Most actors charm a generation and then are never heard of again. Not David McCallum.
The Glasgow-born McCallum is one actor who has jumped the generation gap three times. In the `60s he was fab-famous as the Russian counterspy Illya Kuryakin on the popular series, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”
The new millennium brought “NCIS,” in which McCallum donned green scrubs as the talkative coroner Dr. (Ducky) Mallard. He’s also winning grammar school kids as the sarcastic, talking spy car that can disguise itself as any type of vehicle in the Disney Channel cartoon, “The Replacements.”
To hear him talk, it’s all so simple, though it didn’t start out that way. His dad was principal violin with the London Philharmonic Orchestra and his mom a cellist. It was assumed David would trace their footsteps, and he studied the oboe.
But when he was 7 years old he saw the original production of “Me and My Gal.” “Father gave me money to go to the matinee and say hello to Eric Roloff, who was the violinist there,” says McCallum over lunch at a noisy restaurant here.
“I went to the matinee and sat and watched and this was before I’d acted. At the end of the show I met Eric Roloff and thanked him. He said, `Do you want to see the second show?’ I said, `By all means.’ And the police were combing London to try and find me because I never went home ... I don’t think Eric Roloff was very popular with my parents after that. That I think was the moment I decided - first of all, that’s what I was going to be.”
He never changed his mind, though he played the oboe until last year, when a deformed finger silenced his music.
In all his years in British theater, in films like “The Great Escape” and in various television incarnations, McCallum only considered quitting once.
“It was just before my 70th birthday and I was doing `The Comedians’ with Jim Dale. I was walking down Broadway and I said, `Do I want to spend the rest of my life doing off-Broadway plays for $300 a week? Is this my destiny now? Is there something else I could do a little more reliable? The parts are diminished as you get older. I still looked pretty good and felt good. I cycled recently from Boston to New York, so I was comparatively fit.
“And my cell phone rang. It was an audition to go do Ducky. So I came out here and auditioned for Paramount and CBS and eventually got the job. I did a pilot went into production and now we’re into our fourth season. That’s the only moment I’ve ever had a kind of doubt.”
McCallum, who’s dressed in a camel jacket, checked shirt and paisley tie, was only 17 when he declined his father’s prompting to study music at the Paris Conservatory. “That was the end of my oboe life,” he sighs. “I remember he made it quite clear that if that was the case I should leave home ... at some point I did my national service in the Army.
“I took an apartment in north London and went to work, and I’m still working. It’s that simple. There were repertory companies, you had television starting, there was radio. You could earn a living.”
When he first started he bunked with a fellow actor who had a dog act and McCallum managed. In the `80s he moved to Los Angeles.
“I was living in a friend’s house in Malibu ... In his bathroom on the back of the door of the guest room was a sign. It was a woman who’d reached her 100th birthday and someone had asked, `If you had it to do over again what would you do differently?’ And she’d said, `I would’ve taken more risks.’ And I suddenly realized how profoundly that was a part of my life.
“I’ve always been a very careful, Presbyterian, somewhat Scottish, reserved, alone, quiet. `I would take more risks.’ So when people came to me after that and said, `We want you to do a one-man show in San Francisco with a script that’s not very interesting,’ I did it ... It was a freeing up. Also as an actor there are times when I find I take more risks - the Anthony Quinn school of acting: you grab it with both hands and smash it against the wall.”
During the height of the frenzy for “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” a photo shoot for Glamour magazine changed his life. One of the toothsome models at the session was Katherine Carpenter, a woman 11 years his junior.
He was married at the time to actress Jill Ireland, with whom he had three sons. But McCallum had introduced Ireland to his good friend and “Great Escape” co-star Charles Bronson. Bronson and Ireland fell in love.
McCallum recalls, squinting through his wire-rimmed glasses, “The minute I walked in that door I fell in love (with Katharine). We corresponded that year and we’ve actually kept all the letters. At the end of that time the split was happening. It was a dreadful time in terms of emotional chaos,” he shudders.
“I really thank Charles, God rest his soul, because he took Jill off my hands. And that meant I married Katherine and we’ve been married 40 years,” he smiles. He and Katherine have a grown daughter and son and three grandchildren.
Reba McEntire will be the honored guest at a star-studded celebratory telecast on CMT on Nov. 18. Many of Reba’s contemporaries - Dolly Parton, Faith Hill, Martina McBride and LeAnn Rimes - will be there to hail McEntire in the special, “Giants.”
Trisha Yearwood, no slouch herself, remembers hearing Reba when she was in high school. “When I first moved to Nashville I went down to get her autograph. She was signing autographs outside a record store and six years later I signed with MCA Records and she was the superstar on the label. So I went from being a fan to being a friend. I’m always amazed that I know her because she was such an icon for me. She’s so friendly and so down-to-earth and so giving of her advice. She’s a good friend. She was very good about telling me specifically about business, `You know you can own your photo shoots,’ and just watching how she took control of her career. It really opened a lot of doors for us. It wasn’t that many years ago that women didn’t make their own decisions in the music industry. And she and Barbara Mandrell paved the way for artists like me.”
Meryl Streep never looked better than she does in “The Devil Wears Prada” which hits video stores on Dec. 12. Streep, who’s known to submerge herself into the skin of her characters, says, “It’s very intoxicating to hurl yourself into this safe, dangerous place that acting is. It’s safe because you go home at the end of the night. You didn’t really murder somebody but got to really explore the feelings of what it would be like to be that desperate and that insane and that lost in order to do it. So it’s very good.”
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