Published: 22/01/2016 13:00 - Updated: 22/01/2016 13:14

Thriller mission for Man From U.N.C.L.E.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with David McCallum (right) as Illya Kuryakin and Robert Vaughan as Napoleon Solo.
The Man From U.N.C.L.E. with David McCallum (right) as Illya Kuryakin and Robert Vaughan as Napoleon Solo.

 

by Margaret Chrystall

SCOTS TV actor David McCallum is as well known as the 60s sex symbol of TV smash The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as he is playing veteran medical examiner Ducky in NCIS’s 13-series global TV number one drama.

But at 82, David’s 14-year project to teach himself to write has landed him with a new title – and his first book, Once A Crooked Man.

David McCallum
David McCallum

David laughs: "I believe I am now known as a crime fiction writer or something.

"I’ve got book launches this week in New York and Washington, then in California later this month.

"It’s overwhelming because I didn’t set out to write a book, but it’s being compared to things like John Buchan’s The 39 Steps and Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest and I didn’t expect that. It’s a colossal pleasure."

Born in Scotland to musician parents who moved to London when he was a youngster, David still plays the oboe and enjoys reading from "eight feet of shelves" of books on pathology and forensics to ensure his NCIS’ character Ducky sounds authentic.

After his first marriage to English actress Jill Ireland ended, David married again in 1967 to American model Katherine Carpenter. He has had five children, three sons with Jill Ireland – though sadly their adopted son Jason died of an accidental overdose in 1989. With Katherine, he has a son and daughter and he is now also a grandad.

In Once A Crooked Man ... Harry Murphy is a struggling New York actor who overhears a conversation between the mysterious Bruschetti crime brothers – Enzo, Sal and Max. They are are planning on closing the loop on some loose ends. But realising they have murder in mind, Harry decides to warn the target of the brothers’ intentions and that means heading across the Atlantic and having to use his acting talents in a bid to get himself out of trouble ...

David – whose main home is in New York – also loves gardening, learned while evacuated to Loch Lomond as a youngster during the Second World War. Four years ago, he moved from a flat in Santa Monica to a small house so he could garden while filming for 10 months of the year.

David’s book started when he asked himself a question: "I sat down and had the idea ‘If an actor was handed a suitcase with a million dollars in it, what would happen?’.

"So I wrote a page and every single sentence started ‘He did this’ and ‘He did that’ – it was appalling," David winces.

"But I persisted."

After he’d heavily researched with friends in law enforcement a money laundering and cocaine direction, that version ended up in a drawer when David landed the role of Ducky in NCIS.

An editor rejigged it, but a friend of David’s felt it was too much and said ‘You’ve got to fix this’.

So the actor had a final go: "I’d learned a lot from the editor –101, the basics – and that was an immense help."

Now David’s not only having his book published on both sides of the Atlantic this week, there are plans for a second one.

He laughed: "The minute you have the first one published, you have 20 people coming to chase you. And then someone the other day had the gall to ask about the third and fourth!

"It’s like ‘You’ve built the Empire State Building, now build two more’."

David’s career has included learning to cope with the sometimes terrifying side of sex symbol status after his enigmatic and mysterious Man From U.N.C.L.E. character, Russian agent Illya Kuryakin, struck a chord with people all over the world for its biggest four years from 1964 to 1968.

In an interview from the 60s, David appears to be baffled and a bit overwhelmed at his new status as a sex idol – at its height, police had to move in a couple of times to rescue him from a mob of fans.

 

But David says now: "It’s interesting, it was never annoying though it may have seemed it was to that person interviewing me.

"But your life is going along a straight road and all of a sudden there’s an earthquake and a big hole and everything has gone. My life went from totally private and anonymous to, overnight, I couldn’t walk out on a main street without gathering a small crowd.

"I found that loss of privacy threw me. But then you learn to deal with it."

And he seems to have a soft spot for the "Open Channel D" days of The Man From UNCLE with co-star Robert Vaughn and the cigarette pack – and later pen – radio communicator.

He loved The Man From U.N.C.L.E. – made into a Guy Ritchie movie starring Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer last year – and when asked about NCIS, says: "I don’t think I’ve ever had a day when it wasn’t fun.

"I mean everyone definitely has the downers in life that you have to deal with – such as the death of my son.

"But when people ask ‘Which is your favourite NCIS episode, I say ‘ It’s just one long 13-year episode!’."

But he’s not letting NCIS’s Ducky rest on his laurels.

"Halfway through the run, I decided that we had to widen the scope of Ducky. So he took a course in virtual autopsy and the psychiatry of autopsy.

"Early on, the coroner downtown was good enough to let me gown up and go in and watch, right next to the pathologist.

"The human body is a miracle and to see how it opens up and how it all works – and then of course to see how it doesn’t work – is equally fascinating."

David looks after his own body – up at 5am during filming to fit in a couple of Pilates classes a week.

And before heading off for his New York book launch, David confessed that he wanted some time to tidy up.

"I like to make sure that when the cleaning lady comes she doesn’t have too much to do. It’s classic for Virgos – to clean everything for the cleaning lady!"

Adam Campbell, the young actor who plays a young Ducky in a series 13 storyline the UK will see this spring, asked which one word David would use to sum up Ducky.

"I said ‘Enthusiastic’," said the actor.

"Ducky has a tremendous propensity for finding and learning new things and I don’t think that ever goes away with someone like him – it hasn’t gone away with me."

Despite painting scenes from his past with a few details – his book also creates scenes that mans it would work well as a film – David jokes that he wouldn’t have time to write his own biography.

And there’s the full acting career as well as his family life which would need to be fitted in. From classic movies such as The Great Escape, his career in television went on to include hits such as The Invisible Man, Colditz and Sapphire & Steel with Joanna Lumley.

He has brought his children over to Scotland for the "roots visit", and David – whose Scottish accent is still strong and who drops the odd "peely-wally" into the conversation – has clear memories of Loch Ness where in 1967 he honeymooned with Katherine.

David McCallum (left) as Ducky in NCIS with Brian Dietzen as Palmer. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved
David McCallum (left) as Ducky in NCIS with Brian Dietzen as Palmer. Photo: Monty Brinton/CBS ©2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved

David remembers: "We were in one of these wee inns on the side of the loch and it was my birthday which was three days after we were married.

"Katherine had wrapped all these presents in beautiful tissue paper, gone downstairs into the tiny breakfast room and put them all on the table. She was in her peignoir – I came down dressed – at the time she was on the cover of all the fashion magazines and was a very successful model.

"While we sat and I opened these presents, there were two other couples sitting at the table, but they were very Scottish and normally didn’t speak to each other while having breakfast.

"So you had us, this couple who had just come from being married, and them, concentrating on their bacon and eggs and their black pudding and having absolutely nothing to do with us!"

David McCallum’s Once A Crooked Man is out now, published by Sandstone Press (£8.99).

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