David McCallum


David McCallum was born in 1933 in Glasgow.   He began his career in British films in the 1950’s usually as a skinny sullen juvenile deliquent.In the early 1960’s he went to Hollywood and very soon became enourmously in the television series “The Man from Uncle”.   He has since gone on to have a very lenghty career on television in the United States.   His films include “A Night to Remember”, “Robbery Under Arms” and “The Great Escape”.   Interview with David McCallum here.

TCM Overview:

A thoughtful, intense presence on television in America and his native United Kingdom, David McCallum was a pop culture sensation in the mid-1960s as the suave spy, Illya Kuryakin, on “The Man from U.N.C.L.E” (CBS, 1965-68) and later as the avuncular Donald “Ducky” Mallard on “NCIS: Naval Criminal Service Investigation” (CBS, 2003). The Scottish-born McCallum worked his way up the ranks in British film and television before bursting onto the American scene with “U.N.C.L.E.” His cool charm and blonde good looks made him an immediate TV idol, but failed to translate into stardom after the show left the air. McCallum settled into a steady diet of TV appearances on both sides of the Atlantic, frequently essaying mellowed professorial types or pensive government figures, before scoring his late-inning smash with “NCIS.” The rare performer with two major hits to his credit, McCallum’s image and talent ensured his fame for generations of TV fans.

Born David Keith McCallum, Jr. in Glasgow, Scotland on Sept. 19, 1933, he was the son of David McCallum, Sr., the famed principal violinist for numerous orchestras in the United Kingdom, including the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, and cellist Dorothy Dorman. Both parents encouraged McCallum and his brother Iain, who later became a novelist, to pursue their chosen fields; for McCallum, this was initially the oboe, which he studied at the Royal Academy of Music. But when a performance from Shakespeare’s “King John” at a local theater group yielded a positive response from its audience, he switched his focus to acting while keeping music as a secondary interest. After studying at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, he made his debut in a 1946 BBC Radio production of “Whom the Gods Love, Die Young.” Bit and supporting roles in British features and on television soon followed, often as troubled youth, as benefiting his brooding intensity. Among his more notable turns during his period was in 1958’s “Violent Playground,” where his psychotic gang member is spurred by poverty and rock and roll to take a classroom of school children hostage

McCallumâ’s American film debut came as the mother-fixated Carl von Schlosser in John Huston’s “Freud” (1962), with Montgomery Clift as the pioneering analyst. The following year, he played Royal Navy Officer Ashley-Pitt, who devised the method of dispersing the dirt from tunnels dug under a POW camp in “The Great Escape” (1963). His co-star in the film, Charles Bronson, later became entangled in a headline-grabbing relationship with McCallum’s wife, actress Jill Ireland. McCallum and Ireland eventually divorced in 1967, which allowed her to marry Bronson. An early American television appearance on “The Outer Limits” (CBS, 1963-65) became one of his most enduring, thanks to the eye-popping makeup applied to McCallum. His character, a bitter Welsh miner, agreed to take part in an evolutionary experiment, which turned him into a hyper-intelligent mutant with a massive domed cranium. The image was memorable enough to make McCallum a go-to for numerous science fiction efforts in the ensuing decades.

In 1964, McCallum was cast as Illya Kuryakin, a minor character on the spy series “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Despite having only two lines, the producers saw that McCallum and star Robert Vaughn had considerable chemistry together, and boosted the character to co-star status. The move changed McCallum’s career forever. Kuryakin’s cool demeanor, physical proficiency with any weapon, and passion for art, music and science  not to mention his wealth of blonde hair  made him an immediate favorite among female viewers, whose fan mail to the actor was the most ever received in the history of MGM, which produced the show. For the series three years on the air, McCallum was at the apex of television stardom, and netted two Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe nod, as well as major roles in several films. He was the tormented Judas in George Stevens’s epic Biblical drama “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (1965), and took the lead in a number of minor features, including 1968’s “Sol Madrid” and “Mosquito Squadron” (1969), many of which traded on McCallum’s popularity in “U.N.C.L.E.” by casting him in action-oriented roles. During this period, McCallum also orchestrated and conducted a trio of lush, sonically adventurous records that put unique spins on some of the period’s more popular songs

In the 1970s, McCallum was a fixture on television in both America and England. In the States, he was a staple of science fiction and supernaturally-themed TV features, including “Hauser’s Memory” (NBC, 1970), as a scientist who injected himself with a dying colleagues brain fluid to preserve defense secrets from foreign agents, while “She Waits” (CBS, 1972) cast him as the husband to a possessed Patty Duke. He also briefly returned to series work with “The Invisible Man” (NBC, 1975-76) as a scientist who used his invisibility formula to aid a government agency against evildoers. His work in England hewed more towards dramatic fare: in “Colditz” (BBC, 1972-74), he was an aggressive RAF officer who put aside his anger towards the Nazis to help organize an escape from a notorious German war prison, while in “Sapphire & Steel” (ITV, 1979-1982), he and Joanna Lumley played extraterrestrial operatives who investigated strange incidents involving the time-space continuum. In 1983, he reunited with Robert Vaughn for “The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.” (CBS), which saw Illya retired from espionage to design womenâ¿¿s clothing in New York. The escape of a top enemy spy brings both U.N.C.L.E. men back into action, albeit with other, younger agents. The TV-movie was intended as the pilot for a new version of the series, but the show was never greenlit.

