Friday, January 26, 2007
NCIS' David McCallum Goes from U.N.C.L.E. to a C.A.R. Toon
by Matt Webb Mitovich

David McCallum as NCIS' Ducky, and The Replacements' C.A.R.T.E.R.
For veteran actor David McCallum, it's been a long, strange trip from The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to playing a car named C.A.R.T.E.R., on Disney Channel's The Replacements (Saturdays at 8 pm/ET). Not to mention his gig on CBS' NCIS (as medical examiner "Ducky" Mallard, Tuesdays at 8 pm), which has been beefed up as of late. It would seem that TV's Invisible Man is appearing in more places as the years go on, no? On the occasion of NBC's Heroes introducing its own transparent gent, spoke with McCallum about his own "disappearing act," The Replacements and more. I wanted to talk to you, one of TV's original invisible men, about Heroes' new character. But remind me, how did your Dr. Daniel Westin become invisible?
David McCallum: Oh, it was during an experiment in a lab, when suddenly I vanished. I found out years later that [Steven] Bochco and Harve Bennett, who were producing The Invisible Man, wanted to do a comedy. But when I did the pilot, I didn't think about comedy at all. After all, being invisible is a dreadful thing to happen to you, and the one thing you want to do is get visible, to go back to normal, otherwise you're going to be a freak for the rest of your life. So that's the point of view I was coming from. They were coming from the point of view of some silly comedy, which is why we were playing around with the ball on the roulette machine, sort of campy things. It was a strange thing to discover years later that we were both coming from different areas. [Laughs] In some ways, despite its low-tech, 1970s feel, your Invisible Man was actually more believable, because his clothes didn't vanish with him. In fact, he actually had to put on a latex mask and gloves to be seen.
McCallum: And you have to remember, there was no CGI, there was no trickery. Basically, I used to think of myself as Marcel Marceau, I was totally doing mime against a blue screen or a green screen. I would pick up my own head with my right hand, walk across the room and put it down on the table, with the rest of my body blued out so you didn't see it. The physical antics we went through to make that whole thing work were incredible. But this Heroes guy, he seems to be cutting corners.
McCallum: Yeah, he's either naked or he isn't. When we did it, I had to take all my clothes off — and sometimes it was in the snow! Of course, I wasn't even there. That's one thing about playing an invisible man: It's the most wonderful production schedule, because you're only there when you're there. [Laughs] Do you ever scoff at other invisible characters and the use of bad science?
McCallum: I never scoff at anything. The only thing I do, at NCIS, is make sure that everything we do in that autopsy room is accurate. To do that, I work with a coroner in downtown L.A., and the army. The chief pathologist in the army called me and said, "You're the only one that gets it right." I mean, we cannot use the masks with the blowers that filter the air, because then you couldn't speak, so we've compromised by using face masks for open autopsies. And we don't wear booties, because if every time Mark Harmon came into the autopsy room he had to put on a pair, the drama would go out the window. NCIS quietly does very, very well in the ratings....
McCallum: NCIS was the No. 1 [Tuesday] show a couple weeks ago, before we went into reruns, and The Replacements, I hear, is the No. 1 animated cartoon. And I think U.N.C.L.E. at one point was No. 1, so I've had three No. 1s in one lifetime. When you first started out, could you ever imagine you'd have accomplished such a hat trick?
McCallum: No, because when I was growing up, "old" meant 60 — that's why I think they set Social Security and retirement at 60 — so the idea for me would have been to have a career until I was 50, 55, and then retire and pass quietly on. Yet here we are, plowing on, heading steadily for 80! I didn't ever imagine I'd get this far, and I'm always pleased when I wake up in the morning and discover I'm on this side of the grass. Are there any particularly juicy stories coming up on NCIS?
McCallum: They're all juicy, they're all juicy. I called Craig Harvey, the coroner here in L.A., because I have to take the stomach contents out of a petty officer. I've done autopsies before, real ones, so we've seen most of the things that happen, but I said, "When you take the stomach contents out, Craig, do you ladle them out? Or do you take the stomach out and then...?" He said, "Oh, you can do it either way." So I'm going to be ladling. What's the roughest part of sitting in on a real autopsy? What you're seeing, what you're smelling, what you're thinking...?
McCallum: I don't think of any roughness. What you're there for is cause and manner of death, cause of death principally, and therefore it's all a puzzle, an intellectual conundrum, and that takes precedence over any kind of roughness. I mean, when people are dead, they're dead. I'm sorry. Procedurals are hot, of course, but NCIS seems to succeed while flying under the radar. Why do you think it draws people in and keeps them in?
McCallum: You are probably better off to figure that out than I would. I do know that the dedication on the part of the writers, the producers, the crew and the cast is as high as I have ever seen on any show. And [series cocreator] Don [Bellisario] is brilliant — please put that in and underline it, whatever you do online. In the second year, he said, "It's a good show, guys, but we need more humor," so they brought in the humor. He's constantly changing things, so there's spontaneity and a freshness. Also, the chemistry among the cast is pretty high. And the other thing I love about this cast is when we meet in the morning, everybody is hugging everybody else. It's a general hugfest. A "group hug," as my grandson would say. Speaking of your grandson, what was your reasoning for doing The Replacements?
McCallum: Well, I've done voice-overs, but I've never worked for this kind of thing, so it just seemed to be very appealing. In those days, I was working one or two days on NCIS, and I had time, but now it's changed a bit. I just did six out of eight [at NCIS], but that's the nature of the beast. But it's just great fun to do it. What a pleasure to work with Nancy Cartwright (The Simpsons) and all of them. Did you have any say in C.A.R.T.E.R.'s appearance?
McCallum: No, no, no.... I mean, I saw a pencil drawing early on of what the car looked like, but I didn't know that it was the grill that spoke, or any of that. One thing, the level that everybody plays on at the Disney Channel is really extraordinarily loud, and I was softer than that — that's what they asked me to do — so I said, "Hey guys, we have to sharpen this up a bit," and we did. Doing voice-over, I guess you are, in a way, the Invisible Man once again.
McCallum: Yes, I am! There are some lovely things coming up on Replacements, where the car does some undercover work and such. What does a car go undercover as?
McCallum: Oh, I can't divulge that. Top secret!