Modern Screen, September 1966


“You can’t help it. Success tears you wide open and leaves you unprotected. Suddenly you’re vulnerable. Everything has become vulnerable – your marriage, your family, your career.” David McCallum was sitting in the Hotel della Posta in Cortina, Italy. He had come to this small village in the Dolomite Alps to film Three Bites of the Apple, a movie he squeezed in between the second and third seasons of the fabulously successful Man From U.N.C.L.E. television series. He could have taken a well-earned vacation when shooting on U.N.C.L.E. finished, but he considered this picture the turning point of his career. With Three Bites of the Apple a success, David McCallum would be an established star in movies as well as television.

Ironically, it was this tiny mountain village that brought to his mind bitter-sweet memories. Four years earlier, David had been filming The Great Escape in Munich, and he and his wife, Jill, had come down by car to Cortina for a brief holiday. A little-known young British character actor at the time, David never imagined in his wildest dreams that only four years later he would be the toast of television viewers on five continents. He and Jill had stayed in a small hotel because the major Cortina hotels were too expensive for them. But then they had been together and happy. Now he was sitting on top of the world as far as his career was concerned, but he and Jill were apart.

A few days earlier David told a reporter, “Jill in not with me because of the children. We have to send them to school in Los Angeles. I don’t believe that having a nomadic existence and dragging the children everywhere with you is good for them – although possibly it might be better...” He wanted to believe that Jill had remained behind because as a mother, her place was near her children. He wanted to believe that she was staying behind in the large Spanish-style villa that was their Hollywood home, preparing for his homecoming. But at that very moment, Jill was winging her way to London where she would tell her parents that she and David had separated. If David didn’t actually know it, he sensed it.

As we sat in the lounge of the Hotel della Posta, I learned that David had spent the greater part of the previous night walking, alone, through the deserted streets of Cortina. “Last night taught me a lesson,” David said. “It was so beautiful out there, with millions of stars shining brightly in the sky. The mountain peaks were glistening in the moonlight. I suddenly realized that the main thing in life is to be alive. It’s so marvelous to be alive! Life is a wonderful, gorgeous thing, but people don’t appreciate it as much as they should.”

David was slightly aloof and appeared to be preoccupied with the progress of his movie. He was determined to turn it into a success, not only for himself, but for everyone connected with it. When not working before the cameras, he was huddling with the director discussing scenes and offering helpful opinions.

It was more than obvious, however, that some of this preoccupation was deliberate. He was creating it on purpose in self-deception, so he would not have a chance to ponder his marital problems. I gained the distinct impression that David found consolation in the fact that he and Jill had tiffed before, and had still been able to reconcile their differences and preserve their marriage. Consequently, he was burning no bridges behind him; Jill would have to make all the moves. I thought that in these circumstances McCallum would refuse to discuss wife, children, and home – but amazingly enough he did not.

It began with his reference to vulnerability. “One knows how fickle the public is, and it’s nobody’s fault really. I remember the first sleepless night I spent in my life: it was the night I discovered I was popular. Suddenly I was scared. I was vulnerable. I know one has to conquer this fear, but it isn’t easy. You cannot go on relying on other people to help you. You must be self-sufficient, or else.” A shadow crossed his face. He breathed deeply. “There was a time when I would always ask Jill. If she were here, I still would...” He smiled and paused for a moment. “Yes, if she were here, I still would. But she is not here. When I first came to Italy, I called her long distance. But the long-distance telephone is an expensive business, and I’m a Scot. Jill would say suddenly, ‘Why are you always so cold on the telephone?’ I’d say, ‘Because it costs so much.’ I’ve always been a plainspoken and simple man.”

David McCallum knew at an early age what he wanted to be in life. He was going to be an actor. “I started out as a very cocky youth,” David chuckled, “but gradually I went through the mill. I was taken into hand by Jill, who would say with beautiful finality, ‘Go get lost,’ whenever I got self-important.

“I inherited this trait from my father, who is so beautifully egocentric because he plays the fiddle. The violin is his whole life, and his mistress. He is a marvelous soloist within the orchestra, but he has never become a concert soloist as I think he could have done. His trouble was that every time there was some difficulty in his life, he had a woman who took care of it. First his mother and then his wife. Had Mother said to him, ‘Go get lost,’ at some time to deflate his ego as Jill has said to me, possibly he would never have been as happy as he is now, but that’s a different story.

