In an episode of the current hit naval crime show, "NCIS," one agent asks what the unit's eccentric old doctor, "Ducky," looked like when he was younger. The answer: "Illya Kuryakin."
In an episode of the current hit naval crime show, “NCIS,” one agent asks what the unit’s eccentric old doctor, “Ducky,” looked like when he was younger. The answer: “Illya Kuryakin.”
I want to know if David McCallum meets people who only know him as Ducky and thinks: You have no idea.
More conspicuous on TV than Valerie Plame from 1964-1968, ultracool secret agents Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo have been so curiously missing and intently sought after on DVD by their hordes of fans that they could have been victims of extraordinary rendition (by evil THRUSH, not CIA). Now “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is finally available. But only in an attaché-shaped box with all four seasons on DVD and two exhaustive discs of extras, and only from Time Life ($249.95, www.timelife.com).
I phoned McCallum, now 74, at his New York home for intelligence about being part of an international pop-cultural phenomenon that went to No. 1 and drew an astonishing 50 percent of all TV viewers, about being mobbed like a Beatle and about the politically incorrect U.N.C.L.E. toys in every boy’s room at the time. At last, as they said on the show: Open Channel D.
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Q: What was it like when you went out in the middle ’60s and women mobbed you?
A: Well, basically I didn’t go out in the middle ’60s. There was a degree of fan hysteria which could prove dangerous upon occasions. And it was just really better to avoid that kind of situation, and that’s what we did. You like to keep a certain degree of privacy, and the only way to do that was to stay at home or just stay out of sight — or else be in Los Angeles, where people really got used to it pretty much.
Q: At the height of the Cold War, you played a Russian teamed with an American agent. Which would be like having a show today with a Yank and an Iranian.
A: Well, it’s very interesting because “NCIS” deals with the Navy and the Marines during what is happening in the Middle East and around the world, and it’s a much more of a real show in the sense that there isn’t a fantasy element. “U.N.C.L.E.” is a show that dealt with the idea of a cooperation between a Russian and an American working for an American organization to fight world crime, and it was at the time of the Vietnam War. It was a traumatic time. My wife Katherine’s brother was killed in Vietnam in the Marines, and we had lots of friends who had similar experiences. So this country went through a very soul-searching, divided — as it is now — divided period in history. And “U.N.C.L.E.” related to that in an odd way. It gave them an escape; it gave them a vicarious idea of these people being able to work together and being able to do these things.
Q: The show was originally called “Solo,” and you were much more of a supporting actor to Robert Vaughn. Same thing happened with “Star Trek.” Spock started getting more fan mail than Kirk and then he was the co-star. What was it about bangs in the ’60s?
A: Well, it’s odd. If you look at the haircuts on the Beatles, even back then, and you look at people going around in business, which was the sort of standard norm on the Long Island Railroad going into Wall Street in the morning, the Beatles, it wasn’t that much longer. My hair wasn’t that much longer, and yet it was considered outrageous. For me it was more keeping my hair short because all that running and jumping, it’s just easier to have a short haircut. And I hate hair in my eyes, and floppy great curls wouldn’t have worked. I was, after all, an undercover Russian agent, so it was the right thing to do.
Q: Drinking buddies? Bitter rivals? What was your relationship with Vaughn?
A: Robert and I got on — and with Leo (G. Carroll) and the whole crew — it’s very similar to working with Mark Harmon and this incredible group of people I’m working with now. It was just a delightful gig, to come to work and work with everybody. Robert was and has all his life been very studious. Almost certainly he’ll have a book in his hand and he’ll be reading, and in order to do that he has to sort of stay to one side. Offstage? No, we hardly ever really socialized at all. You just don’t. When you’re with somebody 14 hours a day, five days a week, the idea of going out and going to a restaurant together doesn’t really work. You really want to be with your family and friends, other than the guy you work with all the time.
Q: I noticed something rewatching the show: Illya gets stuck doing a lot of the hard work while Napoleon has cocktails with the ladies.
A: Well he always was the ladies’ man, and then of course the gag was that he got ’em on the show. But we didn’t want to go too far into that because I was a married man.
Q: The communicator pen, the gull-wing car … the show was known for its gadgets. Did you have a favorite?
A: Well, I had an unfavorite and that was that car! It’s reached certain people’s ears that Robert and I sabotaged it ever so slightly because it was impossible to get in and out of elegantly. It just was a very difficult thing to use and to deal with, and we would drive onto the set in the middle of a take, and the doors would pop open when they shouldn’t. Everybody thought it was the car that was doing this, but it was in fact us.
