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Remembering 'NCIS' actor David McCallum

TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. We're remembering the Scottish-born actor David McCallum, who died Monday at the age of 90. He played the bow-tied medical examiner known as Ducky on the CBS series NCIS.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NCIS")

DAVID MCCALLUM: (As Donald Mallard) I received a call from a man claiming to be a lawyer. He said he had information about a member of my family. I suggested that we meet at the coffee shop around the front there.

MARK HARMON: (As Leroy Jethro Gibbs) What kind of information?

MCCALLUM: (As Donald Mallard) Well, actually, he didn't have any. When it became quickly apparent that he was fishing for information from me, I left.

HARMON: (As Leroy Jethro Gibbs) And he followed you?

MCCALLUM: (As Donald Mallard) Yes. He tried to force me into that van. I struggled, and I was knocked unconscious. When I awoke, I was exactly as you found me, trussed up like a chicken.

MOSLEY: But it was his TV role nearly 60 years ago that made him famous and a heartthrob. He played a Russian spy on the tongue-in-cheek secret agent series, "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," which stood for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.")

MCCALLUM: (As Illya Kuryakin) I am Illya Kuryakin. I am also an enforcement agent. Like my friend Napoleon, I go and I do whatever I am told to by our chief.

MOSLEY: McCallum also performed in various roles in theater and film, most notably playing Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in Central Park in 2000. He was trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, though at one time he was expected to pursue a career in music. His father was the first violinist for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, and his mother was a cellist. Terry Gross spoke to David McCallum in 1992, when he was appearing in the British film "Hear My Song."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: David McCallum, I have to ask you about "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," the series that you co-starred in from 1964 to '68. And in asking you about it, I have to confess that I had a real crush on you (laughter). I was probably one of, like, millions of teenage girls. Was that annoying to you or fun or what, to know that there were all these teenage girls, like myself, out there who had crushes on you?

MCCALLUM: Well, you don't actually think about it that much at the time. You do, of course. But at the time I was doing "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," my main concern was the script and the part and the day and the day's work and getting to the studio and going into MGM. And there was a magical element as far as I was concerned, because I'd been brought up in Europe and brought up in London on the - you know, on Hollywood. And there I was driving a '57 Chevy down Sunset Boulevard with the top down in the sunshine and going to MGM to work. So I was quite overawed by what was happening to me, quite apart from what was happening to the show.

When the show began and there was this adulation, that was very wonderful for me and also for the show, 'cause again, they were concerned with ratings even in those days, and it was a great pleasure. Then after that, it became a bit dangerous because, like fans everywhere, there was an element of, I don't know, madness about it all. And occasionally, I couldn't go for a walk. I was rescued in Central Park by mounted policemen. And they destroyed two floors of Macy's. I think they did about $25,000 damage one day when I was there. So there was an element of things getting out of hand.

GROSS: I want to hear of what happened in Central Park.

MCCALLUM: Well, I was - I just went - I think we were staying at the Plaza Hotel, and I walked down towards - to look at the skaters. And I remember walking across the park, and it was no problem. And then somebody said, oh, look; there's Illya, or some such phrase, and came running over. And then some more did. And then, finally, there was a very large crowd of people around me. It just got to the point where I couldn't move. And mercifully, two of New York's finest came by on horses, and one of them actually picked me up, and I hung to - on the saddle, and he just eased me out and back to the plaza. But it was a moment that I hadn't really encountered up to that time of completely losing your private identity in that kind of situation.

GROSS: Well, this was the period, too, in the mid-'60s that the Beatles were very, very popular in the States. And teenage girls would go to their movies and their concerts and just scream. Were you exposed to that kind of screaming?

MCCALLUM: Yes, occasionally. I mean, it was all set up. MGM - Chuck Painter was the publicist. And he made a very definite, you know, schedule for us when we would go off and do various public appearances. And they would be announced ahead of time, and we'd be there, and they would scream. And that was all part of the job in many ways.

GROSS: What kind of stuff did the PR department crank out to satisfy your fans?

MCCALLUM: Well, it's fascinating because if you go back - I have interviews sometimes - you know, the Daily Telegraph in England recently did a piece on me, and she went back to the cuttings and got out this file. And it was fascinating because during that time, there were so many requests for interviews and so many requests for stories that Chuck and his minions - mainly Chuck himself - would actually sit down and write stories about Bob and about me, and those would go out verbatim, as if he'd actually interviewed us. And most of it is fact. But then an awful lot was made up.

