Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Close Channel D: The Late, Great David McCallum

For many Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers, David McCallum was their first crush. For others, like myself, David McCallum was one of their childhood heroes. He played ultra-cool Russian U.N.C.L.E. agent Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., a phenomenon when it first aired and later a popular rerun in syndication. For younger audiences he may be best remembered as Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard, the eccentric, intellectual chief medical examiner on NCIS. As identified as he was with both roles, David McCallum had a career that spanned seventy years and played numerous other roles, from Lieutenant Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt ("Dispersal") in The Great Escape (1963) to Steel in the British cult television show Sapphire & Steel. Sadly, David McCallum died yesterday, September 25 2023, only a little under a week after having turned 90.

David Keith McCallum Jr. was born on September 19 1933 in Glasgow. His father was, David McCallum Sr., was an orchestral violinist and his mother Dorothy McCallum (née Dorman) was a cellist. He was only three when his family moved to London where his father played as leader in the London Philharmonic Orchestra. With World War II young David McCallum was evacuated to Gatocharn, Scotland, where he lived with is mother.

David McCallum was encouraged by his parents to pursue a career in music. He learned to play the oboe as well as the piano and the English horn. As it turned out, David McCallum learned he was more interested in acting. He played the Little Prince in Shakespeare's King John when he was only eight years old, and he believed that is what led him to decide to be an actor. David McCallum attended University College School in Hampstead, London. When he was 13, he began providing voices for BBC radio shows. For his National Service, David McCallum served in the British Army's 3rd Battalion the Middlesex Regiment. He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Among his classmates was Joan Collins. He played with the Oxford Repertory Group.

David McCallum made his television debut in the television mini-series The Rose and the Ring in 1953. His film debut was an uncredited role in Ill Met By Moonlight (1957). That same year he was cast in Clive Donner's directorial debut The Secret Place (1957), playing rebellious Cockney Mike Wilson. David McCallum signed with the Rank Organization. In the late Fifties he appeared in the films These Dangerous Years (1957), Hell Drivers (1957), Robbery Under Arms (1957), Violent Playground (1958), A Night to Remember (1958), and Jungle Street (1960). On television he was a regular on the TV program The Eustace Diamonds. He appeared in the mini-series Our Mutual Friend and played Frank Churchill in the mini-series Emma. He guest starred on the shows Television World Theatre, Saturday Playhouse, BBC Sunday-Night Play, Armchair Theatre, ITV Television Playhouse, and Knight Errant Limited.

It was in 1964 that David McCallum began playing Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Initially, Illya was meant to be a minor character, with the show centred firmly on Robert Vaughn as Napoleon Solo. Audience reaction to the character proved to be so positive that the producer eventually made David McCallum a co-star on the show, on equal footing with Robert Vaughn. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. proved to be something of a fad, achieving phenomenal ratings and producing a treasure trove of merchandise. David McCallum became a heartthrob among teenage girls and younger women, and he received more fan mail than any other actor in the history of MGM, even such well-known stars as Clark Gable and Judy Garland. Changes in time slot and a shift to camp in the show's third season resulted in a drop in ratings, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was cancelled midway in its fourth season.

In addition to his regular role on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., David McCallum also guest starred on the TV shows ITV Play of the Week, Sir Francis Drake, The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, Perry Mason, The Great Adventure, The Outer Limits, Profiles in Courage, and Please Don't Eat the Daisies (as Illya Kuryakin). In the classic movie The Great Escape (1963), he played Lieutenant Commander Ashley-Pitt, who devised a means of getting ride of the dirt excavated from the escape tunnels. He also appeared in the movies The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961), Karolina Rijecka (1961), Billy Budd (1962), Freud (1962), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), Around the World Under the Sea (1966), Three Bites of the Apple (1967), Sol Madrid (1968), Mosquito Squadron (1969), and La cattura (1969).

In the Seventies David McCallum starred on the British TV show Colditz, the short-lived American series The Invisible Man, and the British cult sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel. He also appeared in the mini-series Kidnapped. David McCallum guest starred on the TV shows Night Gallery; The Man and the City; Marcus Welby, M.D.; Norman Corwin Presents; and Bert D'Angelo/Superstar. He appeared in the movies The Kingfisher Caper (1975), Dogs (1977), King Solomon's Treasure (1979), and The Watcher in the Woods (1980).

