David McCallum interview: The Clan From U.N.C.L.E.

Published Date: 28 June 2009 from Scotland on Sunday
By Aidan Smith

WHO is the biggest star that Scotland has produced? You might say Sean Connery and you would probably be right, but when Big Tam was huge, he lived in the shadow of an orchestra leader's son from Glasgow possessed of a fabulous haircut who teen mags needed only to refer to as "David".
This David is the missing link between Greta Garbo and Dr Dre. The godfather of gangsta rap would later sample one of his records from a time when he received more fanmail than any of the other talents in MGM's history – more than Garbo, Clark Gable, Judy Garland.

But this David wasn't a pop act, he was an actor so hot his Hollywood bosses were desperate to market him every which way. So hot, indeed, that even in an era of Reds-under-the-bed paranoia, he could probably have sold Communism to the Yanks.

Funnily enough, that was his day job. This David was The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s Illya Kuryakin, the "blond Beatle", whose dourly handsome face was considered such a threat to public safety that chiefs of police in America's Midwest would warn: "When you visit our town, keep your large and elaborate motorcade moving – if you stop there will be carnage." But surely James Bond was bigger than a mere TV show? Not when two U.N.C.L.E. episodes were spliced together and called movies, he wasn't. Yes, once upon a groovy, turtle-necked, spy-crazy time in pop-culture history, David McCallum was No 1 in the Scottish stratosphere.

Today, in a hotel in London's Notting Hill, he's wearing shoes without socks, his glasses on string and talking about his Auntie Kitty, all things which in his U.N.C.L.E. days would probably have inspired instant coast-to-coast fads. "I don't have many relatives left in Scotland now," he says. "A few years ago I planned a 'roots trip' for my American children and grandchildren but between us booking the flights and arriving, Auntie Kitty had died and so had Auntie Margaret, both in their 90s.

"It was Auntie Margaret who showed me the family pew in Kilsyth with the 'McCallum' brass plate and it was her who once told me: 'Try for a job in the bank, David, and maybe one day you could be (dramatic pause] the bank manager.'" He rejected the Kirk and thrift for that other Scottish trait: getting the hell out.

"Then suddenly you're in Hollywood," he adds, "and you're driving down Sunset Boulevard in a white Chevrolet with red interior, and the sun is shining – really shining – for what seems like the first time in your life and you're doing a job you love more than anything and thinking: 'What the blazes took me so long?'"

McCallum is passing through London, on his way back to his New York home from being honoured at the Monte Carlo TV Festival. He means different things to different generations of sofa spuds: U.N.C.L.E., Colditz, The Invisible Man, Sapphire & Steel and, currently, the US Navy-centred crime drama NCIS. He was working off-Broadway and thinking all his big series were behind him when he got offered the role of Donald Mallard. Over five series, he's turned "Ducky", the eccentric pathologist who talks to the stiffs, lives with his mum and whose ringtone is Scotland The Brave, into a cult.

Rarely mentioned when this era of American TV is eulogised, NCIS is solid, unflashy and dependable, much like McCallum, who says: "We average 19 million viewers in the States and we've done it by ourselves, with hardly any promotion, just great scripts and a great ensemble cast, something Americans do so well. They shout 'Hey Ducky!' in the street, which is wonderful for a 75-year-old actor to hear, and the show is a nice annuity for my grandchildren."

McCallum is 75? It doesn't seem so long ago that entry to my primary school playground was on production of a mustard-coloured U.N.C.L.E. fan club membership card, or that the slapping-down for impetuousness at my secondary was "Steady, Simon!" after his Colditz POW. He laughs at these short-trousered obsessions today but has not always been comfortable with his fame. He thinks suspicion of such fripperies is typically Scottish and certainly when you YouTube the slapstick he awkwardly performed for The Andy Williams Show he looks like what he is: the son of classical musicians who'd wanted him to become an oboist but had somehow ended up in showbiz, a man of independent mind, and very Scottish.

That's independent with a lowercase "i"; the only thing wrong with Scotland, he reckons, is there aren't enough Tory MPs. "Sean Connery amuses me now," he adds. "I remember the pair of us, both so young, ripping up London. Now he's very much into the Scottish scene, isn't he? I'm afraid I'm a cosmologist, I study the universe, and the idea of Scotland seceding seems like a very small story."

McCallum's earliest memories of Glasgow are tropical. "I had a tubercular gland so I used to be wheeled round the Botanic Gardens. I was also fed slops. These days I scour New York's more esoteric delis for haggis and white pudding, but never slops. And my wartime as an evacuee was spent in Gartocharn where us laddies had no U.N.C.L.E. gadgets so we made our own fun by damming every burn around Loch Lomond."

He loved Scotland as a boy but, as a young stage-manager, when the Pitlochry Festival was held in a tent, found it "bureaucratic and slightly pretentious", although his bigger grumble was with Britain turning socialist and taxes which "punished hard work and entrepreneurship", so he took flight to Hollywood and, in his entrepreneurial way, embellished Kuryakin's brief character description – "armed Slavic man" – until he'd created TV gold. Legend has it his fanmail was 32,000 letters a month but, according to U.N.C.L.E. star Robert Vaughn's recent memoirs, it must have been more. Between them they got 80,000, and Vaughn generously conceded it was McCallum who really made the girls scream and faint.

McCallum's singled-mindedness was also evident in him marrying the actress Jill Ireland just seven days after meeting her. "My upbringing had been pretty strict; that was me rebelling against it." Then, on the German set of The Great Escape, he was called to test for The Greatest Story Ever Told. "Jill had just had a miscarriage so I was concerned about leaving her, but Charles Bronson said: 'Don't worry, I'll take care of her.' I didn't realise they'd already begun an affair. But it all worked out fine because soon after that I got together with Katherine (Carpenter, ex-model, now runs interior design business] and we've been very happily married for 42 years."

McCallum has glimpsed Hollywood at its craziest. "John Huston and Montgomery Clift was the ultimate sado-masochistic relationship. John would punish Monty unrelentingly, but when it got physical I walked off the film. I was talked into coming back and asked John why he did it. 'David,' he said, putting his arm round me, 'it's good for him.'" And the movie? The biopic Freud.

He also witnessed Steve McQueen cheat death daily en route to The Great Escape. "Everyone drove like a maniac, including Donald Pleasance who'd brought his Jag over, but Steve was the guy – mirroring the film almost – who took the most risks and had the traffic police in awe of him. When he was pulled over they'd say 'Herr McQueen, good morning, we're delighted that once again you've won the special prize' and cart him off to the jail. Once I asked him what he did in a crash. He told me you should aim for the smallest trees. I have to say I always stuck to the speed limit. Is that very Scottish?"

There are, you feel, plenty more stories where they came from. We're just getting round to Joan Collins, his fencing partner when they were both 16, when his phone goes. The ringtone isn't Scotland The Brave. Nor is it Love Ya, Illya, a 1966 hit for Alma and the Fans. It's one of his own compositions from that brief flirtation with pop, oboe prominent to please his parents, and it's pretty far out – not something that's ever been said about Sean Connery. The armed Slavic man (via Glasgow) wins again.

A new series of NCIS starts on Five early in 2010