TV Picture Life
By Bob Thomas
David McCallum has been waiting for the blow to fall.
After all, he has been appearing in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. for a year and a half, playing an outrageous Russian agent for the international spy-catching organization. It was only a matter of time before the Soviets would take cognizance of the fact and reply in their usual heavy-handed manner.
Finally, it came.
The blast took the form of an article by one Yuri Zhukov in the Communist party organ, Pravda, in Moscow. Here is what Zhukov had to say" "American television, and later the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Film Corporation, have created a film series devoted to a certain international organization which, the authors' minds, would not be a bad substitute for the present U.N. It is called U.N.C.L.E., or United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
"The U.N.C.L.E. staff is made up of persons of various nationalities experienced in business affairs and intelligence whose set task is the 'defense of the interests and well-being of the peoples and nations of the world over against subversive forces.' At the head of this 'organization' are five men of various nationalities, including a certain scoundrel of Russian descent named 'Illya Kuryakin', who, like many other U.N.C.L.E. agents, used to work behind the Iron Curtain.' He, like James Bond, 'works like a machine, without reasoning, and precisely executes the orders of Mr. Efficiency.'
"In striving to command the attention of reader and viewer, the preachers of 'the right to kill' will stop at nothing. They deliberately corrupt young people, using stronger and stronger doses or bloodthirstiness, eroticism and violence..."
"Whew!" said David McCallum when he read the tirade. "Those Russians can certainly get worked up."
But David, a quiet, almost passive man, refuses to do likewise. He has decided that the best way to fight this Communist attack is to ignore it. He feels this is just what such an absurd attack deserves. Why on earthy should he, an actor, simply playing a part, get excited over an intemperate outburst of a Party propagandist? However, he did consent to comment for TV Picture Life:
"I'd certainly like to know on what he based his attack. I'd like to know how he saw U.N.C.L.E. -- if, indeed, the writer saw our series at all. Did he see the show in English? If so, how good is his comprehension of English?
"Or did he judge U.N.C.L.E. by a Russian translation? And, if so, how good was the translation?
"The reason I wonder these things is because the writer in Pravda obviously did not get the intent of the series, which is a lot less serious than he tries to make out."
For David argues that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. shouldn't be taken seriously at all. It is merely an entertainment, a spoof on spy dramas, and it shouldn't be searched for any ideology, political or otherwise.
But, of course, the Russians could see no humor in Illya; in fact they seem to have little receptivity to humor of any kind, especially of the more subtle nature. But most repugnant to the Soviets is the picture of a Russian as a man of the world, sophisticated and human. This does not jive with the Party Line, which dictates that all Russians must shun foreign influences and remain devoted to the state.
David McCallum sees all this as nonsense. He believes that every human being should be free to think and act for himself. Since such a suggestion is heresy to the Soviets, he will no doubt continue to be a target for the Communist propaganda machine.
And he couldn't care less. For David is a free soul who doesn't care what regimented minds may think of him. He continues to conduct his life and career as he sees fit.
"I am not one of those who believes that we live this life as a preparation for the next," he explains bluntly. "I believe only in the here and now. I plan to see that this life is as comfortable and as meaningful as it can be. How I do that is nobody else's affair but mine."
That simply is the way he is, and Hollywood can like it or lump it, as far as he is concerned. Of course the film colony likes it, since this handsome young Scot has been a welcome addition to the community. He is not only a fine actor; he is an intelligent well-rounded gentleman.
But he is definitely his own master. He refuses to be integrated into the social scene, to hobnob with the 'right people,' no matter how advantageous it might be to his career. As a rule, he shuns the company of actors. An exception is his co-star on U.N.C.L.E., Robert Vaughn, of whom he is genuinely fond.
"Bob came to my New Year's Eve party and he was amazed," David recalls. "He looked around the room and saw no one he knew. Most of my friends are outside the film business -- doctors, musicians, scientists, etc.
"Bob said to his date, Joyce Jameson: 'I can't understand who all these people are.' And Joyce said, 'Oh, they must be friends of Jill's.'"
There is more evidence of David's spirit of independence than in his choice of friends. He also governs his career as he sees fit, without regard for what others say. For instance, many of his former colleagues from the classic drama in England believe his is degrading his talents by appearing in a television burlesque of spy adventures.
"A lot of nonsense," says David in reply. "They think if you're not playing Shakespeare or some other classic, you're not being true to your art. Well, in some ways, there's as much art in U.N.C.L.E. as there is in Shakespeare. Ours is art under pressure.
"We're constantly pushed for deadlines. Right now we're doubling up on the series, making two chapters at the same time. I star in one and Bob comes over to it for a day or two. He stars in the other, and I drop over to his set for a day or two.
"Not all the scripts are great, of course, but some of them are damned good. They're amusing, they have action and adventure, they entertain. Shakespeare and the other classicists had the advantage of unlimited time in preparing their plays. Our last one was written in five days -- and it's one of the best we've ever done."
Nor does David feel, as some of his fellow actors do, that being so closely identified with a character in a popular television series will blight his career afterwards.
"Illya won't overwhelm me, because I'm not Illya," he reasons. "I'm Illya only when I'm on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. When I'm not on it, I get away from Illya; I see to that."
Other fellow actors have pointed out David is riding the crest of a teenage craze right now and the teenagers could easily drop him, as they have other favorites. That doesn't worry him a bit.
"Yes, I'm enjoying a popularity with the teenagers now, and I'm grateful for it," he admits. "If it hadn't been for that, I might be just another actor looking for work.
"But I'm aware of the dangers involved. Teenagers are notoriously fickle, and they are very likely to drop me for somebody else. Besides, there is a whole new crop of teenagers coming up, and they will want to establish their own favorites.
"My aim is to keep building my career -- to move on to other challenges after this phase ends. I hope to have a very long career that way.
"You see, if I can succeed in a wholly new area, then I will have the support of those teenagers who like me now. By that time they will be adults, and will comprise a very important segment of the audience. They will be willing to come back to me for something they can appreciate on a grown-up level.
"The important thing is for me to continue to grow as a performer, in order to interest them. If I stay as I am -- as Illya -- I'll be left out in the cold."
David's observations are shrewd. Another teenage idol named Frank Sinatra had a clamorous following, then lost it. But when he showed that he could act in From Here to Eternity, he found a ready-made audience among the adults who had once shrieked for him as a singer. And he continues adding new generations of fans with his versatility.
David McCallum has the talent and wisdom to do the same. He's determined to make the most of his role on U.N.C.L.E. -- to ably portray the lovable Russian in the spy spoof -- in spite of any and all attacks. The Communists can't discredit Illya, and they certainly can't upset David. In fact, in future years, he'll probably become "the spy who came in from the cold."