David McCallum, the Scottish character actor who found television fame in the 1960s on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and again decades later on NCIS, died Monday in New York City. He was 90.
McCallum’s death from natural causes was confirmed by his family and CBS, the longtime home of NCIS In a family statement provided through the network, his son Peter said, “He was the kindest, coolest, most patient and loving father. He always put family before self.” Peter said that McCallum especially loved his grandchildren, and could often be found at family gatherings engrossed in a philosophical chat with his 9-year-old grandson, Whit.
“He was a true renaissance man—he was fascinated by science and culture and would turn those passions into knowledge,” Peter said, adding that McCallum could (“if needed”) perform an autopsy, because his NCIS character, Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard, knew how to do so.
Born in Glasgow in 1933, McCallum was classically trained as both an actor and an oboe player, studying at the Royal Academy of Music before a childhood role in a local production of Shakespeare’s King John convinced him to switch his focus to the stage and screen. Attending the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts for several years, McCallum found success in British repertory theater and radio productions, and moved to the United States in 1961.
Three years later, he landed the part of Illya Kuryakin, the sphinxlike Russian counterpart to Robert Vaughn’s suave superspy Napoleon Solo, in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Though initially meant to be a bit role with just a handful of lines, Illya proved such a hit with fans that his part was expanded. The show was a smash and the role would eventually earn him two Emmy Award nominations—and a reputation as a sex symbol. With his boyish good looks and mop Beatlesesque haircut, the 5-foot-8 actor would invariably be mobbed by screaming teenagers at premieres and press events.
“It’s disquieting—that’s what it is,” a baffled McCallum told TV Guide in 1965. “With my Calvinist background and my deep Presbyterian blood, with my stiff Scottish spine, to be told you’re suddenly a ‘sex symbol’—it’s just disquieting.”
He eventually learned to “just deal with it,” as he told The Scotsman in 2010. McCallum recalled with relief the moment the spotlight passed over him. “And then whoever was next came along, and you get dropped overnight, which is a relief.”
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. ended after four seasons, and McCallum found steady work in film and television afterward, albeit on a lower profile. He appeared in movies like The Greatest Story Ever Told, Steve McQueen’s The Great Escape, and A Night to Remember, a docudrama about the sinking of the Titanic. Regular television viewers also got to know him in shows like Coldlitz and as the eponymous Steel of Sapphire & Steel.
It wasn’t until 2003, however, that McCallum again ascended to the upper echelons of television royalty. That was when he debuted as Dr. Donald Mallard on NCIS, the bowtie-loving medical examiner nicknamed “Ducky.” He went on to star in all 20 seasons of the show, racking up an episode count of 457, and was still listed as a cast member at the time of his death.
An NCIS marathon on Monday night, previously announced in honor of the show’s 20th anniversary, will now feature an “In Memoriam” card to honor McCallum, the show announced.
In a joint statement, NCIS executive producers Steven D. Binder and David North said, “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.”
McCallum is survived by his wife of 56 years, Katherine, as well as four children and eight grandchildren.