Q: “U.N.C.L.E.” was the most heavily merchandised show of all time and generated tons of toys. The best one: a cigarette lighter that turns into a gun. I’m trying to imagine giving that to a kid today — and the kid taking it to school.
A: (Laughs.) Well, all I can say is political correctness in the United States — and in Europe, my God — has come to the point of insanity. And the whole idea of a parent actually being responsible for the upbringing of his child, heaven forbid. It wasn’t like that in those days. I have heard that the concept of “U.N.C.L.E.” began with the idea of a show with merchandising. I’ve got to ask Norman (Felton, one of the creators) if that was in fact true, that they realized that a great deal could be made for everybody out of merchandising, and therefore they designed the show around guns and pens and cars and lunchpails and things.
Q: I found something disturbing when I was looking on eBay for U.N.C.L.E. items: “slash” fiction about Napoleon and Illya getting it on. Were you aware of this?
A: Yes. Not that particular element of it, but I know that there was a lot of very strange things that came out of the Orient — China, Japan, Korea — they’re known for producing the most extraordinary items that might be considered XXXX, and they’re completely fictitious, the whole thing. I think I read a couple and saw a couple of pictures. I thought they were hysterically funny, myself.
Q: I never picked up that vibe in the show.
A: No. Well it’s another of these fringe things. They did it with all the shows. I don’t know where exactly you would go, what the eBays of those days or the Amazons might have been, but the whole thing was always so overblown that it became hysterically funny. I mean the idea of Robert and I getting it on (laughs) I think is the funniest thing I’ve heard this year. With all due respect to Robert, who’s a very attractive, nice fellow.
Q: He’s a very appealing man, I won’t dispute that.
A: Well you’ve just dawned on an area where I have never been in my life before.
Q: What do you think these days when you see things like “Alias” or the “Bourne” movies?
A: What happens is, my mind goes to the number of times people have come to me and said, “Do you think they’ll ever make a feature of ‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’? Or will they bring it back?” And my answer is you can’t, because it’s in its own time frame, and you cannot modernize it, and you can’t repeat it, and the history that surrounds it, the economics, the political, every situation around “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” no longer exists. And if you try to update it, all you do is take away the elements that made it successful.
Q: At the peak of the “U.N.C.L.E.”‘s popularity, you were getting 70,000 fan letters a month and had a 50 share — 50 percent of all people watching television. No show has that now.
A: I know I used to see the sacks of mail that used to come into the studio, because remember there was no e-mail and there was no Internet, so basically people wrote letters — an art which I still try to keep going, but it’s not that easy now. E-mail’s become so wonderful. And as far as the share is concerned, I have no idea. I know both shows, “NCIS” and “U.N.C.L.E.,” are in the top 10. It’s funny, I only seem to do acronyms.
Q: Was (pairing an American agent with a Russian one) controversial?
A: I don’t think so, because we didn’t do it in a controversial way. They always used to talk about its tongue-in-cheek, which always used to make me laugh. And if you analyzed the show over the 3 ½ years, in the beginning it was a slightly crazy situation each week, which we took deadly serious, because that’s the only way to make it work and to make it funny, which is what was very important. Then in the second year the situation became a little wackier, but we played it even more seriously, and it still worked. And then as the show began to get into its higher numbers and its later air dates, the shows got so wacky, the scripts got so wacky that even if we played them seriously it didn’t work, because it looked as if you were almost parodying a parody.
Q: Napoleon dancing with a gorilla seemed like a low point.
A: Well, I’d actually forgotten that. How many are there? There’s over 100 shows. You know, I shall take one out now and then. I watched one the other day with old Joe Sirola, who is the king of the voice-overs, and it was beautifully done … with Victor Buono as the heavy — literally — and one or two charming young ladies, and I just totally enjoyed watching it.
Q: What do you think when you see yourself back then?
A: Well, there is the reaction that you get when you see old home movies of yourself. There’s a wonderful nostalgia and thinking ‘Oh God, I wish I looked like that now.’ But 50 years later you have to look a little different, or however many years it is. And at the same time there’s a historical element to the whole thing that’s quite fascinating. The strange thing about watching “U.N.C.L.E.” for me is that I have no recollection of doing it. And also with “NCIS” now we’ve done 105 shows. I can’t delineate one from the other. It’s an impossible task. There are certain things that stand out that you remember, even on “U.N.C.L.E.” I remember once there was a girl in a big hat and a polka dot bikini and a raincoat. And for some strange reason I remember that.
Q: I think I’d remember that as well. Tell me about Ian Fleming’s contribution to the show.
