To play a pathologist David McCallum has taken part in real-life autopsies. But no amount of surgery can cut him off from the the role that made him aTV legend
Released : Monday, November 26, 2007 11:15 AM
'David McCallum, former Russian spy, currently American naval medical examiner and eternally proud expatriate Scot, is in the Soho Hotel in London. He's over from his home - which is in New York's Upper East Side, so he must be doing all right - to promote the TV series NCIS. The creation of Don Bellisario, the American TV uber-producer also responsible for Magnum PI, Quantum Leap and JAG, NCIS is one of those perennial crime shows that plug up Five's night-time schedules the way cotton buds plug up bullet holes in dead bodies.
Actually, I don't know if they use cotton buds. But McCallum probably does. He's now in his fifth year playing Dr Donald "Ducky" Mallard, a medical examiner who investigates crimes involving the US Navy and Marine Corps, and he sounds a little obsessive about the part. "Anatomy and pathology and everything that flows from that have become such a big part of my life now that my wife kids me that I think I'm a pathologist, " he says.
After talking to him, I believe he thinks he's a pathologist too. At one point in our conversation he talks about something called the endocardium, which covers the pericardium. Obviously, I don't have a clue what he's talking about. I'm not sure endocardium is even what he said. My brain has this switch that flips to off whenever anyone starts talking in medical terms. He says something about the pericardial something or other and I nod my head and pretend I understand. The point is, I think, that when he's cutting up make-believe bodies on the set of NCIS, this endocardium (which, I learn later is the membrane that lines the cavities of the heart and forms part of the valves) isn't there in the fake corpses.
"It's something we never have, and it's annoying me that when we open things up it's not there, " he says. "So I was trying last week to figure out how you could take a sheet of plastic and surround wrap and blend them together and wet them so it would look like I want it to look."
Good luck with that, David. Not quite sure why it matters myself, but I'm not pretending to be a medical examiner. "I strive for accuracy, " he explains. You'd think that would be the scriptwriter's job. He's only the actor. He doesn't need to do that stuff, surely. "You do need to do that, " he counters. "You can't learn that stuff if you don't know what it means."
works and where the spleen is and how the blood flows. "The reason I learn it is in order to learn the dialogue. I have to know what I'm talking about." Then again, he adds, "it's gone beyond all that."
Well, quite. These days David is mates with Craig Mallak, who is the US Army's pathologist. Mallak, according to his new friend, "does all the pathology of everybody who's killed in Iraq in the Marines". They met when Mallak sent McCallum a letter of thanks, "because he said of all the shows that have this kind of thing, we are the most accurate". Apart from that missing endocardium, presumably.
McCallum is also tight with Craig Harvey, the chief coroner of Los Angeles. "He allows me to go and work the real thing whenever I want to. I have actually performed autopsies." When McCallum says this a few thoughts pop into my head. Firstly, I'm not sure I approve. If I had to be autopsied I'd rather it wasn't done by an actor. Then it occurs to me that if this is how far he takes his preparations for his current role, how far did he go with the others? When he played Ilya Kuryakin, the Russian spy in The Man from Uncle, can we be sure he wasn't a double agent, even the fifth man? How do we know it wasn't Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and McCallum?
That said, I don't suppose he would have been very good at undercover work back in the sixties, given that he was one of the most famous people in the world. The Man from Uncle - the most successful 1960s James Bond clone, albeit on the small screen - was sold to 86 countries around the world at its pop-art peak. McCallum recalls once finding himself in the jungle in Singapore. A guy came up to him and started calling him "Ilya! Ilya!" The recognition never went away. "I've been called Ilya more today than Ducky. It's extraordinary."
It doesn't sound like he enjoyed the fame that came from playing Kuryakin. "That was insane. Kids did dollars25,000 damage to Macy's when I did a public appearance. The police wouldn't let me appear, so they tore the display cabinets out. They had to close Times Square for me to get out in a police car and the guy drove up in the middle of Times Square and stalled it. And the fans are going and the hooters are going and the lights are flashing and he's trying to start it. I was very James Bondish. I actually said, 'You know, if you turn the lights and the siren off you might be able to start it.' And he did, and it started, and off we went.
"Mounted policemen had to rescue me from Central Park once. They were literally tearing you apart. It was fan frenzy. Your hair would be pulled out. The police barricaded me in the ladies' toilet and there were two huge policemen on the door to stop them coming in and the kids were coming in through the windows. I was trying to get out and these two policemen were holding the door and it wasn't until I was hit by the mob that the door gave way. That was crazy."
Still, it must be rather pleasing that people still recognise him from his sixties heyday. After all, he's not quite the blue-eyed, blondhaired, well-spoken hunk he was back in the day. But you have to say he's ageing well. He's 73 now, looks 10 years younger, at least, and comes across as (putting the whole cutting-upbodies thing to one side) the world's most benevolent uncle, tie neatly knotted, smartly but not swishly dressed. Conservative, you'd say (which is rather appropriate, as you'll see). He listens to all my pet theories about his life and tells me time and again I've got them wrong. No, he's not a Hollywood actor, he's a New York actor. No, fame was never a goal. And no, his Republican leanings have not affected his career in what has always been regarded as a traditionally liberal profession.
