Settling into the seat next to him was a woman with deep violet eyes. Elizabeth Taylor eyes. She wore a smart suit, a Hermes scarf and the current issue of Vanity Fair poked out from her carry-on.
"Good evening," he said, marveling at his good fortune.
– from Once A Crooked Man
David McCallum became internationally famous in the 1960s for his role as the Russian secret agent Illya Kuryakin in the hit television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. which also earned him two Emmy Award nominations. Born in Scotland to a family of classical musicians, his early years were filled with studying music, military service and working as a young actor in England. Late in life, he repeated his television success by taking on his current role as Medical Examiner Dr. Donald "Duck" Mallard on NCIS, the most popular television series in the world. And now, just a few months after his 82nd birthday, his first novel, Once A Crooked Man, is being released. It was Stay Thirsty Magazine's great pleasure and genuine privilege to visit with David McCallum at his home in California for this Conversation.
STAY THIRSTY: Your debut novel, Once A Crooked Man, has been praised as a comic thriller in the vein of Elmore Leonard and Lawrence Block. What motivated you to write a novel at this time in your life?
DAVID MCCALLUM: Many years ago while reading a Jack Higgins book on audiotape, I had the idea that I too could write. So I came up with the idea of an actor being handed $1,000,000 in a suitcase and began putting the words on the page. My first efforts were pathetic. These pages then went through several iterations and in and out of drawers until three years ago when I finally had the time and inclination to finish it. I was never motivated to write a novel.
STAY THIRSTY: Suspense, espionage, crime and drama represent genres that you have worked in as an actor. Whether it be in movies, television series, television movies or video games and voice-overs, your storied career has brought you much acclaim. Of all that you have done, why did you choose to do a crime story as your first project as a novelist?
DAVID MCCALLUM: I never had a plot in mind…it just grew. Other than Harry, the characters chose me rather than the other way round.
STAY THIRSTY: You were raised in a classical music family and studied for a career in music. However, after your military service in the Royal West African Frontier Force, you went on to work on BBC Radio and in film in London. Years later you recorded four albums for Capitol Records with one song reaching the top 40 on the UK Singles Chart. As you look back are you happy that you pursued acting over becoming a classical musician like both of your parents?
DAVID MCCALLUM: I left University College School in London when I was sixteen and went to work. I have had no other formal education. Consequently the considerable knowledge I have learned since then is autodidactic. A career in music has many demands: great technique, constant practice, mastery of the instrument and considerable musicianship. Acting on the other hand demands that you look the part and learn your lines. And anyway, I was born to be on stage as an actor.
STAY THIRSTY: Your American film debut was in a movie about Freud that was directed by John Houston and starred Montgomery Clift and Susannah York. How different was it for you working as an actor in Hollywood vs. working in London?
DAVID MCCALLUM: The director John Huston cast me in Freud with Montgomery Clift. As the same time the UK was drifting into socialism. John was instrumental in my obtaining an agent in Beverly Hills who in turn secured the part of Judas Iscariot with George Stevens in The Greatest Story Ever Told. I left for the United States in 1961.
STAY THIRSTY: Your military service also included time in the Middlesex Regiment and now, with your wife Katherine, you are active with organizations that support the United States Marine Corps. How did your military service help you prepare for your roles in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and NCIS? Has it come into play in your work as a novelist?
DAVID MCCALLUM: Back in the fifties, I was commissioned into the British Army and went immediately to C Company of the 3rd Battalion, Gold Coast Regiment which was part of the Royal West African Frontier Force. My military experience stood me in good stead parts in The Great Escape, Mosquito Squadron and the Colditz series on the BBC.
STAY THIRSTY: After nearly a sixty-year career in television and movies, what advice do you have for young actors just starting out in their careers?
DAVID MCCALLUM: In any chosen career you must follow your heart and mind accepting what you need from others when they give encouraging or discouraging advice.
STAY THIRSTY: Are there more crime novels to come?
DAVID MCCALLUM: I am trying to write another book. It is not easy. But I know it's out there somewhere, I just have to keep searching until I find it!