A: I understood that Norman Felton and Ian Fleming were friends. They had met and talked. And I know that because Mr. Solo was in one of Fleming’s books they had to change it and it became “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” But beyond that I don’t know.
Q: The show had a formula. Tell me about the “innocent.”
A: Well there is that lovely word vicarious again — the vicarious pleasure of a young lady being swept into an international situation with handsome young Americans and Russians — you know, that was the idea — and being given clothes and jewelry and then finally being dumped off at the end back into the farm in Iowa or wherever it might be. Not that there’s anything wrong with farms in Iowa. But that was the initial idea. I don’t think we kept it going in every show, but that was an initial premise.
Q: How did it change so that you became the co-star?
A: No idea. You’d have to ask the writer, Sam Rolfe and Norman Felton and those guys who created the show, because all I did was come to this country, do a couple of things, you know I’ve done “The Great Escape,” “The Greatest Story Ever Told” and “Freud” and worked with John Huston who got me an agent, who got me blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And he eventually said there are three pilots which you could do. One was “Alexander the Great.” Another one was doing Judas Iscariot on a weekly basis, which I didn’t think had a great future. And the third was this thing called “Mr. Solo,” and it was two lines in a pilot, and I had a collection of jazz records under my bed. That was all I knew. And then as we began to do the show I worked with the writers — what we did was eliminate any specific about the character. And what that produced over the years, every single person who watched Illya had his or her concept of who he was, where he came from, whether he was married. In fact in the shows there is nothing. There is no background to him at all.
Q: “U.N.C.L.E.” still has lots of devoted fans. If you had conventions, at least people would look fairly dignified in costume.
A: They have them every year. I don’t know, there must be a wonderful word. If you were really clever you’d come up with the word. Dedicated bunch of fans, I think mainly female, who get together and have these U.N.C.L.E. meetings and conventions.
Q: What are they like?
A: Well, that’s why I was trying to think of the word to describe them and couldn’t. Let’s call them just “dedicated” at this point.
Q: Have you had any strange or unsettling fan encounters?
A: Umm, fans are very interesting in that they’re the lifeblood of everything we do, and they’re to be appreciated at all costs. But there’s a fringe element right on the far side that takes it a little too seriously maybe, and becomes a little obsessed, and then at some point even gets to the point where they, what is it, stalk people? I have someone that works at NCIS in Washington who wrote a paper on stalking, and it’s quite interesting. And I was just reminded when I read this paper — and this is actually people who stalk and eventually kill people. I mean this is very serious stuff. But it was very like some of the more dedicated fans that I’ve known over the years.
Q: Maybe I should end this line of questioning right here, then.
A: Yeah, it’s a bit risky, but you know I love the fans, and I do everything I can to answer all the letters I get and sign pictures whenever I’m asked, and it’s delightful. But whenever you talk about, have I ever had strange episodes with fans, it’s not really an episode, it’s an aura that sits out there somewhere. Aura of crazy fans.
Q: Is it true that some fans actually applied to the United Nations to become U.N.C.L.E. agents? Seems like that in and of itself would disqualify you for an intelligence career.
A: You would think, yeah. Well, the same word describes that lot as describes — we haven’t come up with it, but one day we will.
Oh yes. I have a letter here right in my folder somewhere from J. Edgar Hoover, who wrote to somebody to say there was absolutely no truth in the fact that the United Network Command for Law (and) Enforcement had anything to do with the FBI. Signed by J. Edgar Hoover.
Q: I’m guessing he might have been wearing a dress at the time he signed that.
A: I’m not going there.
Q: What do you think did the show in after four seasons?
A: I think you can save the world in 47 minutes so many times without running out of ideas. I think the producer in the last year became a little desperate. I mean you talked about Robert dancing with a gorilla, some of the things that came down the pike, it just became silly. It just lost its edge, and if you’re doing something which you’re trying to make funny of a serious subject, it has to be played seriously. And it came to the point where what we were getting in the way of scripts and ideas, you just couldn’t do it seriously, and that’s floundering. And I imagine the ratings dropped off, I don’t remember what happened.
Q: “U.N.C.L.E.” was very much a thing of its time.
A: Which makes it unique in a way, which is very special. And that’s why it concerns me very slightly that people are now going to sit down and plow their way through 100 shows and say, “Why was this successful?”
Q: You think they’ll judge it harshly?
A: Well I don’t know! This fascinates me. Up to now, because it hasn’t been readily available, everyone had these wonderful memories of when they were seven years old of watching “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” and now they’re 50. “What did I see in this when I was seven?” Or maybe they’ll think this is the best thing since peanut butter and jelly again.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or email@example.com