GROSS: Like what?

MCCALLUM: I remember there was - one article appeared, I think, in the National Enquirer, when Katherine and I were very first married, about me coming home into the apartment and flinging my lean frame down into a chair and demanding my usual scotch and soda, which Katherine brought to me, wearing her skimpy bikini and all this. And, you know, you can't do anything about those stories. And in a way - there was another one in - not in the same publication - about me going down to the garage, selecting from my eight cars and describing each one. And these things, of course, after a while get picked up by other places, and all of this misinformation finally ends up in the most wonderful stories. And it's very amusing.

GROSS: How did you get the part on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."?

MCCALLUM: Well, I came over to this country when Britain went socialist. I decided that I did not wish to live in a country where socialism does all the things that it does to people's incomes and earning power. And here I was. I burned my boats. I had no home in London. Jill came with me. And there we were. We took a little house at the - arranged by Paul Kohner. And when I finished doing the job that I came over for, which was to do "The Greatest Story Ever Told," playing Judas Iscariot of all people, I decided that it was the right thing to do and we were going to stay and for a while did nothing. Then I got one or two jobs. The case of the, I think, the ten millionth Frenchman episode of Perry Mason and then various other things playing redcoats, of course, 'cause I was very British, and there, I would play redcoats.

And then I was one day at the - we were very friendly with Charles Bronson, still are. And Charlie took me down to the commissary at MGM. And Norman Felton, who was British and who had done a number of series at that time running "Dr. Kildare" was looking for somebody to play Bob Vaughn' sidekick in this thing at that moment known as Mr. Solo. And there were a couple of lines in the pilot. And Illya Kuryakin had some jazz records under his bed. That's the only thing I remember about it. And I agreed to do it. And the same day, I was offered a series playing Judas Iscariot and another one doing Alexander the Great, which was fascinating because I didn't realize that these sort of things came always on the same day.

GROSS: Weren't you a Russian defector in "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."?

MCCALLUM: No. I was a Russian working for, well, NBC, basically. There was no real discussion as to whether he defected or not. It was an organization that allowed people to work who were Russian and who were American, which was a unique idea in itself. But there was no question of defection. There was one line in it about my education being at the University of Georgia, which I left because I thought it was - you know, it was a sufficiently enigmatic.

But his background and - actually, what happened is what Look magazine called a climate of negatives, I think it was. But what I did in the beginning was - because I wasn't sure about what he was or where he came from. When anybody wrote in a script a specific about a marriage, about a son, about a child, about a job, I would take it out. Or I would quote Shelley or Keats in order to avoid the question. So in all hundred shows or whatever we did of Illya Kuryakin, there is nothing anywhere that pins him down to anything specific.

GROSS: That's interesting. Did you feel like the show helped promote the Cold War (laughter)?

MCCALLUM: I think because the Vietnam War at that time was causing terrible anguish in this country, and it was when the newsreels were beginning to become less censored - and there was the sort of whole violent reaction to it, particularly among the young people, particularly among people in college and in school - that this was, in a strange way, a relief. It was like saying it's possible for Russians and Americans to work together. It's possible for there to be no Cold War. And I think that had partly to do with its success.

I think, you know, it's always - timing is always very important. And I think the show coming out at that time - Vietnam definitely had a bearing on it because an awful lot of people that come to me now and say, you know, I grew up with you, I went through college with you, that's the line I hear more. And particularly policemen and undercover agents, they say the reason I joined this profession was because of you.

GROSS: Really?

MCCALLUM: So I think the formative years of that time, it had an effect on a whole group of people.

GROSS: What was it like for you after the series ended when you tried to get other roles on TV or in films?

MCCALLUM: Well, it was difficult. It was a very difficult situation, very difficult time and a problem. And I didn't know quite how to deal with it. My reaction was to say, well, I've now become so well-known as Illya Kuryakin that if I go away from it and stay away from it, it'll go away. And so I just decided to not do television. And I moved to New York, and I did a lot of theater. And I worked back in England.

