putting celebrities through their paces as a member of the Directing Staff on the Fox reality competition series.
His TV crew includes British Special Boat Service operator Jason Fox, U.S. Recon Marine Rudy Reyes and U.S. Navy SEAL Remi Adeleke.
Lake Worth Beach resident Mark "Billy" Billingham speaks to celebrity recruits on a recent episode of the Fox reality competition series "Special Forces: World's Toughest Test." (Credit: Pete Dadds / FOX. ©2022 FOX Media LLC)
Those four put basketball’s Dwight Howard, football’s Danny Amendola, soccer’s Carli Lloyd, baseball’s Mike Piazza, skiing’s Gus Kenworthy, and celebs Anthony Scaramucci, Kenya Moore and Hannah Brown through the grueling physical and mental exercises they underwent in the military.
It’s the Americanized version of British predecessor "SAS: Who Dares Wins." Filmed in Jordan, Vietnam, Chile, Ecuador, Morocco and Britain, the episodes have proved therapeutic for viewers, Billingham says.
“We’ve been running the show in the U.K. for eight seasons,” he says. “What we didn’t realize was the feedback we’d get on how helpful it would become to people. They’re watching contestants get pushed to their limits and responding that it’s therapeutic and helping them get out of some dark places.”
None of the 16 contestants on the two-hour, Jan. 4 American debut felt they were undergoing therapy while attempting blind backward dives into the ocean off a helicopter, scaling a ravine hundreds of feet in the air and attacking a padded staff member. In between, they carried 30-pound rucksacks on their backs and endured military-style sleeping quarters, unisex facilities and food they’re not accustomed to.
“They’re going through 18-hour days,” Billingham says, “with no breaks and no retakes. Being British, I didn’t know much about them beforehand, which is good. I could take them at face value.”
Reyes, Fox and Adeleke provide strong, silent leadership, but Billingham — the eldest, most decorated and most awarded — often injects unintended humor as the psychological bad cop.
“Some of the challenge involves having orders barked at you,” he says. “I’ve known Jason for a long time. Rudy joined the British series two seasons ago, and Remi near the end of last season. The camaraderie is second to none. I was fighting side by side with American forces in the global war on terrorism after 9/11.”
TV personalities Kate Gosselin and Dr. Drew Pinsky, R&B singer Montell Jordan, and celebrity chef Tyler Florence exited early through injury, dehydration or surrender. Howard was unaware that his fear of heights would be tested while failing to scale the ravine. Disagreeing with Billingham tested him further.
“Don’t shake your head at me, or I’ll tear it off and beat you with it,” Billingham says.
Sitting on his back patio with wife Julie Colombino-Billingham and English bulldog Alfie, Billingham cuts a different figure from his on-screen persona. His understated, soft-spoken demeanor contrasts with that full-throated TV voice; his face and eyes soften from a chiseled screen visage approximating a veteran British boxer.
The 57-year-old’s multifaceted career nears that of a modern-day Renaissance man. Billingham was Angelina Jolie’s head of security when she filmed the 2008 movie “Changeling” with director Clint Eastwood. He then met fellow humanitarian Colombino-Billingham, a fashion designer and disaster relief responder, in Haiti.
“We arrived there 10 days after the 2010 earthquake and got together,” Billingham says. “Julie formed a charity called Rebuild Globally. It puts kids through school for training, then provides jobs for them.”
“People graduate our training program, but there may be no jobs if our business isn’t successful,” Colombino-Billingham says. “Haiti has an 80% unemployment rate. Our new collection of travel bags and accessories, made there in our factory, is available through our company Deux Mains.”
Billingham’s motivational speaking career echoes his coming-of-age 2019 autobiography, “The Hard Way.” Subsequent fictional books give glimpses of his classified hostage rescues and strategic operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, South America and Africa.
Soldier, bodyguard, actor, speaker, author and amiable guy next door, Billingham is clearly a good man to have nearby — in times of war and peace.
“Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test” airs at 9 p.m. ET Wednesdays through March 1.