David McCallum, who rose to fame in the 1960s as Russian spy Illya Kuryakin on “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and then won over a new generation of fans on the iconic “NCIS” series decades later, has died at the age of 90, according to NCIS.
“We are deeply saddened by David McCallum’s death and grateful that CBS was his home for so many years.” David was a great actor and novelist who was well-liked by many people throughout the world,’ NCIS wrote on social media.
The Scottish-born son of two musicians had a seven-decade acting career that began in the 1950s at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where one of his students was future actress Joan Collins.
He began his career in a variety of British films, including “A Night to Remember” in 1958, in which he played Harold Bride, a radio operator on the deadly Titanic. He captured the attention of American viewers with his minor but essential role as one of the prisoners of war preparing a mass breakout from a German prison camp in the 1963 World War II classic “The Great Escape.”
The picture starred an international cast that included Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, and James Garner. McCallum introduced his wife, Jill Ireland, to co-star Charles Bronson during filming, and she married Bronson after divorcing McCallum.
McCallum also appeared as a guest star on a number of American television shows, including “The Outer Limits” and the courtroom drama “Perry Mason,” in which he played a foolish, unlucky-in-love Frenchman.
In 1964, he featured as “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” in the pilot of a spy series starring American actor Robert Vaughn. McCallum’s role, in which he said only a few lines, served as his springboard to international recognition.
The sitcom was created to highlight Vaughn as the dashing Napoleon Solo, who battled wicked THRUSH agents. McCallum portrayed U.N.C.L.E. agent Illya Kuryakin. He rapidly became a fan favourite, sporting a blond Beatles haircut and wrapped in mystery and sex appeal, and was promoted to co-star with Vaughn.
The portrayal garnered McCallum two Emmy nominations and elevated him to the position of pop cultural icon. MGM, which produced the show, said he received more fan letters than any other star in the studio’s illustrious history, though McCallum subsequently claimed “Vaughn got as much as I did.”
In a 2016 interview with Britain’s Mirror newspaper, McCallum stated that his followers were so devoted that a swarm formed around him as he was walking in Manhattan’s Central Park while the show was showing.
“Then people started pushing, and two mounted policemen had to lift me up from behind.” He told Reuters, “We trotted out of the park.”
In 2015, David McCallum told the Radio Times about the show’s popularity: “It came on at a time when there was tremendous anguish with the Vietnam War and concerns about the Cold War.”
It was a terrible period in America, and a narrative about two agents, one American and one Russian, who looked to be quite amicable and able to operate together despite their differences caught on with the public.”
McCallum reunited with Vaughn in the 1983 TV movie “Return of the Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and in a 1986 episode of “The A-Team” dubbed “the Say U.N.CL.E. Affair.” Vaughn passed away in 2016.
McCallum remained active in succeeding years, particularly on television, starring in the British series “Colditz” from 1972 to 1974 and “Sapphire & Steel” from 1979 to 1982.
He was also a guest on several prominent American television shows, including “Hart to Hart,” “Matlock,” “Murder She Wrote,” “Law and Order,” and “Sex and the City.”
McCallum’s next big break came when he landed the part of medical examiner Donald “Ducky” Mallard on the CBS military detective drama “NCIS.” During its 19-year run, it was one of the most popular programmes on American television.
McCallum, who called it his “best role ever,” immersed himself in the role by researching forensic medicine, presenting at pathologists’ conventions, and even attending autopsies.
“I’ve had an incredible life,” McCallum said, according to the Mirror. “I can sit here for a week and talk to you about the past and 99.9 percent will be positive.”
He had five children with Ireland and Katherine Carpenter, his second wife, whom he married in 1967.
Despite his popularity on “NCIS,” where he appeared into his 80s, McCallum was never able to shake the aura of the character who made him famous.
In one episode of “NCIS,” the lead investigator, played by Mark Harmon, is asked what McCallum’s character looked like when he was younger.
“Illya Kuryakin,” he says.