By: Bill Brioux Special to the Star, Published on Thu Aug 22 2013
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIF.—There was a spy at the CBS party.
Among all the stars from TV shows old and new, on CBS, The CW and Showtime, among all the reporters, critics and bloggers, there was a spy. His name: Illya Kuryakin, a.k.a. David McCallum.
The former Man from U.N.C.L.E. star doesn’t look much like an international spy these days. In his camel-coloured tweed jacket, with his American flag pin on his lapel, he looks more like a college professor.
From 1964-68, however, he was a sensation as enigmatic Russian spy Kuryakin. Opposite Robert Vaughn, this actor from Scotland with the blond Beatles ’do was suddenly the epitome of cool, a James Bond for the small screen smack in the middle of the swinging ’60s.
Bonanza, Lucille Ball, Red Skelton and The Beverly Hillbillies were Top 10 TV draws at the time. Flash forward nearly 50 years and there’s McCallum, who could easily be the grandfather of many of today’s TV stars. Few at the CBS party would believe he turns 80 next month.
McCallum is heading into his 11th season on the No. 1 show in America and perhaps worldwide, NCIS. The drama draws a steady 24 million U.S. viewers a week and averaged about 2.5 million more per week last season on Global as Canada’s top-rated drama.
Nobody else has starred on a U.S. network prime-time series for 100 episodes in the ’60s and over 200 and counting this century.
“To me, the numbers don’t add up,” says McCallum. “I mean, how old I am, 11 years on this show, it’s all just wonderful, and I have an extraordinary wife and wonderful children and grandchildren, and everybody is progressing you know, the way they should.”
Born in Glasgow, McCallum appeared in British movies like A Night to Remember in the late ’50s before coming to America. “I knew nothing of this place,” he says.
He recalls swimming off the coast of Malibu and being the only one in the ocean because “for everyone else, it was freezing cold. For me, it was balmy and warm, because I’d come from Britain.”
A few years later, he was driving along Sunset Boulevard in a white, ’61 T-bird, “listening to The Supremes and thinking, ‘What took me so long?’ ”
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. “changed my entire life,” he says. Originally a secondary character, shadowy Kuryakin became such a pop idol the actor was getting more fan mail than anyone in the history of MGM Studios.
McCallum says he still hears from U.N.C.L.E. fans. He was listening to a band in Long Island, N.Y., on the 4th of July and one of the members came up to him and gave him a box. In it was an old toy gun from the series.
“It was quite extraordinary,” says McCallum. “I wrote him a note of thanks. His mother had died, and he’d gone through all her old possessions and found this box of stuff he’d had as a kid. Pretty damn cool.”
All that fame came with a price, says McCallum, who dryly notes, “My first wife (actress Jill Ireland) went off with Charlie Bronson.”
He’s been married for nearly 50 years to second wife Katherine and would much rather talk about her and their extended family than any TV show. “My wife is the dominant part of my life,” he says.
He does admit, however, that his late-blooming success on NCIS is “the icing on the cake.” He plays Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard, a U.S. Navy and Marine Corps medical examiner.
“He was a teen idol,” says cast mate Pauley Parrette (forensic specialist Abby Sciuto). “Then on our show, his character and my character, we have these full-blown monologues about forensic evidence. It’s hard enough for me, but for him, he’s spot on every time.”
Parrette says he’s always the first one on the set and blocks his own scenes, “it doesn’t matter who the director is.”
Original NCIS executive producer Donald Bellisario once said McCallum became such an expert on forensics he was considering making him a technical adviser on the show.
McCallum gives all the credit for the show’s success to the fans. “The only reason we’re going into Season 11 is because the people who watch us have given us what they’ve given us. It’s not us, it’s them. It’s how they react to the whole thing.”
While there were lean years in between (McCallum even shot a few forgettable “Hollywood North” TV movies in Canada in the ’80s), bridging five decades of prime-time TV success is unprecedented.
McCallum is grateful, but gets an even bigger kick at the party from the text message he receives from a grandson back in New York: “I love you Granddaddy.”