He is known in Brazil through the series "The Man from UNCLE" in which he played the part of the Russian Illya Kuryakin, "The Invisible Man", as himself, and more recently, the mysterious father of Sidney in "VR 5". The actor also appeared in series such as The Outer Limits, new and old, Matlock, Perry Mason, The Master, A-Team and House of Horrors.
At the end of 1997 we met the actor in New York for an exclusive interview. Contrary to the other actors we interviewed, David was not participating in a convention, which made our meeting even more special, as it meant that he was opening a space in his diary just to give us an interview!
At first extremely shy, David talked to us in a hotel lobby. While we prepared the material he joked with us asking if the interview would be in Portuguese or in Ingles: "I can't speak Spanish either. Only a little Italian and French. I tried to learn Spanish but kept mixing it up with Italian. I adore Italy; I spent a lot of time there. For this reason it's difficult to come out of Italian to another language and vice-versa, especially if you only learned some words in one of them".
David was born on 19 September 1933 in Glasgow, Scotland. He started his career as a musician, and later he conducted an orchestra when he recorded some records. He married the actress Jill Ireland and divorced her in 1967, and married the decorator Katherine Carpenter. While living in the USA, he starred in The Man from UNCLE, which brought him worldwide fame.
David currently continues to appear as guest star in television series, as well as narrating audio books.
Read the exclusive interview by David McCallum (DMC) to TV Séries (TVS).
TVS: How did you get involved with music?
DMC: My father was the leader of the London Royal Philharmonic and my mother was a cellist in the same orchestra; my grandfather was an organist and all my uncles were piano teachers. I was surrounded by music since childhood. When I was 10 or 12 my father became conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Therefore he gave me my musical basis. My parents used to play Mozart in the living room in our house and I used to sit listening. I tried unsuccessfully to learn to play the violin, like my father, and the cello, like my mother. Then they gave me an oboe, which I still have today. I learned to play Mozart's symphonies on the oboe.
TVS: We learned that he even made some records.
DMC: When I was doing The Man from UNCLE I recorded some light rock records well, they were considered heavy at the time! I don't really know how to define them they were considered advanced music. I recorded with 4 French horns and the records sold very well. They were among the 40 most sold records. But since that time I did not get involved with music any more, because in reality I'm an actor, not a musician. I love music and can play several instruments, if necessary, but professionally, I'm first of all an actor. Music is a diversion for me.
TVS: How did you start your acting career?
DMC: Actually I started as an electrician, carpenter and plumber in a theatre. I loved theatre as a child and learned to make stage sets. For this reason I got work behind the scenes in a theatre that presented opera festivals. I started work as an assistant but by the time the festival was over I was responsible for backstage of five operas. I worked many years until I was called to the army, where I stayed two years. It was fabulous because I served in Africa where I learned military discipline, wearing a uniform, etc. I became an instructor of small firearms. For this reason I was always carrying arms and grenades. All this, curiously, is very useful in the acting profession: for example, when I did Colditz for the BBC in 1972, about the war, I knew all that had to be done, it was easy! After the army I went back to England and became an actor.
TVS: How did television come into your life?
DMC: I usually joke with my children saying that when I was a child there was no television. By father ordered our first set in 1938 or 1939, I think. But it was only delivered between 1945-1946. After the war was over they sent our set. It's incredible, we ordered it in 1938 and we got it almost 10 years later! It was at that time that television came into my life, as a telespectator. Later, when I was still studying to become an actor, I did a lot of live shows for the BBC in London. There were programmes that showed theatre plays, they were called teletheatre. Amphitryon 38, The Vortex, Crime Passionnel, all the classics we did live in two and a half hour plays. At that time we were already using 4 cameras!
TVS: When did you move to the USA?
DMC: I moved in 1961. There were elections in England and the left wing socialist party won. Politically I'm right wing. It was depressing, because a person like my father, who worked all his life to earn a living, would be obliged to give the government (in taxes) the earnings that went above an X value. In the total it was a very high value. So he used to work until h reached the limit and then he went on holiday. For me it was horrible to see a man who loved his work and loved working, to have to follow this type of philosophy. So, when England became socialist I decided to go to the USA. Shortly after I accepted the offer to work in the film The Greatest Story Ever Told, where I played Judas Iscariot. After filming I decided to stay in the country.
TVS: Did you do Outer Limits at that time?