“In my case things were different because I found myself with a wife who refused to put up with it. During the first five years of our marriage Jill not only took care of me, but she also took care to see that I didn’t become like my father in this way. Not that she pointed at Father to exclaim, ‘Oh, dear, you’re becoming just like him,’ but she would ask, ‘What do you want to be? Do you want to be the lead, or do you want to be a support player?’ Each time it had the effect of a bucket of ice-cold water being poured over my head. Jill wouldn’t let me rest on my laurels. I enjoyed being a supporting player. I was quite happy with being a member of the orchestra.” Jill would have none of that. She wanted him to succeed in a big way.

Jill Ireland had come into his life in the spring of1957 as David was doing his first picture under a new long-term contract to J. Arthur Rank. The year before he had tried his hand in a small budget picture titled The Secret Place. It starred Belinda Lee and Ronald Lewis. David, who was 23, played the good guy in the story of a London East Side robbery. Apparently he made a good impression, because the contract and the picture Robbery Under Arms followed soon after the picture was unveiled. Robbery, an action yarn starring Peter Finch and the same Ronald Lewis, was to be done in part on location in Australia. All the male principals were in these scenes, but the girl who was to play David’s romantic interest (and whom he married in the last reel) stayed behind.

His screen name was Jim, hers Jean. He met her for the first time after landing at London Airport on his return from Australia. The following day shooting resumed at a London studio. Two weeks later, on May 11, 1957, they were married in real life – well ahead of their movie nuptials. She was 21 years old. In fact, he helped her celebrate her birthday. It was love at first sight. Until then, David’s romantic escapades were very few and very far between. There was one rather platonic romance at the Hampstead Garden amateur theatre society with one Mary Elizabeth Saffery Greene – he was all of 14 at the time – and later, while at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, with a co-student named Margaret Woodcock, again a rather platonic relationship. It was very different with Jill Ireland.

She swept him off his feet, McCallum recalls. She was a beautiful, slender, elegant, exciting girl with a sparkling personality. He knew he wanted to marry her the moment he set eyes on her. She dared him to get married by that Saturday, and he accepted. Strangely, even though both were young pros, their paths had never crossed before. But he had seen her pictures in magazines and thought she was extremely beautiful. A dancer who had gravitated to acting when she broke her ankle, Jill had made her movie debut two years before landing the Robbery Under Arms part opposite David McCallum.

During the first year of their marriage Jill took time out from making pictures to give birth to their first son, Paul. She was pregnant a second time when, in October of 1962, they crossed the Atlantic by jet with hopes of making Hollywood their home. Their second son, Jason, was born in America, as was their third son, Valentine, a year later.

David admits they didn’t have ideal marital bliss. What started out as a union of two young thespians entering a marital partnership was soon subjected to a number of tests. There was an actors’ strike which hit them badly early in their marriage, and which thrust McCallum into a state of despondency he found difficult to shake. He “went through the mill,” he recalls, and thought of the inevitability of death. “I had that intense frustration over the realization that one day I would have to die. I couldn’t bear the thought of not being able to look up and see the sky, that it was all going to end. Maybe because I don’t believe in life after death.” He wasn’t working during the strike, but he was drawing his pay – which was just high enough to “run quietly into debt. I was very low at the time.”

They had been married about a year, and Jill was pregnant with Paul. The second low ebb happened, David remembers, after they came to America. In between stretched the wonderful years of his growing up as an actor under Jill’s wary eye. She was quite outspoken about his lack of proficiency. She wanted him to work on himself, take voice lessons, any kind of lessons, improve. He wasn’t ready for criticism. “I was rather pompous,” he says with a tinge of self-contempt. But eventually he learned to accept it. It was difficult because, “If I had my own way, I would have stayed in the background doing minor parts. I had convinced myself that supporting roles were more interesting, and actors doing them live longer professionally. I wasn’t keen on developing any particular style, something I’m striving for these days.”

Thus Jill had her hands full. She made him cringe, and she made him wince, and she slapped him back into reality with her well-meaning – yet ego-shattering – “Go get lost.” Out of all this, a new and better actor took shape. “I went through the whole thing of finding out how bloody awful I was as an actor, and how limited I was vocally, and how bad I was when my muscles wouldn’t work the right way,” he reflects, almost masochistically. “It dawned on me why I could never make it in the theater in London. I just wasn’t a good enough actor. I realized that I never tried hard to get in, because subconsciously I knew there was rarely a part I could have done.” So he went to work on himself. He took lessons, and he studied and exercised, and “I began to feel frustrated because my horizons in London were so limited.” He had to escape. “I decided that I would like to go to America, and worked toward it.”