And I would do the odd Hallmark or the odd special, but I basically stayed out of television. It was completely the wrong thing to do in many ways because I think if I'd stayed in Los Angeles and stayed in Hollywood, I would have gone on to do a great deal more television and had a different career. In a way, I prefer the one I've got, but it's interesting to surmise what might have happened.

MOSLEY: Actor David McCallum talking to Terry Gross in 1992. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GOLDSMITH'S "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.")

MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1992 interview with actor David McCallum, best known for his roles as Ducky, the eccentric medical examiner on the CBS series "NCIS," and earlier in his career for Russian agent Illya Kuryakin in the TV series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." McCallum died Monday at the age of 90.

GROSS: Now, you were a child actor on the BBC. Your television career dates back that far?

MCCALLUM: Yes, I think I joined Equity in 1946, so I'd be about 12.

GROSS: Well, how did you get into TV at such a young age?

MCCALLUM: Well, I suppose it goes back to the relationship that a child has with his father and mother. And my father being a musician, he was with Sir Thomas Beecham at the time in the London Philharmonic Orchestra. And he was always away. And I didn't really have a definitive father figure in that we went to ball games and knocked about in the back garden. My mother was of the belief that you leave a child to do exactly what he wants to do. Give him total support and structure, but just let him get on with it. And so I was looking for an identity.

And one day, I went onto a stage as an amateur actor and gave a performance, and everybody applauded. And I realized that I'd found something that was, you know, like a home to come back to. And so I pursued that, and I've never done anything else ever since. At the same way - at the same time, my father was working at the BBC a great deal. And he introduced me to Laidman Browne, who was an actor with the BBC Repertory Company. And they needed boy voices, and specifically they needed boy voices who could also do accents. And I could do most of the Scottish accents at that time, and quite a lot of English ones, too. And so I worked on radio, and that's really my first professional engagement.

GROSS: I think, in the United States, a lot of actors who were child stars are now in therapy. Did any of the child acting have a bad effect on you? Or did it not have the kind of exposure and pressure that would lead to despair in later life?

MCCALLUM: No, the only despair was my headmaster at University College School in London because he felt that I was - my mind was really over in the thespian world and not in Latin and Greek, where he preferred it be. And so my report card would always make comments about this, could do - does well, but could do better, and the reason is probably because of his acting. But other than that - he eventually ended up hanging himself in his study and rather dramatically. And I went on to act. We did have one or two confrontations on the subject of the interpretation of Shakespeare, and I think he lost those two. But other than that, no, I don't think it had any real bearing.

GROSS: Now, I've read about you that you also directed theater in the British Army.

MCCALLUM: Yes. You see; you've been in the cutting book. You're dredging up those way-back things. Yes, I did. I was a very bad soldier. I was very happy to be in the army because it taught me how to be a soldier any time I had to do it as an actor. And I learned a great deal about the British colonial empire because I went to what is now Ghana when it was Gold Coast. And I joined the C company of the third battalion of the Gold Coast Regiment. And I had a silver sword, and I had feathers in my hat. And I had a boy who was about 45, I think, Tamale Kenjaga (ph), who looked after me.

And as a young subaltern, I marched up and down the Gold Coast, you know, pretending I was, you know - I don't know - a representative of the British Empire and all that. But anyway, during that time, Gold Coast became Ghana. And there was a whole - political upheavals with Kwame Nkrumah and all of that handing over. And it was very exciting and very interesting.

But because I wasn't a very good soldier, there were various jobs that you did in the officer's mess. I'm sure it's the same in the British army now. Somebody took out and looked after the wine. Somebody did all the dinners and the cooking in the mess. Somebody else did the bar. Somebody else did the band. There was always one person assigned to do all these tedious chores that nobody wanted to do. So I went to the commanding officer and said, listen. Can I do all of those jobs and not, you know, parade around and be a soldier? And he was so relieved to find somebody who was willing to do them that I became a sort of glorified maitre d' of the regiment.

GROSS: (Laughter).

MCCALLUM: And one of the things that they did, they had various dances. And so I would take a large airplane hangar and fill it with palm fronds and drape bougainvillea from the ceiling and just turn it into a - sort of an enchanted chanting sort of fairyland. And this caught on. And then the next thing was - there were the various productions that the army did. The Medical Corps did some, the Signal Corps. And they would call me in to direct, and I would direct plays with, you know, soldiers and soldiers' wives. And it was a great pleasure and a great learning experience.