DMC: The Outer Limits was before The Man from UNCLE. I was not well known, so it was difficult to find work. So I played lots of parts to become known. I did The 6th Finger in 1963 and Forms of Things Unknown in 1964, when I was already doing UNCLE. A month ago I did an episode for the new series, Feasibility Study. It was funny because I had a girlfriend many years ago, when I was still starting my career in England, who lived next door to Sam Wanamaker and we became good friends. When they asked me to do Feasibility Study, which is a remake, I played the part Wanamaker had done. It's funny how these things intertwine!
TVS: How did you get into UNCLE?
DMC: I was looking for a job. I had done some work, was married and had three children and a rented house in Malibu. It was not easy. One day I was having lunch in the MGM restaurant and met Norman Felton who introduced me to Charles Bronson. They told me they were looking for an actor for the part of Illya. In reality I had three work offers in the same day! One of them was for the series Alexander the Great, the other for a series on Judas Iscariot (someone had that "brilliant" idea of transforming the character into a series), and the other one for Mr. Solo, who later was renamed The Man from UNCLE. All in black and white many many years ago!!!
TVS: In the end they only did the pilot of Alexander the Great with William Shatner.
DMC: Did they? I didn't know they had! Only the pilot? Then I made the right choice!
TVS: Why a Russian character at a time when the USA were going through the cold war with the Soviet Union?
DMC: I haven't the faintest idea! Well, you have a laugh with the cold war. You take two opposite sides and put them on television as friends. I think that was the main idea of the series. At the time we were going through the Vietnam War. It was a catharsis to have a series that made fun of this whole situation.
TVS: Suddenly you became popular. How did that happen?
DMC: It was very hard in the beginning. You lose your private life, your identity, suddenly you become a merchandise. I mean, I could not have just sat here talking to you! I couldn't even leave home. Once I went to Central Park for a walk and it took three or four mounted policemen to take me away from the middle of the crowd! At that time we were the national idols. Who is it now? Brad Pitt? Who will it be in five years time? It's all a circle. Once you've accepted the new situation there is no problem. I was able to manage that time. But things are much better now!
TVS: You used to travel during the weekends, after the weekly work, to divulge the series from town to town. What was that work like?
DMC: At that time the broadcasting stations went crazy! NBC used UNCLE as the main bandwagon in its programming. That meant that the series had to beat all the others being shown at the same time in other channels. For that we had to be a great success. Chuck Painter who died some years ago, God bless him, organised a grand plan according to which we visited all the towns used by Nielsen for the ratings. We visited them one by one every weekend. We did local commercials to announce the day and time of the series, we opened fairs and met the mayor. As soon as we arrived we visited the NBC representative in town. Once there, I tried to find out if there were elections, for example, and if there was a quarrel between the mayor and the aldermen. It could be any kind of quarrel, such as the rubbish collection. I wrote some lines saying that the UNCLE men were in town to help the mayor, no matter who he was, with the rubbish collection, and made fun of the situation. In this way we divulged the series directly to that public because we were informed about local politics. We also filmed chases in the town streets, and whatever else was necessary. Al that made our ratings beat the competition and we became number 1 series.
TVS: Did anything funny happen during filming?
DMC: It's difficult to remember something in particular, because in the context it was funny, but it loses its meaning when you tell it. Once, during a fight scene, I nearly killed Robert Vaughn with a knife but this is not funny, is it?
TVS: What was the climate like during filming?
DMC: Wonderful. I've always been lucky to work with wonderful people. I never had a quarrel with anybody; I always had great fun with the cast with whom I worked. Only once, in the theatre, I worked with an actress considered important and no one in the cast knew their lines by heart. I tried to memorize everybody's lines so that I could tell them in their place, should they forget them. But what happened was that in the end two of us were speaking at the same time, because they remembered their lines half way through! It didn't work! I'll never do that in my life again! Apart from that, all the stories you hear about animosity and quarrels among actors, I never found that.
TVS: We sometimes hear about actors who are not very happy in their work.
DMC: The British tabloids do that a lot. They are dedicated to destroying people. Anyone who is successful, anybody who tries to do something they look for something negative in their lives and destroy them. The British press, not newspapers like The Telegraph, The Times or The Guardian, but the others. I've had my problems and personally I'd rather not talk to them again, and I know a lot of people who think the same.
TVS: How did you feel about the death of Princess Diana?
