David McCallum

A Cool Character – David McCallum (The VH Interview)


David McCallum has had a long and illustrious career. From his early role in The Great Escape to stealing the world`s heart as Russian agent Illya Kuryakin in The Man From UNCLE, David has more recently become synonomous with his role as chief medical examiner Donald “Ducky” Mallard in NCIS. We were very lucky to catch up with the living legend as he took a breather from laundry, paperwork and Thanksgiving in Vermont…

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How does it feel to still be considered a heartthrob after all these years?

What`s quite extraordinary is that they`re playing The Man From UNCLE here for the first time on network television now and I`ve been sitting down watching them, watching myself fifty two years ago, and at the time I had no idea why people had this emotional response to Illya Kuryakin. When you`re doing it, you don`t realize what it is you`re doing. But seeing it fifty years later I can see how people found him kind of enigmatic and attractive, and just having fun. He was a cool character! It wasn`t until now that I managed to realize what that was like. Also, going on the internet, on YouTube, you come up with things like The Andy Williams Show where I`m singing and dancing with Judy Garland, and another one with George Burns and Carol Channing and I`m dancing with these people! Whoever this guy was that was me once upon a time, he was a cool dude! It`s different now, when you get to eighty two you get put on a shelf to a certain extent. I`ve had the great fortune, thanks to Don Bellisario, who created NCIS, of playing Ducky. To be a part of a show that`s number one all over the world at my age is a colossal pleasure and privilege.

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What`s it like to have been involved in a show for almost 300 episodes? How do you keep things fresh?

Well, I`ve played the same part for thirteen years. It`s still the same; from episode one to 295 that we`re doing at the moment. Things don`t really change. You still have to get the script, work out how you`re going to play the character, learn the lines, talk to the writers about any changes you feel might be needed, make suggestions… And then you go to the studio, you hang about and hang about, and then you do the scenes and try to make them as exciting as possible. Then you jump in the car and drive home. That hasn`t changed in thirteen years!

What does the future hold for Ducky? He`s been training Palmer up over the past few seasons; do you think he could ever fill Ducky`s boots should he ever leave?

Well that`s trying to write a show that hasn`t happened yet! We`re going to finish shooting this season at the end of April, and DiNozzo, played by Michael Weatherly, we`ve told people a long time ago, is leaving at the end of the season. So the writers have to decide what to do when one of the four members of the original cast leaves. When Michael leaves, there`ll just be three of us. I will go on doing Ducky for at least another year I believe, provided my health holds up. Things aren’t quite as easy at eighty two as they were at twenty eight! So I will go on as long as I can. It would be a nice idea to bring Mr. Palmer up, but you have to look at the reality which is that someone who is a medical examiner in the position that Ducky is has been to medical school and done far more than Mr. Palmer has ever done. So you can`t really make Jimmy Palmer the medical examiner, that would not be logical. The Christmas show this year brings back the young Ducky, with Adam Campbell as young Ducky. You find out a lot about the character when he first joined the medical corps and why he is who he, which was very exciting to do.

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Your new book Once a Crooked Man comes out soon. What were your experiences writing it?

I sat down about fourteen years ago and decided to teach myself how to write. I would write a couple of pages and then chuck them away and I kept on writing stuff, putting it away, writing stuff, putting it away, and eventually I finished a book to a certain extent, but by the time I`d finished it, a lot of it was very old fashioned and not really up to date. Three years ago I decided it was a shame to just leave it laying about; I`d had too much fun doing it, so purely for pleasure I finished it. I showed it to a wonderful man in New York by the name of Will who decided to publish it! So, that’s how it came about. I never sat down to write a novel, it just grew out of my brain over many years. My family makes fun of me, asking what the hell I`m up to now; to have a published novel at my age and suddenly start a new career, because of course when you write a book, everyone wants you to write another one, at eighty two it`s quite ridiculous. But Joanna Lumley was very sweet; she read it and then on the cover of the English paperback she writes “David McCallum`s first book is dazzling!”, so the next time I see her I shall give her a very big hug!

How much of your own career has influenced the story?

The main character is a New York actor, and the things that have happened to me happen to him. Obviously, you draw on what you know. He`s not quite like me, he`s a little bit different from what I do. But he`s a likeable fellow, and if I do write another book, he will definitely be the leading character again!

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You`ve done so many things in your career, from actor to writer, to even playing Alfred in Batman; if you could pick one thing, what would you say has been the highlight?

I`ve said all my life that I don`t have favourites, and I think that still holds true. I think the pleasure of actually having this book published, something that you`ve worked so hard on… It`s unique in a way because when you finish a book and it`s published, you don`t have anything to do with it other than the promotion of the book. It`s a great pleasure to just watch and see how the whole thing emerges. I work also with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation, who I`ll be giving part of the proceeds from the book to.

NCIS Season 13 starts Friday 8th January on FOX, and David`s book Once a Crooked Man hits stores in January.