'The Great Escape'
What: Classic film screening by Omaha film historian Bruce Crawford
Special guest: David McCallum
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
Where: Joslyn Art Museum's Witherspoon Concert Hall, 2200 Dodge St.
Tickets: $22; available at Hy-Vee Supermarkets in Omaha
Information: 402-932-7200 or omahafilmevent.com
Scottish-born actor David McCallum has been an American pop-culture icon since 1964, when television's Cold War spy drama “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” transformed him into both a star and a heartthrob. Nearly 50 years later, at age 80, he's still popular, playing medical examiner Donald “Ducky” Mallard on the hit TV crime drama “NCIS” for an 11th season.
Now McCallum is coming to Omaha for film historian Bruce Crawford's screening of the World War II prison-camp movie “The Great Escape” on Saturday. Talking on his bedroom phone in his Los Angeles-area home, overlooking “a verdant garden,” McCallum sounded cool, calm and collected recently as he discussed a career that has lasted 67 years and counting.
Q. Ever been to Omaha before?
A. Yes, but I have no idea when or why. I traveled 23,000 miles publicizing “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” in Nielsen (TV ratings) cities back in the mid-'60s. Maybe it was then.
Q. I don't detect even the slightest Scottish brogue. Was it hard to shed that?
A. I had a wonderful teacher. He did it by making me learn all the vowel sounds. I ended up with the most monotonous accent in London. It took away all the character. The other day my cousin was staying with me. We listened to a recording of “The Wind in the Willows,” and it was interesting to hear my voice 50 years ago. I do revert to the accent whenever I'm around a Scot.
Q. Let's get to the reason you're coming to Omaha: “The Great Escape.” Where was your career at the time?
A. In 1961 I was working a tremendous amount in television in Britain, doing the odd movie. I was in “The Long, the Short and the Tall” with Laurence Harvey, then “Billy Budd,” directed and written by Peter Ustinov, then “Freud” in Germany with Monty Clift, directed by John Huston. “Freud” was interesting. I played a patient, kissing the brass knob on a tailor's dummy and hacking my father's uniform to bits.
While I was doing that film, I met with (director) John Sturges, who cast me in “The Great Escape.”
Q. It was an ensemble movie. What was the shoot like?
A. It was done very much in the same part of the world where the actual prison camp was. Just a few weeks ago they discovered another tunnel there. We had a wonderful German cast, including Hannes Messemer playing the camp commandant. And I struck up a friendship with (James) Garner and (Donald) Pleasence.
Q. A lot of featured players in that movie were virtual unknowns back then and went on to become big stars. What was it like working with Steve McQueen?
A. I didn't work a great deal with McQueen, because his character was so often sent to isolation. But it was an enormous ensemble company. You came together and did the scenes and never went into a studio. The rest of the time I went off with my wife, Jill (Ireland), and son, Paul. We'd go off to Starnberg (Germany) and had wonderful weekends. My mother came for a visit, and we drove her around Austria. McQueen went off with his bunch, (James) Coburn with his.
Q. Any lingering impressions of John Sturges?
A. John Sturges is fascinating. He didn't dislike women, but he liked working with men. “Bad Day at Black Rock” is one of my favorites (he directed). And “The Magnificent Seven.” He and the producers bent over backward to make life pleasant, and the weather in Germany was beautiful. It was a wonderful, pleasant, glorious time.
Q. There are lots of Internet versions of how you introduced good friend Charles Bronson to your wife at the time, Jill Ireland, when you were shooting “The Great Escape,” and he ended up marrying her.
A. He was immediately smitten. Later he mercifully took her off my hands, and I have him to thank for what followed. I met my wife Katherine (Carpenter) when I came over to America.
Q. When was that?
A. I tested for “The Greatest Story Ever Told” with (director) George Stevens. (He was cast as Judas Iscariot.) After that, I moved to the States. I came to America on Dec. 12, 1963, and got a green card. Britain had gone socialist, and I've always leaned conservative.
Up to then I'd come as a visitor for various things, like episodes of “Perry Mason” and “The Outer Limits.” I loved America and have ever since. I think it's in dire straits at the moment, because the American dream is the subject of a terrible assault.
Q. Shortly after “The Great Escape” opened, you were cast as Illya Kuryakin in “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and became a sex symbol with a rabid fan base. What was that like?
A. Well, it's exactly as you'd imagine. It was wonderful to get the part and do “U.N.C.L.E.” You learn the lines, do the job, but you never know what the reaction will be. My life became a total spectacle. The fan base moves on, to Brad Pitt or whoever. It's a moving mass. But when it happened, it was fascinating and wonderful.
Q. What do you think made “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” and Illya so popular?
A. No idea. Like “NCIS,” I suppose, it was well-written and -acted. It had good stories and surprises. It was a very watchable piece of TV. People took to the satire of it, they enjoyed that. It was a terrible time in American history (the Vietnam War, civil rights clashes). To have something so light and frivolous, with a Russian and an American working together, there was something timely about it.
Q. Your credits indicate you've worked steadily ever since. Any tips for actors on how to keep working 60-plus years?
A. No idea. I joined Equity (the actors union) in '46, and I've pretty much worked ever after. When I was in school, the headmaster was not happy I took so much time to work at the BBC.
I think respect for the industry itself goes a long way. And always do the best you can. Be nice to the people around you, and hope they'll be nice to you. It's a magnificent profession, with so much creativity. You can travel, meet presidents, meet Princess Diana, so many fascinating people. All because you keep it working and do the best you can.
Q. Now everybody knows you as Ducky Mallard on “NCIS.” What makes Ducky a fun character for you to play for 11 seasons and counting?
A. I shot a wonderful scene just this morning. To play Ducky, I had to learn all about NCIS and pathology. I've done 10 years of heavy medical research, worked with both private and Army experts, to learn what Ducky would have to know as a medical examiner.
Q. What's the shooting schedule like?
A: It's an eight-day shoot (for each episode). This week I'm on set four of eight days. I've done 7.5. Normally it's two or three.
Q. Have you ever compared war stories with Mark Harmon or Michael Weatherly about being pursued by female fans?
A. No. We talk about things more substantial than that.
Q. What's life like when you're not shooting the series or jetting off to Omaha?
A. There's not much else. I do get to New York to see my children and grandchildren. It's a busy world, and I'm a busy person. I also do voiceover work for video games and cartoons.
Q. Any projects on the horizon you want to talk about?
A. I've got 18 or 19 more “NCIS” shows to do (this season). That's pretty much it.
Correction: Actor Laurence Harvey was featured in the film, "The Long and the Short and the Tall." His name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.