DMC: It was almost an opera. The story of a great tragedy, in which the heroine is a princess who will never grow old and will be remembered as this absolutely marvelous creature who died very quickly in an almost epic story. At the same time she did great actions which marked her era. I mean, it's obvious what she did for the British Royal Family, how she was treated by them and by the public and how she treated everyone. But in the end I think that you should not ride in vehicles that are driving too fast when there is alcohol involved and not fasten your safety belt. I mean, if she had fastened the seat belt, she might not have died. I find all that very tragic as if it had been written in an apocalyptic form, determining that this wonderful creature should go in such a way. Despite all the merchandise produced around her image, she will be remembered, frozen in time sorry, I'm out of the subject.
TVS: No problem! Getting back to UNCLE: what did you think of the film Return of the Man from UNCLE?
DMC: When did we do it? 1987 or something like that. It was done by a man called Michael Sloane, a great fan of the series who had a small budget for the film production. So I think he did the best he could. We made the film and I don't think we can do it again. That's it.
TVS: Your character became a fashion designer. Whose idea was it?
DMC: Something like that. I can't remember! I think it was Michael's idea. I just remember we filmed in Nevada. I heard that Quentin Tarantino bought the rights for a film. Every year I hear that it will be produced but I don't think a film of the series is possible. The series was produced specifically for the 60s, around the cold war and all that. If is done portraying that period, it loses sense because those politics don't mean anything now. If it's done bringing the characters to the current time, it loses sense and identity. It was great fun when we did it because we were telling the system of that time something.
TVS: Let's move on to The Invisible Man. How did you get the part?
DMC: (stops to think) I've no idea! I remember I had to wear a mask and gloves almost all the time so that invisibility could be inserted later. Usually my agent calls me and says I'm wanted for something; then I say, great, what is it about? Then he asks if I can go and fetch the script or if he should send it to me. Usually I fetch it myself. I read it in the evening and see if I'm interested in doing the film or the series. Then I tell my agent and he sets up a meeting with production. If everyone is happy Nowadays here in New York, actors are chosen through tests. People usually read the lines. I prefer to memorize them because I can no longer read without glasses and I don't like to do tests with glasses on. This way I end up getting a lot of parts! A lot of today's directors don't know my work! But the other day I was called to do a film here in New York without auditions, they knew what they wanted and they knew that I could do it
TVS: Is this how you got involved with VR5?
DMC: Yes, I got the script when four episodes had already been made. They thought that involving the father in a mysterious accident was something the series needed. So we filmed the accident and drowning scene and all the other scenes related with the past. Then they separated the scenes into pieces and inserted them into the episodes that had already been filmed. They created the idea that VR5, 6 or 7 or 10 was the limit of virtual reality. The whereabouts of the father, what he was doing all this time and whether he would come back, would be presented in the second season of the series if it had been renewed. He would have been transformed into an important character for the story.
TVS: Did you like the series?
DMC: I loved it! I was very disappointed when it was canceled. One of the best persons I've ever worked with was the director of the series, John Sacret Young. I think I could have done something very interesting in the second year.
TVS: We heard that you and Robert Vaughn would participate in an episode of Mr and Mrs Smith, starring Scott Bakula. But only you appeared in the series. What happened?
DMC: Well, I've not worked with Robert Vaughn since the Return movie. I worked with him for years. And if the right thing had turned up we might have worked together, but in general I keep away from him, because the moment you do this type of thing you become Abbot and Costello, Martin and Lewis, Solo and Illya, and I simply don't want that. It usually becomes silly. So what they did was call me and ask me to do this Mr and Mrs Smith and I said yes, because I liked the part. At the same time they called Robert and asked "would you like to do" and he said yes. But nobody ever told the other that the other one would be in the episode. When I found out, I just said I wouldn't do it. And I had already traveled to Los Angles. So they said they'd get somebody else for his part. It happened again one of these days. My son is a photographer in a series in LA and he asked them "Why don't you invite my father to appear?" And they answered, "We try, but he's not interested". And he asked "why?" Obviously that was one more of those times they were trying to get both Robert and myself. But I never heard about that offer. They must have spoken directly with my agent. He knows I don't want to do that kind of thing.
TVS: But supposing you worked together, one as the good guy and the other as the bad guy?
DMC: But that's not the question. UNCLE was something we did and through which we became famous. One day, if something wonderful comes up that both of us really want to do, then yes. But just for the sake of appearing together in a series so that people can say, great! It's not something I want! We did together an episode of The A Team in which I played a Russian, and the UNCLE film.
