David McCallum, who starred as Illya Kuryakin alongside Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo in the 1960s hit spy drama “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and had a supporting role as pathologist Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard on the top-rated series “NCIS” decades later, died Monday of natural causes in New York City. He was 90.
His son Peter made a statement on behalf of his family, saying, “He was the kindest, coolest, most patient and loving father. He always put family before self. He looked forward to any chance to connect with his grandchildren, and had a unique bond with each of them. He and his youngest grandson, Whit, 9, could often be found in the corner of a room at family parties having deep philosophical conversations.
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“He was a true renaissance man — he was fascinated by science and culture and would turn those passions into knowledge. For example, he was capable of conducting a symphony orchestra and (if needed) could actually perform an autopsy, based on his decades-long studies for his role on NCIS.
“After returning from the hospital to their apartment, I asked my mother if she was OK before she went to sleep. Her answer was simply, “Yes. But I do wish we had had a chance to grow old together.” She is 79, and dad just turned 90. The honesty in that emotion shows how vibrant their beautiful relationship and daily lives were, and that somehow, even at 90, Daddy never grew old.”
The James Bond-influenced “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” in which Vaughn’s Solo and McCallum’s Kuryakin battled the evil forces of THRUSH around the globe (thanks to the glories of stock footage), was quite the pop-culture phenomenon in the mid-1960s, even as the show’s tone wavered from fairly serious to cartoonish and back again over its four seasons. It spawned a spinoff, “The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.,” starring Stefanie Powers, as well as a few feature adaptations during the run of the TV series, “One Spy Too Many,” “One of Our Spies Is Missing” and “The Karate Killers,” that starred Vaughn and McCallum.
McCallum also guested as Kuryakin on sitcom “Please Don’t Eat the Daisies”; he reprised the role in 1983 for TV movie “The Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.: The Fifteen Years Later Affair.”
In an appreciation of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” series in the Boston Globe in 2008, Mark Feeney wrote, “Where Vaughn’s Solo was chilly, McCallum’s Kuryakin was cool — very cool indeed. If Julie Christie had the ’60s’ sexiest lower lip, as she most certainly did, then McCallum was a distant second. Add in his blond bangs, high cerebral forehead, and penchant for dark turtlenecks, and a teen idol was born.”
A Guy Ritchie-directed feature adaptation of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” was released in August 2015 with Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer starring as Solo and Kuryakin, respectively.
On CBS’ smash “NCIS,” centering on a team of agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service led by Mark Harmon’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs, McCallum’s Dr. Mallard offered not only key forensic clues but also served as a criminal profiler. Mallard had a wacky, ancient mother who eventually developed dementia and later died, and McCallum was key to the series’ successful blend of drama leavened with comedy. The series, which debuted in 2003, spawned two spinoffs, “NCIS: Los Angeles” and “NCIS: New Orleans.”
CBS said in a statement, “We are deeply saddened by the passing of David McCallum and privileged that CBS was his home for so many years. David was a gifted actor and author, and beloved by many around the world. He led an incredible life, and his legacy will forever live on through his family and the countless hours on film and television that will never go away. We will miss his warmth and endearing sense of humor that lit up any room or soundstage he stepped onto, as well as the brilliant stories he often shared from a life well-lived. Our hearts go out to his wife Katherine and his entire family, and all those who knew and loved David.”
“NCIS” was voted America’s favorite television show in a 2011 Harris Poll, and it was the most-watched series in the U.S. during the 2012-13 TV season.
In a 2012 interview, he explained to Variety‘s Chris Willman why he was still working after six decades in the business, “I’m doing it because I absolutely love what I’m doing. I’m doing what I was born to do. And I’ve done it when I joined Equity in 1946. And it’s wonderful to have this show and this character at this point in my career.”
“My life is dedicated to the new script coming through the door,” he continued, “Making sure that all the pathology is right, and then finding out how many words I have to learn for Ducky, which then translates into how many hours I have to do to work to get it in my head and get it as best we can. It sometimes seems you go in, you have a couple of lines, and Pauley talks all the time. Or other times you go into a scene and you have three pages of detailed medical jargon, and I have to work really hard to get that and make it sound glib and make it sound as if I know what I’m doing.”
