The Sunday Times 12th April 1998 p.11.3.
Headline - "Haunted by Uncle". The Scot who made his mark as Ilya Kuryakin is
back on television in a far less flattering guise. By Brian Pendreigh.
"David McCallum was to espionage what Paul McCartney was to pop. He used to
receive more than 30,000 fan letters a month when he appeared in the
television spy series, The Man From UNCLE in the mid-1960s. Nowadays the
expat Scot could more accurately be cast as the man from grandad. McCallum,
65 this year, has four grown-up children - the oldest is 40 - and one
But the role television viewers will see him in this week is a good deal less
obvious for the man who won millions of female admirers with his blond hair,
blue eyes and quiet, introspective manner. On ITV over the next two evenings
McCallum plays a dirty old man in an adaptation of Rosamunde Pilcher's Coming
It is Camomile Lawn meets Mills & Boon - a rite of passage story following a
girl from schooldays to womanhood in the late 1930s. Emily Mortimer plays the
girl, Keira Knightley, and McCallum plays Major Fawcett.
You can just about see the remnants of Ilya Kuryakin's looks in Fawcett. His
eyes are hidden behind glasses, his upper lip covered in bristles. The hair
is darker and as oily as Fawcett's personality. The dropdead looks, it might
be argued, have indeed dropped dead.
Fawcett makes unwelcome advances towards the young heroine, putting his hand
up her skirt on a visit to the cinema. "He is a child molester", says
McCallum, musing on the matter in his Manhattan apartment. McCallum has lived
in America for 37 years, although he has frequently worked in Britain.
McCallum never made the break-through as a big Hollywood star, although he did
make his mark anew on television audiences with a succession of notable
British series over the decades. He was a PoW in Colditz in the 1970s. The
Invisible Man, a time-travelling troubleshooter in Sapphire and Steel in the
1980s and a gambler in Trainer in the 1990s.
He considers Fawcett a significant acting challenge and the role gave him the
opportunity of working in Britain once more, with a strong cast that includes
Peter O'Toole, Susan Hampshire, Penelope Keith and his old Sapphire and Steel
co-star Joanna Lumley.
Fawcett is not the first sleazy character McCallum has played. A few years
ago he played a dentist who forces a woman to perform oral sex with him in
Michael Winner's Dirty Weekend. The Sunday Times thought it the most
pornographic film ever passed for general exhibition in Britain.
After Winner's dentist, Fawcett seems comparatively tame. To help him get
inside the character, McCallum created a whole backstory that was not in the
script. And? "I know I'll get letters," he says, hesitatingly, "but I
thought his army career was probably in the Engineers... or in the supply
side.... I don't think he was an action man."
A year after playing opposite John Wayne and Jesus Christ, McCallum was
reduced to accepting an offer from Norman Felton, an old friend, whom he knew
from England, of a supporting role in the pilot episode of a James Bond take-
off on television.
It was called The Man from UNCLE and McCallum was to play sidekick to Robert
Vaughn, one of the stars of The Magnificent Seven.
"I had a couple of lines and it was a very minimal character," he says. "And
then I had a terrible allergy from a penicillin shot, and I wasn't in the
The studio liked his initial work however and it was decided to expand the
character of Kuryakin. The boy from Kelvinside was transformed into the
ultra-cool secret agent from eastern Europe. Virtually overnight McCallum
went from a supporting actor to one of the biggest television stars of the
There were 100 episodes of The Man from UNCLE between 1964 and 1967, with such
titles as The Deadly Smorgasbord Affair and The Yo-ho-ho and a Bottle of Rum
He only needs to look out on Central Park, from the apartment he shares with
his second wife, interior designer Katherine, to bring the memories flooding
back. "I came to New York once and I'd never been in Central Park," he says.
"I went for a walk and it took two police on horseback to rescue me. There
was a form of insanity about it all.... it was scary and it was enjoyable."
McCallum is sanguine about the fact the offers have become fewer and he has
had to move into character roles. He is still occasionally recognised in the
street, but no longer mobbed. Fawcett might need police protection, but it
would not be from adoring fans.