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Cult TV Spotlight: David McCallum

You can tell a lot about a career from fan-made videos.

A popular subject among people who are really into television history are “cult TV shows”, series that never really drew in big ratings, but are deeply revered by a small yet devoted group of people.

Sometimes a show starts out with a “cult following” and word-of-mouth turns it into a big hit. A recent example of this is CBS’ NCIS. Its eighth season began this week, with the series enjoying its highest ratings yet. However, NCIS also has something in common with several other cult TV shows -- David McCallum.

Playing the role of medical examiner/ forensic psychologist Dr. Donald Mallard, “Ducky” has become a big hit among NCIS fans. Whenever internet rumors go around about someone leaving the cast, the comment section is always full of “I hope it’s not Ducky!” replies. In one episode, however, a sly reference was made to another cult TV series McCallum co-starred in.

For four seasons, he played Illya Kuryakin in one of the original spy shows, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. During the show’s run (it was eventually canceled and replaced by Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In), McCallum did everything from hosting the teen variety show Hullabaloo (in character) to releasing two albums of instrumental pop numbers. Not to mention, the novelty song based on his character, “Love Ya, Illya” by Angela and the Fans (Alma Cogan) was a minor hit in the UK.

In 1975, he starred in the short-lived revival of The Invisible Man. Thirty-five years later, clips of the show can still be viewed on YouTube.

British viewers may remember the '80s sci-fi serial Sapphire & Steel, which leaked to America through cable TV and a DVD release. Some describe it as a precursor to The X-Files, but its low-budget special effects and odd plotlines are considered too far-fetched by others. I consider it an acquired taste.

Still, perhaps the most telling sign of McCallum’s cult TV status is the many YouTube tributes created for him by loyal fans. He’s not the type of celebrity that the paparazzi would chase, but he someone more rare than that, a cult TV legend.

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