"It’s outrageous that someone else is playing Illya Kuryakin!” chuckles David McCallum over breakfast at an ocean-front coffee shop near his home in Santa Monica. “When you do something for many years you have a very soft spot in your soul and it can be very easily bruised.”
The impish McCallum, now 81, hasn’t lost his sense of humour, despite living in California for so many years. “I didn’t even know there was a movie coming out. Nobody said anything to me about it and I’d never heard of the two stars!
“But I’m delighted and I wish them every success,” he adds with a cheeky smile about the cinematic remake of his classic series. More than 50 years after The Man from UNCLE first aired on TV, a film directed by Guy Ritchieand based on the original is released in the UK this week.
Once again Napoleon Solo and the secretive, sexy Russian, Illya Kuryakin, are fighting international crime. But this time they are played by Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer, instead of the iconic duo of Robert Vaughn and David McCallum who, for four years from 1964 (the UK debut was 1965), made the US series such a phenomenal success.
McCallum is not the slightest bit put out that neither he nor Vaughn, now 82, was offered a cameo. “I understand why Robert and I weren’t offered roles in it, because I think it would be more of a distraction than anything else.”
He has seen the new film, however, at a private screening at Warner Brothers and he was pleasantly surprised.
“Guy Ritchie and his writers have done an excellent job and have produced an exciting, original action movie that pays great tribute to the work Robert Vaughn, Leo G Carroll [head of UNCLE Mr Waverly] and myself did back in the 60s,” he says. “But at the same time it stays away from what we did and creates something original. Armie Hammer has done a wonderful job as Illya Kuryakin and I’ve completely fallen in love with Alicia Vikander!”
The TV series, which began in black and white and ran for 105 episodes, spawned eight films and reached such cultural prominence that props, costumes, documents and a video clip are in the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library’s exhibit on spies and counterspies.
Originally called Solo, it was intended as a star vehicle for Robert Vaughn. The Scottish-born McCallum, who at the time had recently arrived in the US and appeared in The Great Escape (1963), had only a small role in the first episode. But his mysterious and enigmatic Illya Kuryakin fired the imagination of viewers and he was elevated to co-star status.
Kuryakin became a pop-culture phenomenon and fans went wild. Everywhere he went, McCallum was mobbed. He once had to be rescued by police from crowds in Central Park, and fans tore apart two floors of Macy’s clamouring for a look at him. At his peak he received more fan mail than any other actor in MGM’s history.
He believes the show's success had a lot to do with timing. "It came on at a time when there was tremendous anguish with the Vietnam War and concerns about the Cold War," he remembers. "It was a difficult time in America and a story about two agents, one American and one Russian, who seemed to be very friendly and able to work together in spite of all the anguish, caught on with the public. It was very naive and simple and there was a lightness to it.”
Unsurprisingly, Guy Ritchie’s film makes full use of all the technology available to today’s filmmakers. But when the original series was made none of those techniques had been invented. Vaughn and McCallum filmed at the MGM studios and if the show went on location it had to be within 50 miles of the studio otherwise the costs went up and the actors and crew had to be paid more.
“It didn’t have computer graphics because they didn’t exist!” says McCallum. “I remember being out in the hills in an open-top Austin-Healey with the sound equipment on my lap and a microphone in my hand. Robert drove and he had a switch for a camera that was strapped to the car’s hood. We switched the camera on and off we went.”
Inevitably there were rumours that he and Vaughn didn’t get on, but that was far from the truth, he insists. “Robert and I were the greatest of friends throughout, but as different as chalk and cheese. He went his way and I went my way, but when we came together on the set we were totally amicable. He was very involved in politics and writing a book so he was in his own world much of the time. We don’t see each other very often these days, although I called him on November 22, which is his birthday.”
In the years since The Man from UNCLE McCallum has continued to work virtually without a break, appearing in such classic shows as Colditz, The Invisible Man, Kidnapped, and opposite Joanna Lumley in ITV’s science-fiction series Sapphire & Steel.
He is now getting Illya Kuryakin-type recognition for his role as the medical examiner Dr Donald “Ducky” Mallard in NCIS, for which he has become an expert in forensics with an extensive library of books on the subject and has appeared at medical examiner conventions.
A true Renaissance man, he has also just written his first novel, an international thriller called Once a Crooked Man, and is a classically trained musician who has released four albums and still plays the oboe. “All in all, I manage to keep busy,” he says, with characteristic McCallum understatement.