TVS: You returned to England where you did two more series: Sapphire and Steel and Colditz, both for the BBC.
DMC: Colditz was a wonderful series about failures. It took place during the 2nd World War and we were war prisoners in a castle. In each episode we tried different ways to escape, but we were always caught. It was never shown in the USA because American television does not like to show series about failures. I think there was an episode with Robert Wager, in which he manages to escape for a few hours. They took that episode and showed it here as a telefilm.
TVS: What was Sapphire and Steel like?
DMC: It was a marvelous plot and a little beyond its time. Joanna Lumley (of Absolutely Fabulous) and I were police agents from another planet who watched time. If someone from a specific time tried to move to another period in time, our function was to bring him back so that the time line of the universe could remain unaltered.
TVS: You played in various science fiction series, including Babylon 5
DMC: I don't believe we are the only rational creatures in the universe. But I also don't believe that there are more sophisticated beings. It's difficult to believe that God has chosen us as his only representatives in the whole universe!
TVS: What have you been doing lately?
DMC: I made a film in Chicago for British television, with David Jason, in which I play a Russian who is after a civil servant job. Soon after that I went to England where I worked with Peter O'Toole and Joanna Lumley, we did Coming Home. The film was based on a wonderful book and it was an incredible plot. I played a major who is interested in teenage girls. I'm dying to watch the film when it's shown here. I also do voice overs for Land Rover commercials in NY, which takes up a lot of my time, and I narrate audio books. I do a lot of that. I did three Anne Perry books and I also did Michener After tomorrow I'll start the audio recording of the destruction of the Pompeii civilization for Time Life. There is a lot of narration intertwined with acting, you know, dialogues.
TVS: How long does it take to record an audio book?
DMC: I'm going to do one now, at the end of the month, which should take two full days. The last Anne Perry I did had 300 pages; I did it in a day. It all depends on how many mistakes you make! If you're tired I usually take bottles of fruit juice; they are excellent to hydrate the throat (note: the fruit the actor mentions, cranberry, does not exist in Brazil).
TVS: Do you support a social cause?
DMC: I don't usually do social work. But sometimes I participate in events. Recently I took part in the Boston/NY bike race, which consists of pedaling 400 km in three days to gather funds for AIDS research. A friend of mine, Jeff, and I, raised 4 thousand dollars. The race raised in total 7 million dollars donated to the Boston and NY hospitals. It was the hardest race I ever did. I participated in this race two years ago and I've already signed up for 1998, because on the last day of the race I'll be turning 65. I think it will be a fine present for myself if I can still do it!
TVS: Are you married?
DMC: Yes, to Katherine Carpenter. She is a decorator in NY. A magazine nominated her as one of the top 10 decorators in the country. Very good! I have three sons and one daughter and a granddaughter who lives in California, so I don't see her all the time. They are all in perfect health is this wood? (looking at the table and knocking three times).
TVS: Do you have a fan club?
DMC: Yes, a girl called Lynda Mendoza organizes The McCallum Observer with a monthly information sheet. It's on the Internet. If you do a search with my name you'll find The Observer. This event in which I participated, the bike race, the fans who visited the site donated a sum of money in my name, to contribute to the fund raising. Now I'm sending them an autographed photo to thank them for their participation. I think it's a way of telling them thank you! (note: the actor shows us the photo, recently developed, taken during the race). Click to see photo.
TVS: Have you ever been to Brazil?
DMC: I've never been to South America, although I've always been curious to see Manaus*. I've always wanted to the Amazon but my wife has a phobia of snakes. I can't go to Manaus with snake phobia!
TVS: Why don't you go to the South? There is no danger, no snakes, no scorpions
DMC: Southern Brazil? Could be. Where does it start? What is the dividing line on the map? No snakes? I don't mind much, but I don't like them! Next year we are going to cycle in Toscani (sic) for two weeks. In Southern Brazil is everything flat or are there mountains?
TVS: Both. Our town, Porto Alegre**, is surrounded by mountains.
DMC: I think I must learn another language.
DMC: Brazilian. I'll continue training my Antonio Carlos Jobim!!!***
*** Antonio Carlos Jobim, famous Brazilian song writer (The Girl from Ipanema)
** Porto Alegre means "Merry Harbour"
* Manaus: town in Brazil, capital of the Amazon state