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CLASSIC HOLLYWOOD / SUSAN KING

David McCallum: A former TV idol's second act

The onetime 'Man From U.N.C.L.E' teen heartthrob has another hit on his hands some 40 years later with 'NCIS.'

September 16, 2009|Susan King

David McCallum has heard this story before. But ever the gentleman, he listens intently as a female baby boomer relates how he made her pre-teen heart skip more than a few beats as the blond, blue-eyed Russian-born secret agent Ilya Kuryakin on NBC's 1964-65 espionage series "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."

Kuryakin and the equally sexy American spy Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) worked for a secret government agency called the United Network Command for Law Enforcement whose nemesis was the evil THRUSH -- the Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.

The youthful and charming actor, who turns 76 on Saturday, recalls that "U.N.C.L.E-mania" was so great that one day it took three mounted policemen to escort him out of Central Park.

"I just went for a walk," says McCallum. "I was staying at the Plaza for the weekend and literally had to be hoisted onto a police horse and taken out. "

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 17, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 2 inches; 74 words Type of Material: Correction
David McCallum: In Wednesday's Calendar, the Classic Hollywood column about David McCallum said that the TV series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." ran from 1964 to 1965. It ran from 1964 to 1968. The article also misspelled the first name of the character McCallum played, Illya Kuryakin, as Ilya. Additionally, the article said that "U.N.C.L.E." stood for the United Network Command for Law Enforcement. It stood for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.

And the series allowed the Scotsman to meet politicians, sports figure and other noted individuals. "It allowed me to meet Sen. Ted Kennedy. I went out to the compound simply because I was in the show. We went sailing with him."

The long-running CBS action series "NCIS," which begins its seventh season Tuesday, has brought McCallum even more notoriety.

McCallum plays the eccentric Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard, the chief medical examiner who has seen it all. Ducky frequently uses his psychological training to help the team understand clues left by the killers. The bespectacled, bow-tie-wearing Ducky also has a warm and often sarcastic friendship with the NCIS team's head special agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon).

Not only is "NCIS" consistently in the top 10 Nielsen ratings each week, repeats air on USA, ION and Sleuth. "I would watch myself on JetBlue," says McCallum, who lives with his wife of 42 years, former model-interior decorator Katherine Carpenter, in New York. While "NCIS" is in production, he stays in a one-bedroom apartment in Santa Monica and drives a secondhand car.

He describes the ensemble series as "the little engine" that could despite his belief that CBS hasn't done much to promote the show. "We never had a feeling that they were throwing everything they could behind to make us more of a success," he says, relaxing in his trailer on the Valencia set of "NCIS."

McCallum starts to laugh. "We just did it on our own with sheer guts and hard work."

The actor is celebrating his 63rd year in the business. He began performing plays on BBC Radio where his father, David McCallum Sr., principal first violinist with the London Philharmonic and Royal Philharmonic, also worked.

McCallum went to the Royal Academy of Music where he played the oboe -- which he still plays -- but realized after a few days with the senior orchestra that he wasn't good enough to keep up with the group.

So he turned to theater. As a teenager, he had done a great deal of amateur theater but more on the technical side -- building scenery and being a stage manager.

"I was a small, emaciated blond with a caved chest, so there weren't an awful lot of parts for me," he says.

He briefly attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and later became a stage manager at a repertory theater in northern London.

"That lead me into national service," McCallum relates. "You had to go into the Army. I went to West Africa. I teamed up with a young gentleman who did local dramatics. I had a great time stage-managing the Army."

Upon his discharge he went back to London, where he had been promised a stage manager position at a theater. But when he learned of the paltry wages, he went to the Oxford Playhouse where he focused on acting.

"I did a lot of live TV," says McCallum. And he began to get more film work including 1958's Titanic classic "A Night to Remember," a mental patient in 1962's "Freud" and a POW in 1963's "The Great Escape." While shooting "Escape" in Europe, the film's director, John Sturges, allowed him 10 days off to come to Los Angeles to test for the role of the apostle Judas in George Stevens' 1965 epic "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

"My first encounter with America was driving a white Chevrolet with a red interior driving down Sunset Boulevard listening to the Supremes on the radio and saying, 'What took me so long to find this place?' And miracles of miracles, I got the part."

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Elsewhere

Originally titled "Alcoa Presents: One Step Beyond," this creepy anthology series, which aired on ABC from 1959 to 1961, revolved around supposedly true tales of paranormal events and situations that defied logic. The first season of this kicky show arrived Tuesday on DVD.

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susan.king@latimes.com

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