October 19, 2010

TV Choice Magazine

As wartime drama Colditz is shown on Yesterday, David McCallum shares memories of starring in the classic Seventies series. He also reflects on a career that has taken him from the Sixties espionage of The Man From UNCLE to the modern-day naval intelligence of NCIS, as he talks to star-struck TV Choice writer David Collins

Hi David, this is a real pleasure, because you were my childhood hero.
I still am aren't I?

Well, naturally, I’m still in awe of you.
I know a Peter Pan when I hear one.

That’s right. I’m now 42 – so I’d like to do a little quiz with you. Can you guess the show I fell in love with during the Seventies?
The Invisible Man?

Then you segued into Sapphire And Steel for a short time?

David, you’re summing up my childhood here.
I was once walking down a London street and there was a family coming towards me. And one of them said, ‘Oh look there’s Steel,’ [from Sapphire And Steel] and another said, ‘No, it’s Illya Kuryakin.’ [from The Man From UNCLE]. And someone else said, ‘No it’s not, it’s The Invisible Man.’ It was really funny. They were all different heights, and it was almost like a comedy routine. But I’m glad I’ve been able to keep you in entertainment over the years, and now we’ve got NCIS.

Colditz is a 28-part series. Were you surprised it was so long?
Yes, it’s an awful lot of shows.

Was Colditz quite gruelling to make?
No, acting is never gruelling, acting is wonderful. Everyday you get up, you drive to work — all right you might get up at 4.30am — but then you sit in a chair, and someone does your hair and make-up. Then they give you breakfast. Please! Don’t talk to me about gruelling!

What was it like starring in Colditz, alongside Robert Wagner?
I was in an ensemble company — in an odd way it’s the same with NCIS and The Man From UNCLE too, where you had lots of people coming through. The phrase ‘starring in’ is something publicists say. When you’re doing a show, you’re merely working with a bunch of very talented actors. Every show I’ve ever done I’ve been surrounded by wonderful and interesting people. But Robert’s a wonderful guy. I was working with him last week. He plays DiNozzo’s father in NCIS and he was doing another episode with us, and in fact the last actor I gave a big hug to after a read-through was Bob.

What do you find most surprising about the real-life Colditz?
I think the most pertinent fact is that people would escape from prisoner of war camps all over Germany, and they said, ‘We are going to take you bad guys and put you all in the same place’, which they did. They put them in what they felt was an impregnable fortress, but in doing that they put the greatest talented escapees all together in the same place. So they were faced with a colossal amount of ingenuity and inventiveness.

Do you mind if we talk about your career a little?
Have you got three weeks?

What was it like working on the classic film The Great Escape?
Steve McQueen was great fun, but I also remember being by a lake with Donald Pleasance and having that incredible German food and drinking beer. It was just a wonderful place to be, and a wonderful film to do.

When you were in The Man From UNCLE you were called the ‘blonde Beatle’ weren’t you?
Well, we had ‘outrageously’ long hair, but I don’t think my hair has been that short since. When we got to Sapphire And Steel, then we really had long hair. And on The Invisible Man I had it down to my shoulders, with those big, wide lapels and crazy ties we wore. I was then usurped in one of the papers by Farah Fawcett Majors. They make strange comparisons when it comes to hair.

When you made Sapphire And Steel in the Seventies, it was known for its cryptic and chilling stories. Did you understand it?
Oh totally, there’s a great book by the British writer Marcus Chown called The Matchbox That Ate A Forty-Ton Truck. It’s a wonderful book that explains to people like you and I quantum physics and quantum mechanics. I think Sapphire And Steel was a very simple version of some of that.

Do people still remember The Invisible Man as much as your other popular shows?
I know an awful lot of people enjoyed it, but it was very brief. It was only 13 shows or something. In France, they went crazy for it – L’ Homme Invisible, they’re always saying that to me when I meet them in the street. NCIS is also big in France. Michael Weatherly couldn’t walk down the Champs-Elysées a few weeks ago, it’s such a popular show.

What was it like filming the special effects in The Invisible Man?
That was done before CGI, and we did it to blue or green screen. So there were two sets — one with the actor, the other with the furniture. It was incredibly difficult. I always felt like Marcel Marceau, I was miming everything to get my own head around it. It was wonderful to do, but expensive and I think eventually Universal felt it wasn’t worth spending the money.

Do people mostly recognise you now for playing Illya in The Man From UNCLE or Ducky in NCIS?
Ducky’s pretty much moved Ilya aside. I’m mostly called Doctor or Ducky — although some people have called me the ‘Duck Man’. We had our first show on last week and we had over 20 million people watching, which is an astonishing number.

What’s the secret of NCIS’s success?
It’s a brilliant cast, and Don Bellisario created it. He managed to launch the vessel that we sail. Also, I think we have the best team of writers I’ve ever had — with all due respect to the writers of Colditz. I’ve got to be careful here!

By David Collins