When actor David McCallum phoned the Ogunquit Playhouse in Maine last spring, he wasn't seeking employment. he merely wanted to cheer up an ailing friend.
"I called John Lane, who runs Ogunquit Playhouse, who was having a medical problem. He said he was feeling fine and would I do a play this season?" McCallum said.
"I told John I had no play in mind. He suggested 'Angel Street.'"
"Angel Street" ran an impressive 1,295 performances on Broadway starting in 1941. George Cukor made into a vastly successful 1944 movie titled "Gaslight," starring Charles Boyer, Ingrid Bergman and a 17-year-old Angela Lansbury. Joseph Cotton played Inspector Rough, McCallum's character.
McCallum stars with Mia Dillon and Jean LeClarc in "Angel Street" at Westport Country Playhouse through July 20.
"I remember that Leo G. Carroll did it on Broadway," said McCallum from Maine, where the thriller ran three weeks previous to Westport, "so I thought that wa a sign that I should do it."
As anyone 35 years or older remembers, Carroll was McCallum's boss on the popular mid-60's spy series "Man From UNCLE". Along with Robert Vaughn's Napoleon Solo, McCallum's Illya Kuryakin tangled with Cold War adversary THRUSH. The gadget filled series made McCallum a household heart throb. Before, during, and since, the Glasgow, Scotland native has enjoyed a healthy life on stage. Acting on he "Straw-hat Circuit" remains one of McCallum's favorite gigs.
"I've been to Westport several times over the years," said the blond actor, just coming off his daily, 15-minute bike ride on the back roads of Maine.
"The roles are challenging and I get to enjoy cycling and gold during the day."
The work agrees with him. McCallum, now 62, doesn't look much different than fans remember him from "UNCLE." He keeps trim with exercise. He also busies himself with carpentry. It was this hobby that got him involved with theatre nearly 40 years ago.
"I always liked working with my hands, so I was working at a theatre as a carpenter, electrician and stage manager. I took a role when they needed someone. That's how it started."
McCallum quickly found himself in radio plays as well. In high school he digested several roles, both Shakespearean and contemporary. He also found himself called on the headmaster's carpet for his vivid character portrayals.
"He said that Shakespeare was serious, classical literature and that I was too clownish, too physical," said McCallum, whose Trinculo created "The Tempest" in a teacup at prep school.
"I said it was meant to be fun, not serious," he said. "I wound up in his office a lot."
While his headmaster wasn't amused, casting agents were. McCallum found work in theatre, radio and film after school. His best-known movie role before UNCLE was in the star-laden World War II POW flick, "The Great Escape."
McCallum hasn't been nearly as visible on the big or small screen since the 1970's. Though his UNCLE fame certainly could've carried McCallum into America's living rooms on subsequent television series, the actor was tempted by stage roles instead.
"I never considered 'lucrative' when choosing my work," McCallum said. Last year I did the British National Tour of 'Lion In Winter' because of the role. It was a test for myself."
The process of sustaining a performance from curtain to curtain challenges McCallum more than piecemeal work in television or film.
"I enjoy working with actors who integrate," he said. "Working in this play has been very satisfying."
"It's beautifully staged. Jean and Mia do all the work," he said. "Opening night (in Ogunquit), you could hear the audience gasp. They've given us standing ovations at every performance."
Looking back on his days from UNCLE, McCallum hesitates to say the show's fame hurt or helped his career.
"If I had another chance, I honestly don't know if I'd do it again," he said, having fought some typecasting in his day. "If I had turned it down, it would've been total anonymity for me. I think, however, that I would've still had a steady stage career without that success."
Fortunately for countless fans, no one will ever know for sure.