Considering the extent of his versatility---which includes a recent role as King Henry II in a stage version of The Lion in Winter---it's not surprising that the 64-year-old actor doesn't wish to put undue emphasis on The Man From UNCLE. "Television tends to pigeonhole you," he says knowingly.
For the Scottish-born McCallum, becoming part of The Outer Limits' "A Feasibility Study" (updated by Joseph Stefano, writer of the original episode and co-creator of the classic series) was as simple as fielding a phone call from his manager, Abe Hoch. "Abe called me up and said 'You're doing The Outer Limits.' I said, 'Cool. When?' He said 'Next week.' I said 'Great,' and that was the end of that. You don't argue with Abe."
McCallum enjoyed playing the role of Joshua Hayward on the new Outer Limits. "I've always felt a part of The Outer Limits," he declares. "I believe 'The Sixth Finger' is one of the most broadcast episodes of science fiction ever, because of the makeup and the whole concept---it works beautifully. [Director] James Goldstone's son is teaching up at Northfield Mt. Hermon, I believe, where my daughter went, and he said to me one day, 'My father directed that [first] episode you did of The Outer Limits'. It was kind of cool.
"To have done that episode, then to have done 'The Form of Things Unknown,' with Cedric Hardwicke and that whole group, I very much feel a part of this show. It's strange: I went back on the summer theatre circuit this past year and did a play in New England---something I haven't done for years. It's odd, going back and re-covering old territory. It was wonderful to see Joe [Stefano] looking so well, and to see it happening all over again with The Outer Limits. There was a mellowness about it all."
McCallum tries not to get "too caught up in a whole lot of conjecture" about the character he plays in "A Feasibility Study," but when pressed he's prepared to offer his observations about the role. "When Sam [Wannamaker] did the part [in the original episode], the conflict was between him and his wife, rather than with his daughter, as it is now. I have a daughter, and she went through the same things [as the daughter in the episode.] This time around, Joe has softened the conflict to the extent that we don't play the father so hard. He's not the father in Shine, which is to say your typical domineering father. The conflict is just the natural in-fighting that goes on between a single parent and a daughter, and the lack of communication that often results. Both the director, Ken Girotti, and I didn't want the episode to start off like it was a story about a father and a daughter, because that's not what it's about. It's about a normal existence that's suddenly uprooted. I just thought it was important not to have it be an abnormal existence uprooted."
A graduate of England's Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, McCallum appeared in several films and plays in Great Britain before coming to America in the early 60's to play Judas in The Greatest Story Ever Told (which he and the crew cynically dubbed "The Longest Movie Ever Shot"). "I was on that one for nine months, which was a very long time for a young and unseasoned actor from the United Kingdom. To have my character's wife go off and marry someone else...well, there was an awful lot of subtext going on at that time in my life."
When Story wrapped, McCallum decided to remain with his wife, actress Jill Ireland, and children in the United States. Unfortunately, his mother mistakenly gave away all his belongings (everything but "a suitcase of clothes") to the Salvation Army. "It was kind of a devastating moment," he recalls. "I was cut off from everything I ever had, including all my books, which was the biggest loss. So, there I was, in a rented house in Malibu with two children and my wife. Around that time, Jill met Charles Bronson, who became a very good friend of ours. I subsequently divorced Jill, they got married and I remarried [Katherine, an interior designer]. And I'm still married to her today."
After doing "various bits and pieces here and there," including a role in John Huston's Freud (which caught Stefano's eye), McCallum was invited to take part in a new SF series called The Outer Limits. The episode, "The Sixth Finger", was written by Ellis St. Joseph. "It was really the beginning of everything I did in Hollywood," offers McCallum. "I was young and ambitious in the sense that I loved my craft. I didn't want to be famous. I just wanted to earn enough money to have a nice life and enjoy acting. I was very new to this country, innocent even. Having been brought up on Hollywood, the chance to see all these people I had seen on the screen...I was just a fan with my jaw fallen open."
McCallum's role as a Welsh coal miner who is transformed by scientist (Edward Mulhare) into a malevolent superbeing required him to meet several times with makeup artists Fred Philips and John Chambers, who would create the striking "future brain" head for McCallum's evolved character. "I helped design [the head] in the sense that I asked if I could retain some of my own features. When we shot the show, I would go into the studio at 4 a.m. and they would apply the makeup until 9 or 10. I would work until 1 p.m., which is all I could manage because the head was so heavy. We did the exteriors at MGM. Later on, I would come to know every inch of that backlot, because that's where I did UNCLE."
His role as Gwyllum Griffith in "Sixth Finger" "was a challenge, and great fun," McCallum says. "When I put on that big head, I remember thinking, 'My God, I look like my father!'" (David McCallum Sr. was first violinist for the London Philharmonic Orchestra; he plays a conductor in the 1950 film Prelude to Fame. McCallum is also a musician, having studied at London's Royal Academy of Music. The oboe is his instrument of choice.)
"The Forms of Things Unknown", penned by Stefano, was second Outer Limits outing, in which he played a disturbed inventor named Tone Hobart, a man obsessed with "tilting time" and returning the dead to life. "I got to work with Sir Cedric Hardwicke, whom I watched in films for decades," he enthuses. "That alone was a colossal thrill. I felt very honored to be asked back."
