Remembering David McCallum, From His Earliest Days as a British Actor of Rising Reputation Through 20 Years on NCIS
1957 was a big year for David McCallum, the respected Glasgow-born actor known for “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” “The Great Escape” and his 20-year run on “NCIS” as quirky pathologist Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard.
The actor, who died Sept. 25 at the age of 90, logged six mentions in Variety that year, starting with the March 20 edition of weekly that featured him in the cast list of a review of the British “crimer meller” (aka crime melodrama) “The Secret Place.” From then on, McCallum was a staple in our pages, limning movies, TV shows, legit stages in the U.S. and U.K. He never stopped working.
1957 was also the year McCallum married actor Jill Ireland in London, an event commemorated with a wedding announcement in the May 22, 1957, edition of weekly.
Five months later, McCallum got his first detailed mention in a review of British drama “Robbery Under Arms,” a Rank film production also starring Peter Finch, Ronald Lewis and Ireland. McCallum was one half of a pair of brothers who get swept into a life of crime, and he was singled out in our review. “Good opportunities are given to the brothers, Lewis and McCallum. The latter, in the more subtle part, enhances his rising reputation.”
Growing up in that era of Britain, it’s no surprise that McCallum was a Rank regular. But by the early 1960s, McCallum’s star climbed as he landed a supporting role in the 1963 Steve McQueen hit “The Great Escape.” (Scandal ensued, however, when Ireland and “Great Escape” co-star Charles Bronson began an affair on the set. Bronson and Ireland were married from 1968 until her death from breast cancer in 1990.)
Soon after “The Great Escape,” McCallum relocated to swinging Hollywood, co-starring with Robert Vaughn in the spy-fi comedy series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” for four seasons. MGM Television produced the NBC series that was inspired by the success of the James Bond film franchise. McCallum earned back-to-back Emmy nominations in 1965 and 1966 for the show, and the series nabbed the Golden Globe Award in 1966 for Most Popular TV Show.
MGM kept McCallum busy in features during his “Man From U.N.C.L.E” hiatus. In 1967 he starred in the globe-trotting movie comedy “Three Bites of the Apple” with Harvey Korman, Sylvia Koscina and Tammy Grimes. “Box office is the name of the game … so let yourself go with McCallum,” MGM exhorted in an ad in the Feb. 8, 1967, edition of weekly Variety for “Three Bites.”
Still, he never strayed too far from the boards. “Dave McCallum” landed prime page-one placement in the June 24, 1968, edition of Daily Variety when he was set to star in the Broadway adaptation of the hit London tuner “The Flip Side,” which opened Oct. 10 on the Main Stem and closed Oct. 12.
McCallum juggled all manner of film, TV and stage projects in the 1970s and ’80s. In the early 1970s he co-starred with Robert Wagner in the British drama series “Colditz” — a bit of foreshadowing of things to come decades later when Wagner joined the cast of “NCIS.”
And who says reboots and remakes are a recent phenomenon? Fifteen years after the original series ended, CBS reunited Vaughn and McCallum for a “The Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.” TV movie that had its charms, according to our review from the April 7, 1983, edition of Daily Variety: “Robert Vaughn and David McCallum resume their spy-snooping as slickly as though they never left,” our critic wrote.
Any actor fortunate enough to have a long career will inevitably deal with some downturns. McCallum did a fair amount of low-profile indie and Euro-financed movies in the 1990s. After he landed the “NCIS” gig in 2003, he mostly stuck to moonlighting with voice work in animated series and video games.
In 2012, Variety paid tribute to “NCIS” as it reached its 200 episode milestone – a rare achievement for series and one that has become even more unusual in contemporary times.
We couldn’t have known it back then, but “NCIS” and McCallum were destined to deliver more than 250 more episodes (not to mention two more spinoffs) during his stint on the show, which is heading into Season 21, although the premiere date is still in flux after production was delayed by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes).
The show clearly won’t be the same without his authoritative and avuncular presence. As we wrote in our Sept. 22, 2003, review of the pilot for the series originally titled “Navy NCIS,” McCallum’s character was key to adding “scientific insight and personality quicks aplenty” to the ensembler.
Rest in peace, Ducky.
(Pictured top left: An ad for “Three Bites of the Apple” from the Feb. 8, 1967, edition of Daily Variety; pictured top right: A “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” congratulations ad from the Feb. 7, 1966, edition of Daily Variety.)
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