After logging time on countless, unmemorable series like “Team Knight Rider” (syndicated, 1997-98) and “The Education of Max Bickford” (CBS, 2001-02), McCallum found his next hit with “NCIS,” a police procedural drama about Navy investigators. McCallum played Chief Medical Examiner Donald “Ducky” Mallard, an eccentric but highly efficient investigator with a knack for psychological profiling. A close confidante to Mark Harmon’s Jethro Gibbs, he served as father confessor and paternal figure for the show’s offbeat cast of characters. The show’s slow-building popularity brought McCallum back to a television audience made up in part of the children of viewers who sent him fan letters back in the “U.N.C.L.E.” days, granting him a rare burst of second stardom

British film institute obituary in 2023

At one point in the 1960s, David McCallum, who has died at the age of 90, was the hottest British actor in Hollywood. Nicknamed ‘The Blond Beatle’, he had become a pop culture phenomenon for playing a Russian spy on an American TV show at the height of the Cold War. According to MGM, McCallum received more mail from female fans than any other actor in the studio’s history, including Clark Gable and Elvis Presley. Not bad for someone who only had two lines in the pilot.

Born in Glasgow on 19 September 1933, McCallum was the son of classical musicians who settled in Hampstead when his father became leader of the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1936. He became so proficient on the oboe that he took classes at the Royal Academy of Music. However, the thrill of being applauded as Prince Arthur in an amateur production of King John convinced the eight year-old that his future lay in acting. 

In 1946, McCallum secured his Equity card after making his radio debut in Whom the Gods Love, Die Young. Several juvenile roles followed at the BBC before McCallum became an assistant stage manager at Glyndebourne on leaving school. Following National Service with the Royal West African Frontier Force, he trained at RADA from 1949 to 1951, where Joan Collins was a classmate. 

Repertory stints in Frinton-on-Sea and Oxford ensued before McCallum made his television bow in The Rose and the Ring (1953). More in hope than expectation, he sent photographs to the Rank Organisation and was cast by debuting director Clive Donner as a leather-jacketed James Dean wannabe in the crime drama The Secret Place (1957). Next, he hobbled on crutches as Stanley Baker’s younger brother in the gritty realist thriller Hell Drivers, and married co-star Jill Ireland shortly after the shoot. They were paired as lovers down under in Robbery Under Arms (both 1957) before headlining the seedy crime saga Jungle Street (1960) as a mugger and a stripper. 

The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961)

Reuniting with Baker, McCallum impressed as another delinquent in Basil Dearden’s problem picture Violent Playground (1958). His Scouse accent was patchy, although as a gang leader he oozed surly charisma. But two parts as radio operators, in the Titanic drama A Night to Remember (1958) and war story The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961), signalled a shift towards more mature roles, and McCallum left to try his luck in Hollywood.

Although he had been cast as Judas Iscariot in the Biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), delays meant that McCallum was already established by the time it was released. Having suffered from an Oedipus complex in John Huston’s Freud and shown sailor Terence Stamp kindness as a gunnery officer in Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd (both 1962), McCallum guaranteed his place in cult movie folklore as Eric Ashley-Pitt, the POW who earns the nickname ‘Dispersal’ for devising an ingenious way of shifting tunnel soil in The Great Escape (1963).

Yet it was television that proved McCallum’s métier. He gave notice as a time-tweaking inventor and a mutating Welsh miner in two episodes of the sci-fi series The Outer Limits (1963/64). And it was as Illya Kuryakin in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964 to 1968) that he became a superstar. Having only been a minor character in the feature-length 1963 pilot Solo, the Russian with a blonde mop and a penchant for black turtlenecks became equal partners with Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn), as the agents of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement sought to confound the nefarious schemes of the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity, or THRUSH.

Although Kuryakin was intense, introverted and intellectual, McCallum played him with such cool charm and enigmatic wit over 105 episodes that he earned a Golden Globe and two Emmy nominations. He and Vaughn also made eight spin-off features, as well as The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair (1983), a teleplay that started with Kuryakin as a fashion designer. 

A comeback series didn’t materialise, but McCallum had exploited his peak fame to record four instrumental albums with producer David Axelrod, one of which contained ‘The Edge’, which was sampled by Dr Dre and resurfaced in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver (2017). His own excursions as an big-screen action man, Sol Madrid (1968) and Mosquito Squadron (1969), underwhelmed, however, and McCallum retreated back into television.

Sapphire & Steel (1979-82)

Following the neglected TV horror movies Hauser’s Memory (1970) and She Waits (1972), McCallum returned to Blighty to play a short-fused RAF officer in Colditz (1972 to 74), Jacobite warrior Alan Breck Stewart in an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped (1978), and an impassive extra-dimensional detective alongside Joanna Lumley in Sapphire & Steel (1979 to 1982). He would later team effectively with Diana Rigg in the miniseries Mother Love (1989) and steal scenes as a gambler in Howard’s Way follow-up show Trainer (1991 to 1992), during a period in which he trod the US guest star circuit following the short-lived sci-fi series The Invisible Man (1975 to 1976). 

However, a cameo in the legal series JAG (2003) turned into a 20-year gig, as McCallum reached a new audience as medical examiner Dr Donald Mallard in spin-off show NCIS (2003-). Sporting a bow-tie and dispensing offbeat avuncular wisdom over 457 episodes, ‘Ducky’ so caught McCallum’s imagination that he studied pathology and attended so many autopsies in order to appear credible in the role that he became something of a forensics expert.  

  • David McCallum, 19 September 1933 to 25 September 2023

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