From The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to NCIS: David McCallum’s 50 year run as a top TV star

McCallum in the ’60s

Quick: name an actor or actress who was a top star on a hit show in the mid-’60s and is starring on a hit show today.
Okay, the photos kinda give it away. The answer is David McCallum, who starred opposite Robert Vaughn as Russian spy Illya Kuryakin in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964 – 68). This fall, McCallum begins his 11th season as medical examiner Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard on NCIS.
McCallum turns 80 Sept. 19 but looks years younger. He’s the only actor I can think of who did 100+ episodes of a prime time network TV show in the ’60s and has done 200+ and counting in this century.
I had a chance to speak with the Scottish-born actor at the CBS party at this summer’s TCA press tour. McCallum is a wonderful interview, humble and grateful but also quick to flash an impish sense of humour.
Had there been Comic-Con in 1964 or ’65 this guy would have been mobbed. NBC cashed in on the James Bond craze with The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which I always thought had a pretty cool theme song. Listen to it here in this YouTube clip from an early episode.
U.N.C.L.E. wasn’t a spoof like Get Smart! (which came a year later) and veteran film star Leo G. Carroll added some gravitas to the project as the British head of the international organization, Number One. (A moniker Mike Myers goofed on years later by having Robert Wagner play No. 2 in the Austin Powers movies.) Still, the series had enough comic book elements that even 10-year-olds could watch. Vaughn’s character’s name “Napoleon Solo” (suggested, apparently, by Bond author Ian Fleming) still makes me laugh.
McCallum is certainly the only actor to work all those episodes of shows with acronyms in the title. U.N.C.L.E. stands for United Network Command for Law Enforcement. NCIS is Naval Criminal Investigative Service.

“Ducky” today

McCallum takes his character’s U.S. armed forces affiliation seriously. The patriotic American flag pin he wears on his lapel is in remembrance of two Marines: his father-in-law, Capt. Edward Carpenter, who fought in WWII at Iwo Jima, and his wife’s brother George, killed in Vietnam. The McCallums work closely with the Marine Corps Scholarship Foundation.

“I wear this in respect to the one percent of the people in this country that have volunteered to take care of the other 99 percent.”
Two years ago at an earlier CBS press tour gathering, I asked McCallum why he thought the show was still growing in viewership 200 episodes into its run. 
“We’ve had changes along the way that have, in my opinion, greatly influenced us,” he said at the time. “I think Cote de Pablo coming to the show was a big change for us, obviously, and one that changed us.”
De Pablo remains off the series after failing to come to terms on a new contract. CBS CEO Leslie Moonves told critics a few weeks ago that offers were made but turned down. Moonves has played hardball with stars of his top series before, most notably on CSI. He suggested with other NCIS salary negotiations ahead, he had to keep costs in check. 
McCallum is signed up through till the end of the year, which will mark his 50th as a top TV star. Pretty damn A.M.A.Z.I.N.G.
Read my full article on McCallum here in Saturday’s Toronto Star.

2 Responses to “From The Man from U.N.C.L.E. to NCIS: David McCallum’s 50 year run as a top TV star”

  1. William Shatner might have a shot at the doubled 1960s / 2001+ century mark. He did a bunch of 60s decade guest spots along with the 80 episode Star Trek. He’s also been a part of a couple of series in this century.
    Sally Field, if all of Gidget / The Flying Nun may be another 100/100 actor.

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  2. Great article about David McCallum. Much of the reason for NCIS’ success is down to his portrayal of Ducky Mallard; he truly is a wonderful character. And I agree with him about Cote de Pablo, so I’m very disappointed she isn’t coming back because negotiations failed. I read somewhere she didn’t re-sign because she wanted to move on and do other things, but knowing she was in discussions to come back, just makes me more upset.

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