He will never deny the fact that, whatever happens next, he owes much of his winning his battle to Jill. And he also knows that his having made full circle to arrive at the other extreme is more than anything else responsible for the breakup of the McCallum household. To quote what he had written a few months earlier: “Without intending to, I allowed my career to take priority over everything else, including my marriage. Jill found herself rejected, and it hurt her very much; and she withdrew. On one occasion she came to me and told me exactly what was happening – but her words didn’t register.”

Jill, who had appeared in two Man From U.N.C.L.E. episodes but had done very little acting elsewhere, found a new interest in painting. She became owner of a new Beverly Hills art gallery called Art Actually which now exhibits scores of oils signed “Ireland” and “Jill.” They are mostly moody, bold portraits, including studies of her children and David. All are for sale. Jill didn’t go into this business alone. She did it with a partner, actor Charles Bronson, an impressionist painter in his own right whose paintings sell very well indeed.

The rugged Lithuanian from Pennsylvania and the lithe Scotsman were thrown together in The Great Escape in which both played prisoners of war. Their wives were with them, and they became friends. They’ve remained friends. Later, the Bronsons separated and applied for divorce. Hollywood rumor insists that Bronson is one of the reasons for the McCallum breakup. Some credence was lent to by the fact that Jill saw Bronson during the three weeks she spent in London in May, while David was working in Italy. Bronson had gone to London for another MGM picture, The Dirty Dozen.

David continues, “Jill has signed up for a Western television series based on the movie Shane. She’s playing a homesteader. So I suppose she will be working in it full time from now on in. As for the children?”

He shrugged. “Frankly, I don’t know. Let’s face it. I’m completely out of touch. And not just because I am here. We’ve been out of touch because my work affected our relationship. It had pushed my wife and myself into independent existences, and that is obviously a dangerous thing. But it is also a healthy thing as far as actors go.

“It’s all part of the same scheme of things imposed on you. You are doing your job, and you are giving it all you’ve got because so much depends on just that. So you are away from home from six o’clock in the morning on Monday until midnight on Friday. You can’t find a way of relating that to your children and to your wife. It becomes a tremendous problem.

“The problem is not merely that you’re in one place and they’re in another. You find yourself sitting by yourself in your room because you have to think. You come home, yes, but you sit on your bed and you read your script. You put on a Bach concerto, and you listen to it in full stereo on the hi-fi you had built with a very different purpose in mind. You are there, and yet you are not there.

“You know what is going on around you, and you are worried about your child. Your oldest son is almost eight; he is now subject to influences. To those other children in school he is Illya’s son. They ask for this and that – from Illya. Suddenly he is different than the others. Regardless of how he takes it, it must perturb the child.

“Also, Dad is Dad and Dad does all these things on television; and he’s a chip off the old block. He feels that he, too, should be able to do the things Dad does – jumping off roofs and all the other things.”

David McCallum shakes his head in wonderment, and the little fires in his light-blue eyes are suddenly extinguished. He abruptly starts discussing his career. He has three more years to go on the U.N.C.L.E. series with his MGM contract. He will do a movie a year, plus more record albums. Will he sing on the next album? No, but he will eventually. “I need time, care, preparation,” he says, coolly shrugging a lean shoulder. “I don’t believe in doing anything at half-cock.” Meantime he’ll keep writing the music and the verse, doing the basic arrangements, and conducting.

“I’ll want to write, also; and direct what I write, which, I think, is the ultimate in our field. Although first and foremost I’m still an actor. The problem with the actor, however, is to stop at some point to become a human being. This is something Jill used to remind me of all the time.”

He stops and frowns as if saying to himself, Can’t I say anything without mentioning Jill? His eyes are now steel-blue and cold. Suddenly he has to go. He’s promised some people he’d go fishing with them, and he takes off abruptly, almost like a man on the run. He walks away toward the street, determined to get away, and nobody stops him.

Kurt Muller

David McCallum stars in THREE BITES OF THE APPLE for MGM.