By Bill Heaney
Film star David Keith McCallum, who died this week in New York, aged 90, may have been known worldwide as The Man From UNCLE, but around West Dunbartonshire and Loch Lomondside he was just the handsome boy from Gartocharn.
McCallum gained wide recognition in the 1960s for playing secret agent Illya Kuryakin in the television series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. His other notable television roles include Carter in Colditz (1972–1974) and Steel in Sapphire & Steel (1979–1982).
Beginning in 2003, McCallum gained renewed international popularity for his role as medical examiner Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard in the American television series NCIS, which he played for 20 seasons until his death. On film, McCallum notably appeared in The Great Escape (1963).
David McCallum was born on 19 September 1933 in Glasgow, the second of two sons of orchestral violinist David McCallum Sr. and Dorothy (née Dorman), a cellist.
When he was three, his family moved to London for his father to play as the leader of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Early in the Second World War, he was evacuated back to Scotland, where he lived with his mother at Gartocharn by Loch Lomond.
McCallum won a scholarship to University College School, a boys’ independent school in Hampstead, London, where, encouraged by his parents to prepare for a career in music, he played the oboe. In 1946, at the age of 13, he began doing boy voices for the BBC radio repertory company. Also involved in local amateur drama, at age 17, he appeared as Oberon in an open-air production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Play and Pageant Union. He left school at age 18 and was conscripted for National Service. He joined the British Army’s 3rd Battalion the Middlesex Regiment, which was seconded to the Royal West African Frontier Force. In March 1954 he was promoted to lieutenant. After leaving the army he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (also in London), where Joan Collins was a classmate.
McCallum s held his Equity card since 1946. Early acting roles included an outlaw in Robbery Under Arms, (1957) junior RMS Titanic radio operator Harold Bride in A Night to Remember (1958), and a juvenile delinquent in Violent Playground (1958). His first American film was Freud: The Secret Passion (1962), directed by John Huston, which was shortly followed by a role in Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd. McCallum played Lt. Cmdr. Eric Ashley-Pitt (a.k.a., “Dispersal”) in The Great Escape, which was released in 1963. He took the role of Judas Iscariot in 1965’s The Greatest Story Ever Told. Other television roles included two appearances on The Outer Limits and a guest appearance on Perry Mason in 1964 as defendant Phillipe Bertain in “The Case of the Fifty Millionth Frenchman”.
The Man from U.N.C.L.E., intended as a vehicle for Robert Vaughn, made McCallum into a sex symbol, his Beatle-style blond haircut providing a trendy contrast to Vaughn’s clean-cut appearance. McCallum’s role as the mysterious Russian agent Illya Kuryakin was originally conceived as a peripheral one. McCallum, however, took the opportunity to construct a complex character whose appeal rested largely in what was shadowy and enigmatic about him. Kuryakin’s popularity with the audience as well as Vaughn and McCallum’s on-screen chemistry were quickly recognized by the producers, and McCallum was elevated to co-star status.
In an interview for a retrospective television special, McCallum recounted a visit to the White House during which, while he was being escorted to meet the U.S. president, a Secret Service agent told him, “You’re the reason I got this job.”
McCallum never quite repeated the popular success he had gained as Kuryakin until NCIS, though he did become a familiar face on British television in such shows as Colditz (1972–74), Kidnapped (1978), and ITV’s science-fiction series Sapphire & Steel (1979–82) opposite Joanna Lumley. In 1975 he played the title character in a short-lived U.S. version of The Invisible Man.
McCallum starred with Diana Rigg in the 1989 TV miniseries Mother Love. In 1991 and 1992 McCallum played gambler John Grey, one of the principal characters in the television series Trainer. He appeared as an English literature teacher in a 1989 episode of Murder, She Wrote.
In 1994, McCallum narrated the acclaimed documentaries Titanic: The Complete Story. This was the second project about the Titanic on which he had worked: the first was the 1958 film A Night to Remember, in which he had had a small role.
Beginning in 2003, McCallum starred in the CBS television series NCIS as Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard, the team’s chief medical examiner and one of the show’s most popular characters. According to the behind-the-scenes feature on the 2006 DVD of NCIS season 1, McCallum became an expert in forensics to play Mallard, including attending medical examiner conventions. In the feature, Donald P. Bellisario says that McCallum’s knowledge became so vast that at the time of the interview he was considering making him a technical adviser on the show.
In the 1960s, McCallum recorded four albums for Capitol Records with music producer David Axelrod: Music…A Part of Me (Capitol ST 2432, 1966), Music…A Bit More of Me (Capitol ST 2498, 1966), Music…It’s Happening Now! (Capitol ST 2651, 1967), and McCallum (Capitol ST 2748, 1968). The best known of his pieces today is “The Edge”, which was sampled by Dr. Dre as the intro and riff to the track “The Next Episode”. McCallum’s version of “The Edge” appears on the soundtracks to the 2008 video game Grand Theft Auto IV and the 2017 film Baby Driver.
McCallum did not sing on these records, as many television stars of the 1960s did when offered recording contracts. As a classically trained musician, he conceived a blend of oboe, cor anglais and strings with guitar and drums, and presented instrumental interpretations of hits of the day.
In 2016, McCallum published a crime novel entitled Once a Crooked Man. The narrative is set in New York and London and centres on a young actor who tries to foil a murder. McCallum stated that a second novel was in progress.
On 11 May 1957, McCallum married actress Jill Ireland in London. The couple, pictured at the top of this page, met during the production of the film Hell Drivers.
The marriage lasted ten years. After leaving McCallum, Ireland married Charles Bronson, to whom McCallum had introduced her while McCallum and Bronson were filming The Great Escape (1963). McCallum and Ireland had three sons: Paul, Jason, and Valentine (Val). Jason, who was adopted, died from an accidental drug overdose in 1989.
In 1967, McCallum married Katherine Carpenter, pictured below, and they had a son, Peter, and a daughter, Sophie.
McCallum and his wife were active in charitable organisations that support the United States Marine Corps: Katherine’s father was a Marine who served in the Battle of Iwo Jima and her brother was killed in the Vietnam War. On 27 August 1999, McCallum was naturalized as a United States citizen. McCallum had six grandchildren. David
McCallum died at the New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York City on 25 September 2023, a week after his 90th birthday.