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David McCallum returns to series TV

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

By Lynn Elber, The Associated Press

The mop of hair. The iconoclastic turtleneck. A beguiling foreign accent.

David McCallum stars in NAVY NCIS. (Cliff Lipson, CBS)
Click photo for larger image.

It worked for the Beatles in the 1960s and for actor David McCallum, who went from sidekick to sex symbol playing a hip secret agent in "The Man From U.N.C.L.E."

Nearly 40 years later, McCallum is back in a TV series with CBS's new military crime drama "Navy NCIS." He's still got the longish hair (a bit less blond, a bit more gray) and, as he turns 70, the same zeal for acting.

Whether he steals the show from star Mark Harmon, as he did from Robert Vaughn in "U.N.C.L.E.," remains to be seen. But McCallum's eccentric and roguish character in "Navy NCIS" clearly has potential.

He's Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard, a medical examiner who assists the Navy Criminal Investigative Service, led by Harmon's Special Agent Gibbs, in tackling crimes connected to Navy or Marine Corps personnel.

As played by the youthful McCallum, Ducky is a middle-aged lecher but endearing nonetheless.

"If you have someone who likes to chat up young girls and you cast somebody who's really elderly looking, it could go tacky," he observed. "Somehow, I can get away with it, which I think is a great compliment."

Sasha Alexander, Michael Weatherly and Pauley Perrette co-star in the series, which airs at 8 p.m. Tuesdays on CBS.

From "JAG" producer Donald P. Bellisario, "Navy NCIS" slices together the military flavor of "JAG" with the forensics flash made popular by another CBS hit, "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation."

McCallum is glad to be part of the alphabet soup, even though it meant moving from his family and home in Manhattan and setting up a West Coast apartment. He also makes the roughly 70-mile round-trip drive to the studio north of Los Angeles where Bellisario films his series.

"I don't believe in anything negative," McCallum said, recalling how he invited a colleague annoyed over a long day of shooting to consider those who would long for their jobs.

"Puh-leeze," McCallum said, heavy on the sarcasm.

He's enjoyed a steady career, one that began with a decision not to follow his parents into music. David McCallum Sr. was first violinist for the London Philharmonic; Dorothy Dorman was a cellist.

Born Sept. 19, 1933, in Glasgow, Scotland, McCallum studied music (the oboe, which he still plays) but fell for the actor's life. He's appeared in films including 1958's "A Night to Remember," about the doomed Titanic, and 1962's "Billy Budd."

In 1964-68, he set teenage hearts racing as cool, Russian-born Illya Kuryakin, fighting the evil crime syndicate THRUSH with partner Napoleon Solo (Vaughn) under the direction of Mr. Waverly, played by veteran film actor Leo G. Carroll.

(A short-lived spinoff, 1966-67's "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E.," starred Stefanie Powers and Noel Harrison, son of actor Rex Harrison.)

Has he put his one-time burst of TV stardom into perspective?

"It's gone into its own perspective," he said. "It was great, and I'm very affectionate toward the whole thing."

He recalled an article that speculated that, were it not for "U.N.C.L.E.," McCallum probably would have made his career in England and ended up Sir David and a National Theatre stalwart.

"You can start going off on ridiculous conjectures about what might have happened, but you can do that if you cross one road or don't cross," the actor said.

Instead, he's worked in both Britain and the United States, appearing on stage ("Amadeus," "Julius Caesar," "Communicating Doors"), in smaller films and on TV (including parts on "Law & Order" and "Sex and the City" and in the British series "Colditz" and "Sapphire and Steel").

Interviewed over a diet soda at a British-style pub in Santa Monica, Calif., McCallum mentions that he's a longtime U.S. citizen. "I have always loved the freedom of this country and everything it stands for. And I live here, and I like to vote here."

He's been married since 1967 to interior designer Katherine Carpenter -- part of the venerable McMillen Inc. design firm, he says proudly -- with whom he has two children. (McCallum and his first wife, the late actress Jill Ireland, had three sons, one of whom died from a drug overdose.)

With "Navy NCIS," he's not expecting the kind of frenzied fandom he inspired during his "U.N.C.L.E." days. But McCallum likes to think his work still can have an impact.

"I hope I get letters from pathologists," he said.

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