David McCallum, the Scottish actor who portrayed the enigmatic Russian-born U.S. secret agent Illya Kuryakin on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and the chief medical examiner Donald “Ducky” Mallard on NCIS, died Monday. He was 90.
McCallum died of natural causes surrounded by family at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, a spokesperson for CBS announced.
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McCallum also starred opposite Joanna Lumley for four seasons on the 1979-82 British sci-fi series Sapphire & Steel (she was Sapphire, he was Steel) — a show many see as a precursor to The X-Files — and played a British prisoner of war on the acclaimed 1972-74 BBC drama Colditz.
McCallum was married to British actress Jill Ireland from May 1957 until she left him for brawny actor Charles Bronson a decade later. McCallum rebounded quite nicely, though, quickly marrying model Katherine Carpenter in 1967, and his wife of 56 years survives him.
The boyishly handsome actor spent all 20 seasons and appeared on more than 450 episodes on NCIS as Ducky, the bowtie-wearing autopsy expert with a psychological degree earned from the University of Edinburgh.
Studying for his role on the ratings-grabbing CBS drama about Navy crime fighters, McCallum learned how to perform actual autopsies and attended conventions for medical examiners. He became such an expert in forensics that series creator Donald P. Bellisario considered him knowledgeable enough to serve as a technical adviser on NCIS.
“I am known for being somewhat obsessive,” the actor said in a 2010 interview with The Scotsman newspaper.
Said NCIS executive producers Steven D. Binder and David North said in a statement: “For over 20 years, David McCallum endeared himself to audiences around the world playing the wise, quirky, and sometimes enigmatic, Dr. Donald ‘Ducky’ Mallard. But as much as his fans may have loved him, those who worked side by side with David loved him that much more.
“He was a scholar and a gentleman, always gracious, a consummate professional, and never one to pass up a joke. From day one, it was an honor to work with him, and he never let us down. He was, quite simply, a legend. He was also family and will be deeply missed.”
Baby Boomers connect with McCallum thanks to his four-season stint as Kuryakin on NBC and MGM Television’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which aired from 1964-68. He received a pair of Emmy nominations for playing the intellectual, introverted spy.
“The whole idea was that you knew nothing about him: gay or straight or married, who knew?” McCallum told The New York Times in 1998. “I suppose it was effective.”
On the Cold War-era series, which spawned the spinoff The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. and several movies stitched together from episodes, McCallum partnered with the American Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) as members of the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement.
The clandestine outfit, with headquarters concealed in a dry cleaner’s shop in a New York City brownstone, fought the evil forces of T.H.R.U.S.H., thought to be an acronym for Technological Hierarchy for the Removal of Undesirables and the Subjugation of Humanity.
U.N.C.L.E. made it to No. 1 in the ratings and birthed a line of toys, and McCallum and Vaughn received tens of thousands of fan letters a month, many more than Clark Gable had ever gotten in his heyday at MGM.
With his mop haircut, McCallum was nicknamed “The Blond Beatle.” He also looked great in a black turtleneck and had difficulty going unnoticed.
“I was rescued from Central Park by mounted police once,” he told The Scotsman. “When I went to Macy’s department store, the fans did $25,000 worth of damage, and they had to close Herald Square to get me out. That’s pretty classic, but you just have to deal with it. And then whoever was next came along, and you get dropped overnight, which is a relief.”
David Keith McCallum Jr. was born in Glasgow on Sept. 19, 1933. His mother, Dorothy, was a cellist and his father a violinist and orchestra leader. In 1936, the family headed to England when his dad was hired to guide the London Philharmonic.
His parents wanted him to pursue a career in music, and he learned how to play the piano, the oboe and the English horn. But McCallum figured out early on that what he really wanted to do was be an actor.
“I played the Little Prince in Shakespeare’s King John at one of those local things where people do skits and songs,” he said. “Mine was the little prince having his eyes put out by this terrible man, and I acted it, evidently, very well, because I got a standing ovation. I wasn’t more than eight.
“And I said, ‘Hey, hey, hey, this is kinda cool!’ I don’t know if I consciously thought it, but I had found the place I wanted to be: on a stage, with the lights and makeup and the people.”
Between serving in West Africa with the British Army, McCallum studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Joan Collins was a classmate) and appeared with the Oxford Repertory Group. Director Clive Donner cast him as a rebellious Cockney in The Secret Place (1957), and he signed with the Rank Organisation.
McCallum first met Ireland when both appeared in Hell Drivers (1957), and they were married seven days later. They also worked together in Robbery Under Arms (1957) and Jungle Street Girls (1960) and in five episodes of U.N.C.L.E.
In the Steve McQueen classic The Great Escape (1963), McCallum portrayed Eric Ashley-Pitt, the naval officer nicknamed “Dispersal” for how he devised a way to get rid of the dirt that had been excavated from the prisoners’ escape tunnel.
On the set of the movie in Germany, McCallum was called away to test for a part in The Greatest Story Ever Told. “Jill had just had a miscarriage so I was concerned about leaving her, but Charles Bronson said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll take care of her,'” McCallum recalled. “I didn’t realize they’d already begun an affair. But it all worked out fine, because soon after that I got together with Katherine.”
Ireland, who married Bronson in 1968, died in May 1990 at age 54 of breast cancer.
McCallum was in the U.N.C.L.E. pilot for only a few minutes, but producers eventually made him an equal to Vaughn on the series.
“Neither one of us, if we had a thousand ways of betting, would have figured out how we would have become rock stars as a result of a normal show,” Vaughn once said. “I have no idea to this day why it happened. The chemistry between the two of us at that time may have never happened again.”
(In the Guy Ritchie movie version of U.N.C.L.E. that was released by Warner Bros. in 2015, Armie Hammer played Kuryakin.)
McCallum also appeared on the big screen in the Titanic tale A Night to Remember (1958), John Huston’s Freud (1962), Sol Madrid (1968), Mosquito Squadron (1969) and Cherry (1999).
On television, he had a sixth finger on each hand on a memorable 1963 episode of ABC’s The Outer Limits; starred as Dr. Daniel Westin, a crime-fighting government agent, on NBC’s The Invisible Man, created by Harve Bennett and Steven Bochco; provided the voice of C.A.R. on the Disney Channel’s The Replacements; and recurred on CBS’ The Education of Max Bickford.
The son of the leader of the London Philharmonic also recorded three albums of instrumental interpretations and originals for Capitol Records in the 1960s, then sang on a 1996 album, Open Channel D, titled as a nod to U.N.C.L.E.
His 1968 album, Music: A Bit More of Me, featured his instrumental “The Edge,” which has been sampled by Dr. Dre and DJ Shadow and was heard in Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver (2017).
And in 2016, McCallum published the novel Once a Crooked Man, an international crime thriller that he had been writing on and off for 14 years.
McCallum had three sons with Ireland — Paul; Jason, who died from an accidental drug overdose in 1989; and Val, a guitar player who has worked with Jackson Browne, among others — and two children, Peter and Sophie, with Carpenter.
Survivors also include grandchildren Julia, Luca, Iain, Stella, Gavin, George, Alessandro and Whit. A celebration of life service will being planned. Donations can be made to the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.
“He was the kindest, coolest, most patient and loving father,” his son Peter said in a statement. “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.
“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 previously announced 20th anniversary NCIS marathon on Monday night will now include an “in memoriam” card in remembrance of McCallum.
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