From Newsday, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 1998


'U.N.C.L.E. ' Star Goes For a Different Thrill

By Blake Green, staff writer

It's a rare day when David McCallum doesn't get at least one "Hiya, Illya." Take today. There he was, strolling by Mahattan's Regency Hotel when a guy introduced himself as Morton and commenced a monologue about how much "The Man From UNCLE" has meant to him.

"He was going on about it as if it were all quite recent," says McCallum, a sliver of incredulousness creeping into his voice.

In his black turtleneck sweater, Illya Kuryakin, half of the team of crack international sleuths in the weekly television spy series, was blond and handsome, cool and caustic, and, considering his nationality (Russian, during the Cold War), enormously popular. But that -- need the man who played him be so quick to remind us? -- "was 30 years ago. There's a whole new world out there."

McCallum is currently appearing in the Off-Broadway production of Alan Ayckbourn's "Communicating Doors," at the Variety Arts Theater, with Tom Beckett, a younger actor "who had never seen or even heard of 'The Man From UNCLE.'"

Which is why McCallum doesn't even mention the enigmatic Illya and UNCLE (for the graying trivia buffs whose memory banks are on overload, this stood for the United Network Comand for Law Enforcement) in his Playbill biography for "Communicating Doors."

"People who know, know. The others, it really doesn't matter," he says with a shrug, but not a reluctance to chat fondly about the best-known chapter in his life. There was the time Joan Crawford guest-starred in an UNCLE episode, entitled "The Karate Killers Affair," which happened to be rerun the other night. "I remember the assistant said, 'We're ready for the first shot; get the girl.' There was this deadly hush and someone said, "This week you don't call her 'the girl.'"

In Ayckbourn's comic thriller -- which travels back and forth in time between the future, present and past in 20-year segments, and stars Mary-Louise Parker as Poopay, a lovable dominatirix -- he's playing Harold, a hotel detective. Harold looks pretty much the same throughout, and since the 65-year-old McCallum still looks startlingly like the sharp-featured Illya, there's often a gasp of recognition from the audience when he first appears on the stage. The big change, it seems, is that the quirky Russian accent he mastered for Illya has disappeared.

Except for the skulking, the two characters have nothing in common -- Harold is seedy, befuddled and, when it comes right down to it, annoying. But he is, says McCallum -- who finds him "very dear" -- "one of these people who always wants to fly." Illya got plenty of chances to do that, chasing evil around the globe, and, says the grinning actor, "I fly all the time. My whole life has a sense of escape -- the pleasure I get out of playing these different people, the variety. I've seen a lot of the world and I ain't finished yet."

Even though he's never had another role like Illya, his has been a good life, says McCallum, whose smooth English accent is often heard in voice-overs for television (Land Rover commercials at the moment) and Books on Tape. Since he was in the cast of the 1958 movie "A Night to Remember" (he played Harold Bride, the Titanic's radio operator), he narrated the two-part A&E series on the doomed ocean liner as well as another documentary on the ship that hasn't yet been released. (For the record: He has never seen the movie "Titanic.")

One of the reviews of "Communicating Doors" suggested that the production would have been better if McCallum had played all the male parts. "Very complimentary," he admits, "but it did make it a bit embarrassing." He insists his ego is in check: "I lost that a very long time ago. It doesn't rear its ugly head too often; life's too short."

Born in Scotland to what he calls "itinerant" musicians -- his father went on to be concertmaster and first violinist of the London Philharmonic; his mother was a cellist -- McCallum spent part of his childhood in London, where he studied the oboe before becoming an actor.

"The Scottish actor who left London to come to Hollywood to play Judas Iscariot" [in 1965's "The Greatest Story Ever Told"], as he describes his career path, has never gone home again except to work. McCallum has been living in New York for the more than 30 years that he's been married to Katherine Carpenter, his second wife, whom he met on a fashion shoot for Glamour magazine.

On the shoot, he says, "Robert Vaughn [who played Napoleon Solo to McCallum's Illya] and I were coupled with two gorgeous models" -- one his wife-to-be, who is now an interior designer. They have two adult children, and McCallum also has two sons from his marriage to Jill Ireland, one of whom, Val, a guitarist, has just recorded a CD with Sheryl Crow and plays behind Vonda Shepard on the "Ally McBeal" sound track. Their third son died of a drug overdose.

McCallum's latest movie is an upcoming independent film, "Cherry," about two sisters who are raised by their uncle. No, he says, he doesn't play the uncle. "I'm the man he lives with." Illya might be amused.