Remembering a Legend: David McCallum
David McCallum, a seasoned character actor of Scottish origin, captivated audiences in the 1960s with his portrayal of the enigmatic Russian spy, Illya Kuryakin, in the hit series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” He later enjoyed a resurgence in television stardom nearly four decades later with the immensely popular series “N.C.I.S.” Sadly, he passed away on Monday in New York City at the age of 90.
The news of McCallum’s passing was shared by “N.C.I.S.” through a post on the social media platform, X (formerly known as Twitter). The announcement provided no further details about his death.
Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, McCallum was a versatile character actor known for his ability to breathe life into a character using accents and distinctive clothing choices. His acting career spanned across theater, film, and television. Notable highlights included playing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in Central Park in 2000 and lending his voice to the character of Professor Paradox in the animated series “Ben 10: Ultimate Alien” a decade later.
In 1964, McCallum was initially cast to play Illya Kuryakin, the Russian-accented partner of Napoleon Solo (played by Robert Vaughn) in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” His role was originally intended to be minor, with just four lines in the first episode. However, McCallum suggested making Illya a more enigmatic character by keeping his personal life a mystery. This decision transformed his character into a key figure in the series, earning him two Emmy Award nominations and, somewhat to his surprise, making him a sex symbol.
With his air of mystery, Beatle-inspired haircut, and signature black turtleneck, McCallum became a heartthrob among teenage fans. During a publicity tour for the show at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge in 1965, he was mobbed by adoring female students, requiring police intervention to ensure his safety.
After “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” concluded in 1968, McCallum embraced lower-profile roles and continued to work steadily in B-movies and supporting television roles. Notably, he portrayed the title character in the short-lived series “The Invisible Man” (1975-76) and Emperor Joseph II in a Broadway revival of “Amadeus” in 1999.
Despite his diverse career, the shadow of the Russian secret agent Illya Kuryakin followed him for years. In 2003, McCallum took on a new iconic role as the bow-tied, bespectacled, and eccentric medical examiner Donald Mallard, affectionately known as Ducky, in the highly successful CBS crime series “N.C.I.S.” He remained with the show for two decades, contributing significantly to its consistent top-ranking position in Nielsen ratings.
In interviews, McCallum expressed that Dr. Mallard was one of his favorite roles, not only because of its depth but also because it provided him with valuable insights into forensics. He even studied alongside pathologists in Los Angeles and participated in autopsies, offering technical advice to the show’s writers.
David Keith McCallum Jr. was born on September 19, 1933, into a musically inclined family in Glasgow. His father, a renowned violinist, played with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, while his mother, Dorothy Dorman, was a cellist. McCallum attributed his emotionally reserved nature to his Scotch Presbyterian upbringing, stating, “We Scots tend to be awfully tight inside.”
Initially enrolled in the Royal Academy of Music to study the oboe, McCallum found his true calling in acting and transferred to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Despite his shift towards acting, he never completely abandoned his love for music. During the height of his “U.N.C.L.E.” fame, Capitol Records released several albums under his name, featuring instrumental renditions of popular songs.
In 1951, McCallum was drafted into the British military, serving for two years, including a 10-month stint in what is now Ghana as a small-arms expert. Following his military service, he signed with the Rank Organization, a British production company, embarking on a career in both movies and television.
McCallum’s personal life intertwined with his professional one when he met rising British actress Jill Ireland while working on the Rank production “Robbery Under Arms” in 1957. Their whirlwind romance led to marriage just seven days after they first crossed paths. The couple later moved to Los Angeles in 1961 when McCallum was cast as Judas Iscariot in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” (though the movie wasn’t released until 1965). However, their marriage faced strains due to McCallum’s growing stardom, and Jill Ireland eventually left him for actor Charles Bronson, whom she had met during the filming of “The Great Escape” (1963). Less than a year after their divorce in 1967, McCallum married Katherine Carpenter, a model, who survives him.
David McCallum and his wife resided in Manhattan. CBS reported that he passed away at a Manhattan hospital, although the cause of his hospitalization was not disclosed.
When asked about the renewed fame “N.C.I.S.” brought him in a 2009 BBC Radio interview, McCallum expressed his love for the attention, stating, “I love it. I’ve never got fed up with anything in my whole life.”