By Geoff Shearer
September 23, 2009
.DAVID McCallum is in a relatively unique position to be able to forensically dissect the then-and-now of fame.
In the mid-1960s he was known as "the blonde Beatle" in reference to the fan hysteria surrounding him and his Man from U.N.C.L.E. co-star Robert Vaughn. They were the days' pin-up heart-throbs of TV, mobbed during public appearances akin to scenes experienced by The Beatles.
Today he's facing a similar level of fame as part of the hugely successful NCIS team, playing forensic medical examiner Dr Donald "Ducky" Mallard. Now into its seventh season, the drama series shows no sign of weakening.
"In the United States there's close to 20 million people who think of me as 'Ducky'. They call out: 'Ducky', 'Hey Duck'; aww God it happens all day long," he says down the phone from Santa Monica, California, where the New York resident stays in a rented apartment while NCIS is taping.
He says the level of fame he experiences now, albeit more restrained, is a "whole different crazy" to what he did playing Russian-born secret agent Illya Kuryakin in U.N.C.L.E. and is even bigger in some ways.
"You've got to think about how old people are. Illya is almost 50 years ago; and there's an enormous number of people today who weren't born back then, who have never heard of it and never will," the Glasgow-born McCallum says.
"Back then it was different. The fans back in the early days of television were mainly younger people ... and there were a lot of young women who were fanatical over Bob and I. They went crazy and tore up Macy's when I went there. And one time when we went to a university in Louisiana I had lumps of hair torn from my head. It made more publicity which generated more fan frenzy.
"Back then it took a couple of mounted policemen to rescue me in what was basically a mob in Central Park.
"But that doesn't happen anymore. It's more ubiquitous now. It happens more often, but over a gentler nature."
It is reassuring to know he doesn't get scalped when he now pops into Macy's in New York for a bit of shopping.
"Thank God," he laughs. "Well, I've still got my hair, so maybe it made it stronger."
Such resilience of nature was no doubt celebrated when McCallum returned to New York to his interior designer wife Katherine and their family for his 76th birthday on Saturday. Asked what he was expecting to receive for the occasion, McCallum says, "nothing, I have everything that I need" before clarifying he actually has too much.
"Even living here in Santa Monica for the past seven years, you just start to gather stuff; you accumulate stuff you don't really need," he says.
Although he was assured of receiving a birthday cake he couldn't be expected to bring out the scalpel to carve it up.
"Most of the scalpels I get to use are blunt," he says. "The prop guys are terrified that we are going to cut ourselves and possibly cut an actor on the table.
"You know, I think I've cut up more actors than any other actor in history."
To play Dr Mallard on NCIS, McCallum intensively studied forensics. The series' creator Don Bellisario is so in awe of McCallum's knowledge he's on record as saying he was considering making him a technical adviser on the show.
"I had a very practical reason to learn," McCallum says. "I discovered the best way to learn the lines was to know what you're talking about. If you're going to walk up to a body and do a Y-cut, I've got to know what I'm doing and where I'm standing and what it looks like. Quite fast too; it is amazing the speed at which a pathologist or technician does an autopsy.
"We could get away with fudging stuff, but I don't think that's right. It's my mandate to get everything right; the looks and sounds in the autopsy room ... the very verisimilitude, I think is the word."
As to whether other TV dramas get those details correct, McCallum can't comment. "This is a terrible thing to say but I don't really watch much television," he says. "So, no, I've never criticised or felt the need to criticise anybody else.
"I love watching old movies, old Hitchcock movies.
And I watch the Yankees as much as possible. And the golf. Golf is brilliant on television and three hours of Tiger Woods doing all the things that every golfer in the world wishes he could - to watch that is magic.
"That's my television."
He's also not a big fan of showing too much blood on screen. He subscribes to the less-is-more theory, preferring to add a touch of humour to a rather grim situation.
"It is very easy just to cut people and to have gore and blood," he says. "God, some of the movies they are making nowadays are so repulsive - violence and blood splattering everywhere. Quentin Tarantino seems to have a lust for it. You can't do that on network television.."
In a recently shot scene, McCallum has to draw splinters out of a victim's behind.
"I called over the producer and said we always have our bodies lying face up, why not lying face down for a change. One really hasn't studied autopsy until one removes splinters from someone's butt," he says with a laugh.
"And I did actually suggest the other day that they write a series of scenes within an episode where Pauley Perrette (who plays gothic forensic Abby) and David McCallum in their various characters completely disagree on a course of action in a particular investigation. So they have a kind of duel of scientific language. I think it would be a very funny thing to do. And very challenging for both of us."
And with the NCIS spin-off NCIS: LA about to air here and in the US, we were interested to know where McCallum would take Ducky in a spin-off of his own in the franchise.
"That's an interesting thought. Where would I go?" he muses.
"NCIS: Perth. There's some nice beaches over there. Oh, but I think Adelaide - NCIS: Adelaide actually - whenever I go to Australia, Adelaide is my favourite town."