"I was brought up to believe that you take responsibility for yourself. You are not to expect anything from anybody else. It's up to you." He sports a Republican emblem in his car. He still describes Clement Attlee's 1946 government as "socialist".
"The idea of a Hillary Clinton in America is anathema, " he says. Bush, by contrast, is a "principled good man. I think he's vilified unfairly. I think the information he was given by the agencies [after 9/11] has proven to be incorrect." McCallum will accept, though, that Bush's "mission accomplished" speech shortly after the fall of Saddam Hussein was "such a wrong thing to do, given that they hadn't really figured out what was going to happen".
Unlike some other expat Scottish actors, he's not ready to pontificate about Scottish politics. "I have been away too long and it would be very immodest of me to have an opinion." It's fair to say, though, that he is not a nationalist. And yet he returns again and again to his own Scottishness and that of his parents. I wonder about this. He was born in Glasgow, true, but moved to London when he was three, though he returned during the war. Even so, he could just as easily claim to be a Londoner, or even an American now, as a Scot, couldn't he? He harrumphs at the idea. "In Stirling on VJ Night, they lit bonfires all over the Royal Knot. We went out and when the massed bands of the Argyll and Sutherland came over the big knoll at midnight playing the drums and pipes, I was a Scotsman. I've never forgotten that."
His father, also called David, was a violinist by trade. He was always practising at home. "My father was very aware of his fingers and his hands, so he didn't do a lot around the house." McCallum senior, according to his son, "could have been a comic. Always very thin. He'd walk in and say 'here I am in the bone', as opposed to the flesh. He had bacon and eggs every morning of his life and finally he died of a stroke. My mother a couple of days later said, 'I killed him, didn't I?' I said 'Yes, you did, but he wouldn't have had it any other way.'" His mother, Dorothy, was "a round person". She taught him how to cook. McCallum loved them both.
He says he was a shy child. Nearly every actor says they were a shy child. So was I. But I haven't ended up treading the boards. Maybe I should have appeared in the odd nativity play, as McCallum did. "As a very small child, I found that if you learned lines and batted your eyelids 150 people would applaud, and that was something that was quite appealing to a shy child."
As a teenager he apprenticed himself to an electrician and helped him wire houses. He took the knowledge into amateur dramatics, becoming a lighting director with the local amdram group in London where he lived.
His father tried to dissuade him from becoming an actor. "He said, 'You know, you're working 24 hours a day in repertory. You're ruining your life. You're a good oboe player. I'd like you to go to Paris and study at the Conservatory.'" It was only when his father saw his name up in lights in Leicester Square in 1957 - for the film Robbery under Arms, in which he starred alongside Peter Finch, Ronald Lewis and Jill Ireland - that he came round to the idea. "I think he realised at that point that this was okay. He was impressed by the adulation, particularly of Uncle."
Jill Ireland, McCallum's co-star in Robbery under Arms, became his first wife. They married the same year as the film came out. They stayed together for 10 years and had three children, before they divorced and Ireland hooked up with Charles Bronson. McCallum's marriage to his second wife, Katherine Carpenter, has lasted 40 years (and produced another two children, Peter and Sophie - McCallum is a grandfather now). Why, I ask, did this marriage work while his first didn't? "I think that would mean saying disparaging things about my first wife, so I don't think I'll go there, " he says.
Ireland met Bronson on the set of The Great Escape in Germany. Bronson and McCallum were good friends at the time. After Ireland had a miscarriage McCallum was offered a job in the US playing Judas Iscariot in The Greatest Story Ever Told. "Charlie said he'd look after Jill while I was away and that whole relationship happened."
He bears Bronson - or Bronson's memory, given that he and Ireland are dead now - no animosity. "I am eternally grateful to Charlie because he allowed me to meet Katherine." That meeting occurred on a Man from Uncle photoshoot in New York. Katherine was a model. McCallum was still married at the time, but he started writing to Crawford. "We corresponded for a year before we really met." McCallum was 11 years older, but that didn't matter. At least, not to them. "Finally she went to her family in New York and said 'I've met this man who's getting divorced and who has three children' and they were quite horrified."
It worked, though. It still does. "I say at home I've looked ever since we were married to see if I could find a woman who I could have a better time with and I never have."
Not that they get a lot of time these days. Since starting NCIS, McCallum's been working 14-hour days, 10 months a year. "You just keep doing it until you do it." The question is why, at 73, he's still going on. He can't need to, can he? "No, no, no, there's never a time when you don't need to. This is a myth." New York is expensive, he says. And he has responsibilities. "Anything I do now, apart from the old people's home and drooling into the oatmeal, are annuities for the grandchildren." So he's going to carry on until ??
"Till I can't remember the lines. The last Don Bellisario show went 10 years, which means if NCIS went on as long I would be 80. I'm not sure I'm supposed to be going on after that, but wait and see."
It is time for his close-up. As he poses we talk about Stirling, his favourite Scottish restaurants and his regular holidays "home". He thanks me for coming so far to talk to him. I point out he's come a lot further. The camera clicks, he says goodbye, and off he goes into the London afternoon where, sooner or later, someone else will call him Ilya.
Copyright 2007 Newsquest Media Group Ltd, Source: The Financial Times Limited
Financial Times Ltd.