New York Times, Jun 20, 1965 By HOWARD THOMPSON
"L'il David was small but oh my!" The old Gershwin tune perfectly
summarizes the success story of David McCallum, a 31-year-old Scottish-born
intellectual who suddenly found himself this season a television star.
The young man with the even younger features is on NBC's "The Man From U.N.C.L.E.," a smooth, bland brew of contemporary sleuthing that stirs in a heady serving of James Bondish fantasy, gadgetry and voluptuous girls. The show may have had a shaky debut but now it's a solid hit.
As the Russian-accented Illya Kuryakin, the pint-sized super spy aide to Robert Vaughn, who plays Napoleon Solo, McCallum's celebrity has grown so fast that on a recent promotional tour he had to be plucked by the Baton Rouge police from a mob of 10,000 youngsters, predominantly female. At the moment, he probably receives as much fan mail as any performer on TV.
In his heroic tough guy role, McCallum bears no more resemblance to Sean Connery
than he does to Humphrey Bogart. Atop his slight but wiry 5-foot 8-inch frame
is the sensitive, strong-mouthed face of a poet. Plastered close to a symetrical
skull, in jagged strands, is a crown of blond hair that makes him look like
a cherubic esthete.
McCallum is right in the current teen-age mold. He's British and therefore kin to The Beatles. He also has the same vulnerable quality and since he is not a hulking hero, the little chaps can identify with him. Away from "U.N.C.L.E." The image of Illya is that of a smiling, articulate and unpretentious man, the husband of actress Jill Ireland and the father of three.
The ironies of show business do not pass his notice. The native of Glasgow made several films before entering TV--"Billy Budd," The Great Escape," "Freud"--which failed to have, for him, the slightest effect at the box office. But Illya made him the man of the hour. Why?
"You know, I've wondered about that," McCallum said, catching his breath on a recent afternoon. He and Vaughn had quietly stopped here for a visit and for lunch had ducked into a small Italian cafeteria in the Murray Hill area. The place was empty except for two men behind the counter who stared at them uncertainly. "We had a quiet beginning," McCallum went on, helping himself to spaghetti. "No one knew me. Now I'm called the Christopher Columbus of NBC. On personal appearances in Texas I got the polite handshake, a little kiss on my cheek and then total envelopment. In England that's called the G.B.H. The Great Bear Hug."
McCallum was joined at a table by Vaughn, who was balancing a plate of lasagna. A dignified, composed man in his late thirties, with dark, gray-flecked hair, Vaughn, like McCallum, is also suddenly famous after unnoticed seasoning in movies. Few recall that he was nominated for a supporting Oscar six years agin in "The Young Philadelphians."
"I was doing 'The Lieutenant' when our producer Earl Felton phoned. He told me about 'U.N.C.L.E.'--the overall conception, the ideas, the characters. I read a pilot script and that was enough for me." On the program, both Vaughn and McCallum face imprisonment or death nearly every week, but their captors don't merely wave guns at them. They are tied up together, separately or with a beautiful girl in boiler rooms, in dungeons or any other amusing places which the villains can find. And of course, both Solo and Illya endure all their trials with humor and a what-the-hell attitude, which may account for part of the show's appeal.
"U.N.C.L.E.'s" popularity means, of course, that it will be joined in the fall by other vaguely suave, slightly tongue-in-cheek espionage stories, which may take away, for awhile, the limelight on the westerns and military comedies. There will be other globe-trotting male and female agents, some in various disguises and one in which a rugged gal is required to protect herself--and her country--with some trick exercises.
"It's important to remember," McCallum pointed out, "that when we started this show John Le Carre and James Bond hadn't really caught on. There was only one Bond picture out. Solo is not like Bond, but he is a kind of romantic non-hero dissociated from reality."
McCallum feels that "U.N.C.L.E." is a probable show--fantastic but probable. "I bought a Popular Electronics magazine not long ago. It featured a new gun. Well, it's now the Thrush gun," he said referring to the weapon used by the serial's bad guys, the members of Thrush.
In the Thirties, Vaughn noted, the "U.N.C.L.E." plotting turned up in movies that provided a need for escape from economic deprivation. Now, he believes it's more an escape from mass hysteria, or possibly from fear of atomic destruction.
"There's definitely an American aspect to the show, too," mused McCallum. "You have such an aggressive, imaginative society in this country. What amazes me is that you're only four centuries old. You achieve more in less time than in Europe, where everything's thousands of years old. In England, 'U.N.C.L.E.' would be considered a liberal show. I used to get letters saying 'How dare you play a Russian?' Then came the we-love-you-anyway notes. Now I get, 'Dear Illya, you may be a Communist, but you're our Communist."