Things are just Ducky for him now, but in the 1960s, David McCallum was among the coolest of television's cool stars.
While the Glasgow, Scotland-born actor recently passed his 100th episode as Navy medical examiner Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard on CBS' Tuesday drama hit "NCIS" (Tuesdays at 8 p.m.), he once prompted the sort of worldwide mania few performers ever do.
As Russian secret agent Illya Kuryakin on the iconic adventure series "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," McCallum stirred such fan frenzy that police had to scoot him away from personal appearances.
"U.N.C.L.E." devotees will have their fondest wish fulfilled today when the entire 105-episode series is released on DVD - packed in an attache case, appropriately - via direct marketing by Time Life Video (timelife.com).
The collection also includes present-day interviews with McCallum and fellow "U.N.C.L.E" star Robert Vaughn, alias suave spy Napoleon Solo, as well as commercials from the show's original NBC run and home movies shot on the set by McCallum.
"It's exciting for the people who are going to buy it," says the low-key McCallum, who cites his "U.N.C.L.E." years as "a huge part of my life. It was a wonderful, memorable, happy time. It was what really started off everything in the United States for me; now I'm a citizen, and I live here."
After roles in such classic movies as "The Great Escape" and the Titanic drama "A Night to Remember," McCallum first came to the States to play Judas Iscariot in the 1965 biblical epic "The Greatest Story Ever Told." In the new "U.N.C.L.E." boxed set, Vaughn says he also was up for that role.
"I haven't seen Robert all that much over the years," McCallum reveals. "He has matured and become very gracious and lovely. It was such a pleasure to sit down and chew the fat with him."
The third "U.N.C.L.E." regular was veteran actor Leo G. Carroll as the spies' no-nonsense boss, Alexander Waverly.
McCallum commutes regularly between his New York home and Los Angeles to film "NCIS," which is in its fifth season. In a now-legendary inside joke in an earlier episode, team leader Gibbs (Mark Harmon) was asked what Ducky looked like when he was younger. Gibbs' reply? "Illya Kuryakin."
First a solo, not a duo
Finding stardom as black-turtleneck-wearing Illya was more or less a happy accident for McCallum. He had barely two lines in the original "U.N.C.L.E." pilot, also featured in the DVD set and titled "Solo" (a name supplied by James Bond creator Ian Fleming). Back then, network executives had reservations about boosting Illya from the background into the spotlight.
"I've always felt the harder I work, the luckier I get," McCallum says. "I believe in serendipitous things happening, but at the same time, dedicating yourself to what you do is the best way to get on in this life. This business is a constant learning process; it's gotten a lot easier, but the amount of rehearsal and research we do for 'NCIS' is huge. It doesn't stop, but that's what makes it so exciting."
Indeed, McCallum still puts intense preparation into his current series role, to the degree that he gets invited to medical conventions.
"There's no way I could have worked for U.N.C.L.E., because it didn't exist; it was a fantasy. What I'm doing now is a reality, and I get letters - particularly from military pathologists - who say how great it is to see someone trying to get it right. That's my mandate, to make sure everything we do in that autopsy room is as authentic as possible."
For all the popularity McCallum enjoyed during the three-and-a-half seasons of "U.N.C.L.E.," he rarely experienced it firsthand because he was working so much. He and Vaughn did promotional tours, but when he had chunks of time off from the MGM-produced show, he often made feature films set up by the studio to capitalize on his home-screen success.
A crowd pleaser
"In those days, we did more episodes, and we did them faster," McCallum says. "There was a time when the show wasn't doing all that well, and Robert and I did all that publicity on weekends to get the ratings up. We eventually succeeded, then we would do regular publicity rounds.
"I came to New York and was supposed to make an appearance at Macy's to sign some albums I'd done, and the police wouldn't let me appear," he recalled, because of the crowd's size. "And the kids tore the place apart. The whole thing became sort of ridiculous."
McCallum doesn't expect a similar situation as "U.N.C.L.E." finally hits DVD. In fact, he enjoys taking his fame at a much slower pace now.
"It's a very different set of circumstances," he says in relating a department-store encounter he had last month. "I was pushing my cart around, and this woman stopped, as if she had seen a vision. For a moment, she just looked at me, and I smiled slightly. She said, 'Ducky! What are you doing here?' I said, 'I'm getting paper towels and toilet paper.'
"We chatted for a couple of minutes, then off we went. It wasn't exactly the hysteria of 40 years ago."