In the Eighties David McCallum continued to star as Steel on Sapphire & Steel. He appeared in the mini-series Mother Love and Lucky Chances. He reprised his role as Illya Kuryakin in the television reunion movie The Return of The Man From U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair, and he was again reunited with Robert Vaughn on in a role very similar to Illa Kuryakin in the A-Team episode "The Say U.N.C.L.E. Affair." He also guest starred on the TV shows Strike Force; Hart to Hart; As the World Turns; The Master; Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense; Matlock; Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Monsters; Father Dowling Mysteries; Murder, She Wrote; and Boon. He appeared in the movies Terminal Choice (1985), Az aranyifjú (1987), and The Haunting of Morella (1990).

In the Nineties David McCallum starred in the TV shows Cluedo, Trainer, VR.5., and Team Knight Rider. He guest starred on the shows SeaQuest DSV, Babylon 5, Heartbeat, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Law & Order, The Outer Limits, Three, Sex and the City, and Deadline. He appeared in the movies Hear My Song (1991), Dirty Weekend (1993), Fatal Inheritance (1993), Healer (1994), and Cherry (1999).

In the Naughts David McCallum first played Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard in the two-part JAG episode "Ice Queen"/"Meltdown" that served as a backdoor pilot for NCIS. That autumn he began his long run of playing the character on NCIS. He ultimately played Ducky for twenty years, appearing in more episodes of NCIS than any other actor. He also starred on the show The Education of Max Bickford and voiced C.A.R. on the animated series The Replacements and Professor Paradox on the animated series Ben 10: Alien Force and Ben 10: Ultimate Alien. He guest starred on the TV show Jeremiah, and was a guest voice on the animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold. He was the voice of Alfred Pennyworth in the animated movie Batman: Gotham Knight (2008) and the voice of Zeus in the animated movie Wonder Woman (2009).

In the Teens David McCallum continued to play Ducky on NCIS. He also appeared as Ducky on the spin-off NCIS: New Orleans. He continued to voice Professor Paradox in the animated shows Ben 10: Omiverse. He provided the voice of Alfred Pennyworth in the animated movies Son of Batman (2014) and Batman vs. Robin (2015). In the 2020s he continued to play Ducky on NCIS.

In addition to appear in film and screen, David McCallum also provided voices for such video games as Ben 10: Alien Force--Vilgax Attacks, Diablo III, and NCIS.

Trained as a musician, David McCallum would have something of a music career. In the Sixties he recorded four albums of instrumentals for Capitol Records: Music...A Part of Me, Music...A Bit More of Me, Music...It's Happening Now!, and McCallum. His composition "The Edge" would later be sampled by rap artists and would appear in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV and the movie Baby Driver (2017).

David McCallum also wrote a novel, a thriller titled Once a Crooked Man.

It seems very likely David McCallum will always be best remembered as Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Dr. Mallard on NCIS, and Ashley-Pitt in The Great Escape. And I don't think that is merely do to the continued popularity of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., NCIS, and The Great Escape. Quite simply, he was fantastic in all three roles. He was perfect as Illa Kuryakin, the mysterious, super-cool U.N.C.L.E. agent. The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences was obviously impressed with is performance as Illya, nominating him twice for the Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievements in Entertainment - Actors and Performers and the Emmy for Outstanding Continued Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role in a Dramatic Series. He was also impressive as Ducky on NCIS, the jocular, but intellectual medical examiner. He stood out in an ensemble cast in The Great Escape as Lieutenant Commander Ashley-Pitt.

Of course, David McCallum played many more roles than Illya Kuryakin, Dr. Mallard, and Lieutenant Commander Ashley-Pitt. Many will remember him as the stoic, irascible Steel on Sapphire & Steel, a show that can aptly be described as a cross between Doctor Who and The X-Files. On Colditz he played the fiercely independent Flight Lieutenant Simon Carter, who was always antagonistic towards his German captors. He played the radio operator of the RMS Titanic in the classic A Night to Remember. In Violent Playground he played a role as far removed from Illya, Ducky, and Steel as one could get: a violent juvenile delinquent and street gang leader named Johnnie Murphy. Even in his guest appearances on various shows David McCallum could be impressive. In the Perry Mason episode "The Case of the Fifty Millionth Frenchman," he played Phillipe Bertain, a Frenchman who has no luck with women (ironically, only a few months later Mr McCallum would play the heartthrob of millions, Illya Kuryakin). In the Outer Limits episode "The Sixth Finger," he played a Welsh miner who agrees to an experiment to accelerate evolution, with disastrous results. David McCallum was an incredible actor who played  a wide variety of roles. What is more, he played all of them well.

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