All this eventually lead to four seasons and 104 episodes of The Man From UNCLE, for which McCallum earned two Emmy nominations (he received a third for a Hallmark Hall of Fame special, Teacher, Teacher). "It was a wonderfully silly series. People got tremendous vicarious pleasure out of it. It had so many wonderful ingredients for its time. Its extraordinary longevity, the fact that it has gone on for 30 years and that people still remember the characters' names, is quite amazing," he observes.
Does the actor feel that four years of Illya Kuryakin was a hindrance in getting work after UNCLE? McCallum states: "There is no question that when producers, writers and directors considered me for parts, they often said no because of my associations with Kuryakin. But it's not something I dwelled on. The role gave me international recognition of extraordinary proportions. I get called Illya every single day; it doesn't matter what country I'm in. I was once walking through the jungle in Singapore and ran into this guy with a pushcart selling jellied eels. He looked at me and said, 'Id-i-ya, Id-i-ya."
Recalling other memorable roles is easy for McCallum. "I had a wild time working for [director] John Sturges on The Great Escape, and going off to sea and shooting Billy Budd in the Mediterranean for [actor/director] Peter Ustinov. I'm one of those people who loves the locations as much as the script. I love to see things and go places. I've done films all over the world. I could go on forever, talking about the places and faces, and everything I've done."
McCallum isn't exaggerating. His extensive resume (not counting numerous plays) includes such varied projects as his first film, 1957's The Secret Place, Hell Drivers, A Night To Remember (chronicling the sinking of the Titanic), Sol Madrid, The Haunting of Morella, Around the World Under The Sea, the 1977 horror film Dogs (aka Slaughter), Hear My Song, episodes of such series as seaQuest, Rod Serling's Night Gallery, Monsters and Babylon 5, assorted telefilms (including Hauser's Memory and Frankenstein: The True Story) and the short-lived series The Invisible Man, which McCallum feels was ruined when it was turned into a "light comedy."
His sole Disney outing, The Watcher in the Woods, was one of the studio's few attempts at science fiction---sort of. "It was a very interesting film up until the end, when the whole thing changes genres. It went from a spooky movie to an SF movie---it wasn't SF all the way through. I don't think it worked. I always felt that the character I played, the father, should have had a much more integral relationship to the ending."
As for his most recent series, the promising VR.5, McCallum who played patriarch Dr. Joseph Bloom, is of the mind that "a bunch of very short-sighted people [at the Fox network] threw away a gold mine. VR.5, if it had found its niche and been allowed to develop, would have been one of the classic SF shows of all time. I don't know why they didn't bother to go on with it. You cannot create something like that in one season and then just throw it away. It was a dreadful shame. Lori Singer was just fabulous."
One of McCallum's friends and acting compatriots is former Absolutely Fabulous co-star Joanna Lumley, with whom he made an SF series in England (never shown in the US) called Sapphire and Steel. It ran from 1979 to 1981 and featured McCallum as Steel to Lumley's Sapphire. "And I'm still very friendly with Robert Vaughn," the actor adds about his UNCLE co-star. "I'm sorry Leo G. Carroll died---he would have been about 150 now if he were still alive."
As for Richard Donner, who directed McCallum on The Man From UNCLE, the actor admits, "I have not seen Dick since then, nor have I worked for him. He hasn't even offered me a bit part. I mean, I can get blown off toilets as well as anybody else!"
References to Donner's Lethal Weapon films aside, what does McCallum think about the rumors surrounding a proposed big-screen adaptation of UNCLE, possibly to be written and directed by Quentin Tarantino? "Pulp Fiction was one of my favorite films of the year---it was superb. I think Quentin is an interesting director, a very smart and creative person. In a funny way, I defy him to write a new Man From UNCLE. As a series it was so specific to the era. It was about the Cold War between the Russians and the Americans, and you cannot bring that relationship into a modern context, because there is none. And if you try to do it as a period piece, it's just like remaking Mission Impossible---it doesn't quite work. I don't know how you would do The Man From UNCLE today. If they do it, it'll be exciting to see what he makes of it."
If he's approached to appear in the film, however, McCallum is certain about one thing: he won't say yes if offered only a small role. "I don't talk in terms of cameos. It's it's a good part, of course I would do it. But I'm not bending over backwards to play a senile Russian, drooling into his vodka. I wouldn't want anything to do with the film unless there was a reason for it. And personally, I can't see a reason for it. I mean, if you're going to remake it, remake the damn thing."
For David McCallum, life in New York is mostly about work, but he still has time to explore the Internet with his new computer, touch base occasionally with his fan club and do charity work that is close to his heart (he participated in 1996 for the second time as a cyclist in the Boston/New York AIDS Ride). Is there a role he is especially proud of? He cites his work in The Great Escape and Billy Budd, but the part he mentions with special fondness is one he played on a little-seen 1971 Anthony Quinn TV series called The Man and The City. "I did an episode about a little Scottish janitor who worked in City Hall. I don't think in terms of being 'proud of' things I've done in the past, but he was one of my favorite characters. What can I say? I'll do anything; I'm for hire as an actor."