Source: Back Stage, August 25, 2000 v41 i34 p7.

From Illya Kuryakin to Julius Caesar.

Author: Simi Horwitz

Actor David McCallum's Julius Caesar is a petulant child-despot, foolishly willful; in the end, an object of pathos, striding towards his inevitable death belligerently and, at the same time, not fully believing it.

But then McCallum views Caesar as "a senile old man, suffering from ideas of grandeur. He was also deaf and epileptic. I suppose he could be played noble and straight, but in a production like this one that emphasizes the decadence of Rome, it wouldn't make sense."

The play is, of course, William Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," which bowed August 20, at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. And to drive home the idea of a society in the throes of moral decomposition--it is a story of savage political ambition, conspiracy, and betrayal--director Barry Edelstein's imagery throughout is brutal and expressionistic.

Consider this: off to one side, a giant bronze head of Caesar (an oversized bust of McCallum, to be precise) is hoisted above the stage by a visible crane and remains suspended in the air throughout most of the play. On the other side, lying on the floor, a mammoth hand, thumb and three fingers rigidly extended, evoking a man grasping in desperation at something unseen. One finger of the hand is severed, its stump ragged.

The universe shapes the interpretation, McCallum stresses. Nevertheless, he refuses to use the word "challenge" to describe the tasks he faces in this or any role for that matter. "I prefer the word 'choices.' There are no challenges short of death." Hmm. Still, McCallum concedes, he had to address the primal question of just what did Julius Caesar know on his way to his assassination.

"He certainly had enough warnings, and he has to understand [given the history of dictatorships] that the transition of power in his society comes violently. And considering his age--he was 56, but back then 56 was equivalent to 96--his time in power was coming to an end. Yet, I think it's more interesting to play a man who fights the obvious and is not entirely sure it will happen."

The acting choices aside, there are the technical demands in performing Shakespeare, says McCallum. "The actor has to make archaic language comprehensible to a contemporary audience. In addition, he uses his body and voice in a whole different way than the realistic actor. He is doing everything on a larger scale; still, he has to be believable."

Among the four leads, McCallum has the smallest part. That having been said, he is on stage almost as much as the other stars. Even after his death, for a fair amount of time he lies prostrate, a bloodied corpse. Remaining still as the action whirls about him, he chortles, was a bit daunting early on in the rehearsal process. By now it's routine.

A Shakespeare Veteran, but not in America

The 66-year-old Glasgow native has performed his share of Shakespearean roles, but that was decades ago in English and Scottish repertory companies, he notes candidly. "Julius Caesar" marks McCallum's Shakespearean debut in the States, despite the fact that he has lived here for almost 40 years.

A veteran actor boasting an extensive resume, McCallum has appeared on Broadway, Off-Broadway, and in many films and television shows in the British Isles as well as the States. But to this day, he is still most identified, in America anyway, with the hit TV show, "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." ('65-'68), the slyly comic cloak-and-dagger parody right out of the pages of Cold War literature. Who can forget Illya Kuryakin, the relentlessly earnest Russian defector who served as Napoleon Solo's (Robert Vaughn) sidekick and brought new depth to the word deadpan?

"On my tombstone, it'll say, 'Here lies Illya Kuryakin, a.k.a. David McCallum,'" he quips, still deadpan.

Easy going and likeable are the McCallum trademarks; at least, that's what emerges during our phone conversation. But then, he has had a wonderful career, he has no intention of retiring ("retirement is an obscene word"), and professional frustration is not part of his emotional vocabulary. There are no roles he is dying to play.

Besides acting, he is an avid bike rider, works out in a gym everyday (he's in good shape), and comments quite seriously, "I love the fact that it's a beautiful day and the sun is shining." But rain isn't half bad either. "The other night, 'Julius Caesar' had a happy ending. It started to rain and the show was cancelled before I got killed!"

He is also a man who has given much thought to culture and politics and lets it be known--he offers the information--that he is politically conservative.

One of the reasons he left England in 1961 was that "it had moved too far to the left. The taxation was awful and there was the belief that people should be dependent on government programs as opposed to working hard. I'm a Republican and conservative--not that the Democrats haven't moved more to the center, they have. But I feel people should be responsible for themselves."

On public monies going to the arts: "I prefer patronage to government subsidy. In any case, the good nonprofit institutions are mostly underwritten by private funds. I see no reason for public funds to be underwriting failure. And, no, I don't believe a Mozart will be lost to the world if he doesn't get an NEA grant."

A Born Actor

The son of a concert-master who performed with the Scottish Orchestra, London Philharmonic, and Royal Philharmonic, among others, McCallum almost followed in his father's footsteps. His instrument was the oboe, and he toyed with the idea of enrolling in the Royal Academy of Music. But the desire to act, which he had been doing in amateur productions since the age of eight, prevailed.

When McCallum was 16, he dropped out of University College in London--an institution that's equivalent to an American high school, albeit on a higher level--to study drama formally at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Following his acting school stint, he launched his career in radio, and has been employed as an actor ever since.

"If I were not an actor I might be a psychiatrist, but they're all crazy, except one that I met. What I admire about them is that they have to listen. Yes, it's true, an actor has to be able to listen as well. But a psychiatrist's job is ninety percent listening. If I could help people by listening as opposed to dispensing advice...I think most problems in the world would go away if someone had a sympathetic ear."

Looking back at the theatre/movie scene over the past four decades, the most striking change on both sides of the Atlantic, McCallum observes, is the way actors move between the media. At one time it would have been unheard of. "In England, theatre producers would not hire most movie or TV stars. And in the States, years ago, a major movie star would not do theatre, and certainly not TV."

One thing is for sure. McCallum has performed in all three media, although, as noted, "Man From U.N.C.L.E." put him on the map. And he has no second thoughts about his Illya Kuryakin years. He acknowledges the show opened doors for him and yes, he says, he has been a tad typecast, but that's no real problem, either.

In fact, he cottons to those delightfully implausible tongue-in-cheek characters, the more way out the better. Placing acting styles on a continuum--from cinema verite to docu-dramas to hard core realism to sci-fi-he describes the spectrum as a trip, "From the sublime to the ridiculous."

And it's in the realm of sci-fi, the final frontier in ridiculousness, that "the actor has total free reign. And when the actor gets to play an alien [from outer space], there's an added dimension. It's a convention without restrictions that has a wonderful kind of corniness. Science fiction is corn well served."

Still, the most challenging role he has played (his reservations about using the word "challenging" in connection with acting notwithstanding) was as a guest star in a highly realistic TV series, "Man In The City" (1971), starring Anthony Quinn. "I was cast as a gopher, a young Scottish man who was retarded. At the time. I was working for the National Society of Retarded Children. They don't call it that anymore. Now they say something more euphemistic. [Children who are 'intellectually challenged'?]

"The point is, I was identified with the charity, and I was hesitant about doing that part." The danger, he recalls, was interpreting the role too obviously. The balancing act was to maintain believability and a degree of sensitivity to the subject.

But that's water under the bridge. At the moment, his thoughts are on Julius Caesar, and his conviction that audiences will see him as "a victim, despite the fact that he would have become a tyrant. I believe, what happened to him was inevitable, especially in the decadent Roman universe of that time. What is that expression?" he asks rhetorically. "'Power corrupts. And absolute power corrupts absolutely.'"

For more about David's portrayal of Julius Caesar, click here.