Mind Over Muscle

Writer: Jane Ardmore

Source: Photoplay April 1966

What does a guy do when his big brother is a hero and he isn't, when his brother gets the girls and he doesn't? Here's what David McCallum did!

Brother Iain was Major in every way, and David was Minor. It could have ruined his life, but David lived a plan that let him win Jill Ireland and become a hero.

At a crucial moment in the game, a tall dark boy came running down the field, dodging, ducking, bludgeoning his way through opposition. His right foot contacted the ball, shot it sailing into the air and down the field, while student spectators screamed themselves hoarse for McCallum.  Down field, on the sidelines, a small blond boy knelt down beside the flag to await the next play. He was McCallum, too - McCallum Minor, they called him - but the cheers were for McCallum Major. And no one cheered more lustily than the little guy who served as touch-line referee. There was a four-year difference in age between the brothers, and four million light years difference in personality. McCallum Major - first name, Iain - was captain of the rugby team at University College School in London. He was a superb tennis player and captain of everything in sight, including at one point, the school. And he was the one who got the girls. But the interesting factor is that there was never the slightest rivalry between them. They were great friends, close friends, David says now. In the kind of family in which they grew up, they played all sorts of games together at home.

While some kids who find themselves in the shadow of an older brother resent it heartily, McCallum Minor had a very full existence of his own  and not the slightest resentment. He was a McCallum Major rooter and didn't mind that so far as competitive sports went, "you always had the feeling I was hopeless. I just never played team sports. I did a lot of swimming, but that was just for the personal exhilaration. I never played rugby, only rarely played cricket, and when I did, they put me out in what on a baseball field you'd call way past center field. Out there I'd just dream. Consequently, when the ball would come my way, the entire team would have to let out a shriek to waken me. Depending on how fast they were, I would - or would not - score. When I'd go to bat, I'd find the center, take the conventional stance, and the next thing, the wicket would go flying and I would walk back into the pavilion. Really quite hopeless." Today, McCallum Major is in Berlin with the British Empire Council, dealing with libraries and public relations, next stop Africa.

Iain is a competent and intelligent man, and with the rest of the world, he's doing a lot of cheering for McCallum Minor as he performs the wildest feats of derring-do on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."  McCallum Minor still, he confesses, hasn't settled down to the matter of being major. Most actors crave the limelight. McCallum Minor has been something of an anomaly to Hollywood because his shyness is genuine, his reserve built-in. Instead of rising joyously to the occasion of his celebrity this year, he has been frankly somewhat dismayed. 

"It's something difficult to understand," he says, "who you are in relationship to it and what it's doing to you because you don't basically fit into it. You know you don't, because there are outward signs - being unable to sleep, for example, concern about many things that have always concerned me about the meaning of life, but now more so. The simple matter of going to a supermarket. I would like to put on some old clothes and go do the shopping. I have a wife, three children and a housekeeper - which means a considerable supply of food, and after all, I'm the strongest body in the house. When we need a stock of canned goods and staples, I'm the one to do it. But it can be a very embarrassing situation. You get literally chased from the supermarket.

"Or you drop in somewhere for a cup of coffee. I know some great little coffee houses where I used to go, but to drop in there now... everyone's going to say, IT'S the man from 'U.N.C.L.E.' What do they mean IT'S?" 

At the ball game - and he's a mad Dodger fan - he goes quietly down the aisle to his seat behind first base, and never moves. That way very few people even know he's there. They've seen only the back of his head. But let him go up that aisle for a hot dog and he's in the same old trouble.

Understandable esteem

It took McCallum Minor a hot three hours to catch onto baseball, one wild game two years ago, between the Dodgers and St. Louis, and he's been a fan ever since. He watched the World Series on his own little TV set between "U.N.C.L.E." takes. There hasn't been anything like this  since rugby. To David, the mad esteem for athletes is understandable and natural.

What isn't so natural is the same sort of esteem bestowed on actors. Like swimming, acting seems a very personal thing to him, something to which he was dedicated from the time he made his debut as a very small boy leading the donkey in a biblical play at church. He joined dramatic activities at school; at thirteen he made his debut on the BBC. 

He was already well started on his plan of life, the plan that - if he lived it properly - would enable him to woo a lovely, celebrated young actress, Jill Ireland, and make her his bride after only three weeks. The plan that would enable him to become a hero in his own right, with no more need to consider who or what was major or minor. That plan meant simply living his life his own way, and dedicating himself to it.

Dedication was something that came naturally to McCallum. David's father was lead violinist of the London Philharmonic Orchestra; his mother, a cellist. He says, "If you meet my father, you know at once the violin is a part of him. My grandmother was a very devout Presbyterian who wanted my father to play the harp; that's why she named him David. But they lived in a little Scottish mining town and there wasn't a harp to be found in town. So she got him a violin instead. She made him get up every single morning at 4:30 and practice - every single day. Saturdays, Sundays, he got up at 4:30 and practiced. He never rebelled." 

