Tuesday 26 September 2023

RIP David McCallum

News has sadly broken that veteran Scottish actor David McCallum has passed away at the age of 90. McCallum was well-known for his roles in series such as The Man from UNCLESapphire & Steel, and the NCIS franchise.

Born in 1933 in Glasgow, McCallum was raised in both London and (during WWII) by Loch Lomond. He initially pursued interests in music, learning the oboe and singing. However, he developed an interest in acting as a teenager and attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in the 1950s, alongside classmate Joan Collins. McCallum had acquired his equity card at the age of 13 and began making regular TV and film appearances in the late 1950s, including a minor role in Titanic movie A Night to Remember (1958).

He achieved a major career breakthrough playing Lt. Commander Ashley-Pitt in The Great Escape (1963), followed by playing Judas in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). American TV guest shots on The Outer Limits and Perry Mason followed.

In 1964 McCallum was cast opposite Robert Vaughan in The Man from UNCLE. McCallum played Illya Kuryakin, an agent who is assigned by the Soviet Union to a joint USA - USSR intelligence organisation designed to tackle international terrorism and other potential threats to both powers. The show is ambiguous on Kuryakin's origins, but several episodes allude to a childhood in Kyiv, suggesting he is Ukrainian rather than the commonly-assumed Russian (Soviet = Russian being a common shorthand in British and American film and television at the time).

The show lasted for four seasons and 105 episodes. It was originally designed as a vehicle for Robert Vaughan with Kuryakin playing a secondary role, but McCallum's good looks and intense performance won him a horde of fans (MGM received more fan male for McCallum than for any other television actor in their history up to that time). He was promoted to co-lead. The show was cancelled during its fourth season, mainly due to a ratings drop blamed on a shift in tone towards gadgets, more humour and self-parody (possibly in response to the success of the Batman TV series). McCallum returned to the franchise with Vaughan in a 1983 TV movie, as well as parodying the show on a 1986 episode of The A-Team.

At the height of "UNCLEmania" McCallum released four albums of his original music. His best-known track from this period is "The Edge," a moody instrumental memorably sampled by Dr. Dre for his 2000 hit "The Next Episode."

McCallum divided his time between the United States and UK, playing in British series such as Colditz (1972-74) and American shows like The Invisible Man (1975). He got arguably his second-most-iconic role in 1979 playing Steel in Sapphire & Steel, opposite Joanna Lumley. Sapphire and Steel are interdimensional agents who are assigned to guard the flow of time against corrupting elements. Relatively little of their background is revealed, although it is suggested they are immortal and, outside of their jobs, are little interested in human affairs. 34 episodes divided into six serials were aired in between 1979 and 1982.

In subsequent years, McCallum enjoyed regular work as a guest artist. He appeared in shows including The A-Team, Matlock, Murder, She Wrote, Father Dowling Mysteries, seaQuest DSV, VR5, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Law & Order, Sex and the City, Jeremiah and JAG. During this period he chalked up a memorable guest role in the Babylon 5 episode Infection, playing a corrupt archaeologist. Writer-producer J. Michael Straczynski would later disavow the episode as one of the worst in the series, but more due to his script rather than McCallum's reliably solid performance.

The two-part episode of JAG (2003) he appeared in was actually a backdoor pilot for a spin-off show called NCIS; when the spin-off was picked up, he was cast in the role of Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard, a chief medical examiner. He was a regular actor on the first fifteen seasons of the show (2003-2018). He retired from the role full-time in 2018 but continued to make guest appearances in every subsequent season. His last appearance was in the Season 20 finale which aired in May 2023; due to the writer's strike, no further episodes of the show had been written or produced, so this will also be his character's swansong on the series. He also played the character in two guest shots on spin-off show NCIS: New Orleans.

McCallum also picked up a small number of voice roles over the years, including Batman: The Brave and the Bold and video games Privateer 2: The Darkening and Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls.

No comments: