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David McCallum, Actor and NCIS Icon, dies at 90

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The actor David McCallum died this week at the age of 90. He left behind a distinctive and surprising legacy, as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

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NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: When David McCallum, a Scottish-born actor, was cast as a sexy, blond Russian agent in the TV show "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." in 1964, he became an immediate Cold War heartthrob. His character worked alongside an American agent named Napoleon Solo to quietly maintain world order.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.")

DAVID MCCALLUM: (As Illya Kuryakin) I am Illya Kuryakin. Like my friend Napoleon, I go and I do whatever I am told to by our chief.

ULABY: McCallum's fans included a young Terry Gross. She asked him later in a 1992 Fresh Air interview about how it felt to be a baby boomer love object.

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TERRY GROSS: Was that annoying to you or fun or what, to know that there were all these teenage girls like myself out there who had crushes on you?

MCCALLUM: Well, you don't actually think about it that much at the time. You do, of course.

ULABY: Instead, McCallum said he thought about how far he had come from obscurity in England.

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MCCALLUM: There I was driving a '57 Chevy down Sunset Boulevard with the top down in the sunshine and going to MGM to work. So I was quite overawed.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID MCCALLUM'S "THE EDGE")

ULABY: McCallum was the son of a violinist for the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London. Originally, he planned to professionally pursue the oboe. A lifelong musician, he composed and recorded four albums and this song that was eventually sampled by Dr. Dre and used in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV.

McCallum also played Judas in the 1965 Bible movie "The Greatest Story Ever Told." And he kept popping up in TV shows ranging from "Murder, She Wrote" to "Sex In The City." When he was 70, McCallum was cast in what would become one of the most popular criminal procedurals in history.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "NCIS")

MCCALLUM: (As Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard) Let's not make a habit of lunching with serial killers.

NORMAN LEHNERT: (As Greg Walsh) Just get this guy into NCIS custody.

ULABY: On "NCIS," David McCallum played a quirky medical examiner who enjoyed chatting with the dead. He loved the role. Playing Dr. Donald "Ducky" Mallard, he said, was just as fun as playing Julius Caesar in Shakespeare in the Park.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF 7CH1NO9 SONG, "ONLY GOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.
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