And in a way, McCallum Minor was much like his father. Except of course, *he* rebelled. His instrument was the oboe and he played it fairly well, well enough so his dad wanted him to study at the Conservatory in Paris. He wanted to study acting.

"My parents were against acting, very wisely and very strongly against it," he says. "My father is a practical Scot. When I'd left home and was working as a stage manager and making no money, acting in repertory and earning the equivalent of twenty-five dollars a week... it was then the paternal hand came down. 'You're better than this,' he said, 'if this is as far as you're going, you'd better give up.' It was not acting per se he disliked or distrusted. It was the lack of funds that usually goes with acting. 

"But for some reason I felt very warmly toward acting. I still do. I think your profession, if you didn't enjoy it, would be death. I don't think I'll ever stop enjoying the series."

When the elder McCallum was on a fifty-eight city tour of the East with Mantovani's famed orchestra, father and son met in New York. David was doing a "Hullabaloo" and a "Johnny Carson" show. Mr. McCallum could see that the business he'd originally distrusted "and rightly" has been good to his younger boy.

"I'm lucky," David says. "I think children who are brought up in a home that's secure, as mine certainly was, and who have a normal childhood with normal parents, where everything they need is provided, are off to an excellent start... so long as too much is not provided. Everything I wanted, I had. That was inherent to our childhood, my brother's and mine. But we were expected to get out and earn a living, and this is important too.

No silver platter

"Sometimes people grow up in a home where there is such economic security that there is no incentive to do anything.

"I would hate to have had a father with a big firm like all those old movies Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper used to make, where the son was handed the business on a silver platter, when all he wanted to do was put on old clothes and pretend he was an ordinary worker. And then along would come Jean Arthur..."

Jean Arthur comes into any McCallum conversation about films; she is David's all-time favorite actress. "And so along comes Jean Arthur who really shows him how the workers feel, and then she finds out he's the boss and is furious, except of course, he finally saves the day. But I'd have hated not to have had some struggle."

Well, David had a struggle. As a stage manager and in repertory and stock, you work twenty-four hours a day. He still remembers that he spent every cent he earned on food. He had to keep stoking up all day. That was true when he was property master with the Gyndebourne Opera Company. It continued to be true when he came back from his hitch in the army and joined a stock company. He played roles in as many as fifty-two plays a year!

It was at Oxford where he was having a wonderful time doing "all the musty old plays" that he was seen by a film director who was doing his first directing, and a producer who was making his first film. What they saw actually was a still photo of David, and the producer's wife liked his face. He went to work and made eight pictures before coming to Hollywood. Some of them were pretty good character parts: "Robbery Under Arms," during which he met and married the picture's star, Jill Ireland; "Billy Budd"; "Freud"; "The Great Escape." He came to Hollywood to play in "The Greatest Story Ever Told."

But all along the way, he was furthering his goal. He and his wife Jill had agreed they should come to Hollywood, because the chances were greater. They agreed he should try television because it offers such tremendous exposure. Jill, who'd been a successful film and TV star in Britain before her three children, is working in the TV medium now, too. Her most ironic assignment to date, the recent one on "U.N.C.L.E.," coincided, alas, with David's trip to New York for "Hullabaloo." They wanted to go to New York together, but Jill is, after all, a professional.

"Don't worry," were her parting words. "I'll keep your dressing room warm for you." And when he came back, he found written boldly on the mirror in red lipstick, "Thank you for the use of the hall."

Not the end

As for David's career... "It's very rewarding when you've worked for such a long time and tried to plan things, to see them come out. This is by no means the end, but it's a very interesting step. Neither Jill nor I are willing to let acting be the predominant force in our lives, because pictures, all acting, the whole entertainment business as such, is fast moving and has no great depth. It's a fairly shallow level, not enough to live on."

He's always felt that people learn a lot by being trod upon. "Not very young children, of course, they need protection. But the moment you're able to understand what it's all about, I think you should start learning. If you're trod upon and spring back, you've learned something. If you're trod upon and don't get up, somebody else will step on you and someone else, until you're beaten into the dirt.

"I think a goal is very important. My own feeling is that if one doesn't have a built-in goal, the best thing is to try something, make up a thesis and try it out and be sure it doesn't work before you discard it for another try in another area.

"A blind uncle of mine said something to me when I was very young, I believe I was no more than seven, and this blind uncle said: 'You should think of life as going along a road while far far ahead of you is this tiny light. Keep your head toward it. Just keep going towards it.' He was a very religious man, my Uncle John, and his concept was very close to that of Christian in 'Pilgrim's Progress.' I was deeply impressed. It was such a romantic image as he conveyed it, and it's probably been in my subconscious ever since."

Even when he was acting as referee on the touch line in those long-ago rugby games, David was no second-class citizen, basking in reflected glory. He was McCallum Minor, but his whole life was preceding along toward that tiny light. On the long road, he has grown, he has matured, he has become a very major McCallum. And to his thinking, and to ours, he's only just begun.