David McCallum obituary: Scottish actor who came to fame in The Man from UNCLE and broke fan mail records

Initially given a supporting role in the hit detective series, he got equal billing after it rapidly became clear that he had a huge fanbase

Born September 19th, 1933

Died September 25th, 2023

In the 1960s, there was one actor who could justifiably claim that ladies prefer blonds. As the secret agent Illya Kuryakin in the TV series The Man from UNCLE, David McCallum, who has died aged 90, received more fan mail from young women than any other actor in MGM’s history.

With his Beatles-style haircut, his liking for black turtleneck sweaters (which created a fad among viewers nationwide), and an aloof and enigmatic air, through which he sneaked a fair amount of charm and self-amusement, McCallum made Kuryakin into a sex symbol of the period. He provided a trendy contrast to Robert Vaughn’s Napoleon Solo, his fellow spy, who went in for expensive suits and ties.


Although Solo and Kuryakin worked perfectly in tandem, their personalities were at variance, the former being urbane, easy-going and sociable, the latter more reserved, intellectual and intense.

McCallum, who played Illya with the slightest Russian accent and an occasional Scottish lilt, was also known recently for his long-running role from 2003 in the popular CBS crime series NCIS.

He was born in Glasgow. His parents were classical musicians; his mother, Dorothy Dorman, a cellist, his father, David McCallum, a violinist and leader of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. McCallum Jr won a scholarship to University College school in Hampstead, north London, before being accepted at Rada, where he studied from 1949 to 1951, having given up his ambition, and his parents’ wish, to play the oboe professionally.

In 1951, McCallum managed to satisfy his love for both music and the theatre by landing the position of assistant stage manager at Glyndebourne opera. However, he was called up to do his national service in west Africa. Demobbed as a lieutenant, the 19-year-old McCallum headed for the theatre.

In 1956, he halfheartedly posted off some photographs of himself to the Rank Organisation, which was scouting for young talent. The photos were seen by Clive Donner, who was casting his first feature, The Secret Place (1957), and he invited McCallum to do a reading.

Obviously under the influence of James Dean, the leather-jacketed McCallum, playing a young punk involved in a heist, does his best to express teenage angst. In Cy Endfield’s gritty thriller Hell Drivers (1957), McCallum plays Stanley Baker’s brother. In the cast, as a waitress, was 20-year-old Jill Ireland. McCallum and Ireland were to marry a few months before the film’s release. Soon after, they played young lovers in Robbery Under Arms (1957) and were often pictured together in fan magazines.

It was back to British realism with Basil Dearden’s Violent Playground (1958), in which McCallum plays a juvenile delinquent gang-leader. There followed several more conventional supporting roles, first on the Titanic in A Night to Remember (1958); in The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961), and in John Huston’s Freud (1962) as one of the first of the psychoanalyst’s patients.

After appearing as a sympathetic officer in Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd (1962), McCallum went to Germany to make John Sturges’s The Great Escape (1963), the most expensive PoW picture of them all. Among a starry cast, headed by Steve McQueen, James Garner and Charles Bronson, McCallum held his own among the Brits. But more significant for him was the fact that Ireland, who was with him during the shoot, fell for Bronson. Ireland and McCallum divorced; he later married Katherine Carpenter, while Ireland married Bronson.

McCallum, who was already making his principal career on television, was given the secondary role of Kuryakin in The Man from UNCLE, but was soon granted equal billing with Vaughn after it rapidly became clear that he had a huge fan base.

After The Man from UNCLE finished in 1968, McCallum continued to make guest appearances on TV until his second long-running series, the BBC’s Colditz (1972-1974).

Subsequently, McCallum appeared and disappeared as a scientist in The Invisible Man (1975-76), a US TV production, and co-starred with Joanna Lumley in ATV’s spooky sci-fi series Sapphire and Steel (1979-1982).

McCallum was seldom off television screens over the next three decades, making the occasional sortie into films. He also did some theatre in New York, where he and his wife had settled.

In 2003, his looks belying his age, McCallum began playing Dr Donald “Ducky” Mallard, chief medical examiner, in the TV series NCIS. He stayed with the show for the rest of his life, appearing in all 20 series until this year. In one episode, a character asks another what Ducky looked like when he was younger. “Illya Kuryakin” comes the reply.

McCallum is survived by Katherine, their son, Peter, and daughter, Sophie, and by his sons Val and Paul from his first marriage; Jason, his third son with Ireland, died in 1989. – Guardian