GROSS: So do you think that helped your theater training?

MCCALLUM: Oh, very much so - very much so. Just going off into the bush and doing things with - you know, there were 147 Africans, and then there was Captain Linley and myself, and that was it - oh, and a color sergeant whose name was Bullet (ph). I have no idea where he is now. Sergeant Coast (ph) - that's right - who had a - he looked like - I don't know - looked like something out of "Wagon Train" and was quite wonderful - quite wonderful. And we had the experiences all through that time all up into the - to - towards - where was it? - towards Koforidua we went.

GROSS: Now, your father was a violinist. He was concertmaster for a while at the London Philharmonic.

MCCALLUM: Yes, and then worked with the BBC during the war. And then after the war, when they - they reformed the Royal Philharmonic for Sir Thomas Beecham. And they asked our father to lead it. And he came along, and he stayed with the Royal Philharmonic right through until just before Beecham retired in - I suppose that's the '60s, early '60s. And then he became Mantovani's soloist and leader and traveled all over the world with the Mantovani band.

GROSS: Yeah. So Mantovani was the king of middle-of-the-road music.

MCCALLUM: Absolutely. Yes. You cringe, but you know, I - still in the car, I'm sitting there and I hear "Softly As You Leave Me," or whatever, or "Fiddler On The Roof," and it's Father playing away. And he did a great deal of freelance work. He worked with the Beatles, which my children discovered and thought was quite wonderful.

GROSS: Wasn't Mantovani the 1,001 strings or 101 strings?

MCCALLUM: That's right.

GROSS: Or however many strings.

MCCALLUM: That sort of glissando divisi...

GROSS: Yeah.

MCCALLUM: ...Section work.

GROSS: So did he like the music, or was it just a good gig?

MCCALLUM: Well, he - my father was, you know, one of the boys. He would go down, and he'd sit there and play the music, pick up the check and come home. And no matter what he did, he was happy. He'd go and do film music. He would do, you know, commercials, anything that came along. And oddly enough, one of the things that he did - there were a couple of what they called bookers or fixers who would get the band together. And one of them was a man called Phil Green, and he put together a band for a lot of singers.

And when I heard I was going to do "Hear My Song," I got out the tapes of Josef Locke, as he is the subject of the film, and played them. And I thought, now, wait a minute. I recognize that violin - because having - you know, my father's violin playing is like his voice. I can pick it out almost anywhere. And I looked at the tape, and surely enough, the bands were all by the - you know, Phil Green and various people that Father worked for. And when I met Joe Locke I said, was that my father? And he said, absolutely. My father did most of my recordings, and I remember him well.

GROSS: That's really interesting.

MCCALLUM: Small world.

GROSS: Is your father still living?

MCCALLUM: No. He died in '72.

GROSS: I bet he would have really liked the idea of you doing this movie.

MCCALLUM: This movie, and also "Mother Love," because when I was conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London in the Westminster Hall and - so a lot of the musicians knew Father. And the principal violin said, what do you think? And I said, well, he's definitely here. He's definitely listening.

GROSS: Are you hoping that your role in "Hear My Song" is going to give you a new direction in the kind of movies that you're cast in?

MCCALLUM: Yes. I would like to think so, simply because, you know, before I did "U.N.C.L.E.," I was a character actor in pictures. That was my job. And, you know, it's a form of acting where you do any part that you're called on to do. So you alter what you do. When I did a play in London called "Run For Your Wife," which was a farce, people would come along and say, I didn't know you could do comedy. And then people see "Hear My Song" and say, I didn't expect you, you know, to play that kind of part. This is really unusual for you, isn't it? But it wasn't in the beginning. I mean, in the beginning, that was what I did. I did what came along. And in a way, it would be really nice to go back and become an actor in motion pictures, playing character parts, no matter how small, because I think that's what I enjoy the most.

GROSS: Well, I wish you the best, and I thank you a lot for talking with us. It's really been interesting to hear your story.

MCCALLUM: It's a great pleasure. Thank you.

MOSLEY: David McCallum speaking to Terry Gross in 1992. He died Monday at the age of 90. In the 1960s, David McCallum released a couple of albums of instrumental renditions of pop hits, which he conducted. Here's a track from it. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID MCCALLUM'S "THE 'IN' CROWD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.