Though he was busy with “NCIS,” McCallum had developed something of a second career as a voice actor on Toon Disney show “The Replacements,” in which he performed C.A.R.; various iterations of the “Ben 10” series as Professor Paradox; and in videogames such as “Diablo III: Reaper of Souls.”
David Keith McCallum was born in Glasgow, Scotland, to a father who was first violinist for the London Philharmonic and a mother who was a cellist. Thus he originally pursued a career in music, training on the oboe and studying for a time at the Royal Academy of Music, though he soon left and enrolled at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. After RADA he started performing with repertory theater companies.
But he had actually begun his professional acting career when he was 12, in 1946, performing for the BBC radio repertory company.
He made his screen debut in the BBC fantasy miniseries “The Rose and the Ring” in 1953.
The young actor appeared in the bigscreen crime dramas “The Secret Place,” “Hell Drivers” and “Violent Playground” in the late ’50s along with the Australian Western “Robbery Under Arms,” starring Peter Finch.
In the 1958 film “A Night to Remember,” about the Titanic, he had a small role as a wireless operator.
He did a lot of British television at this stage in his career, including a 1959 BBC adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s “Antigone” and BBC adaptations of Jane Austen’s “Emma” in 1960 and “Wuthering Heights” in 1962.
In 1961 he appeared in the stark, claustrophobic British-made WWII film “The Long and the Short and the Tall” (aka “Jungle Fighters”) along with Richard Harris, Richard Todd and Laurence Harvey, and he had supporting roles in Peter Ustinov’s “Billy Budd” and John Huston’s “Freud” the following year.
In 1963 McCallum had the good fortune to be cast in the high-profile, monumentally successful American-made film “The Great Escape,” starring Steve McQueen and a host of others. McCallum was a key supporting player as a member of the team nicknamed “Dispersal,” and though his performance is not the first thing one remembers from the film, it allowed him to break through. In George Stevens’ 1964 Christ epic “The Greatest Story Every Told,” starring Max Von Sydow, McCallum played Judas, further boosting his profile — the New York Times said, “David McCallum’s Judas Iscariot oozes a chilling treachery.”
The actor guested on American TV shows including “Perry Mason” and “The Outer Limits” just as he began his run on “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.”
McCallum starred in the critically acclaimed BBC-Universal Television series “Colditz,” which ran from 1972-74 and followed the lives of British prisoners held in castle by the Nazis during WWII. In 1975 he starred in the NBC sci-fi drama “The Invisible Man,” but it lasted only a season. He starred in a critically hailed miniseries adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Kidnapped” for Britain’s ITV, and starred opposite Joanna Lumley in the ITV sci-fi series “Sapphire & Steel,” which ran for six seasons beginning in 1979.
He reunited with Robert Vaughn, who was a series regular on the last season of NBC’s “The A-Team,” for an episode of that series called “The Say Uncle Affair” in 1986.
McCallum guested on “The Father Dowling Mysteries,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “SeaQuest 2032,” “Babylon 5,” “Law & Order” and even “Sex and the City,” and the actor had a small role in the charming British-Irish film “Hear My Song” (1991); on the BBC during this time he was a series regular on “Trainer.” In the U.S. he recurred on Fox’s ahead-of-its-time cyber-thriller “VR.5,” starring Lori Singer, in 1995-97, and on the Richard Dreyfuss vehicle “The Education of Max Bickford” in 2001.
When he guested on “JAG” in 2003, at the age of 70, in the backdoor pilot for “NCIS,” McCallum had no idea that he was about to fill his dance card for the next decade-plus.
At the height of his fame in the 1960s, McCallum recorded four albums for Capitol Records. These were not opportunities for him to sing; instead, the classically trained musician conceived a blend of oboe, English horn, and strings with guitar and drums, presenting instrumental interpretations of current hits. Though someone else was officially credited as the arranger on the albums, McCallum conducted the music and contributed several original compositions.
In 2016 McCallum’s mystery novel “Once a Crooked Man” was published.
McCallum was twice married, the first time to actress Jill Ireland.
He is survived by his wife of 56 years, Katherine McCallum, his sons Paul McCallum, Valentine McCallum and Peter McCallum, his daughter Sophie McCallum and his eight grandchildren: Julia McCallum, Luca de Sanctis, Iain de Sanctis, Stella McCallum, Gavin McCallum, George McCallum, Alessandro de Sanctis and Whit McCallum.
Donations may be made to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.
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