Memoirs by actors are common enough, but novels by actors are rare. That’s one reason why it’s a big deal that David McCallum has published “Once a Crooked Man,” a semi-comic crime thriller starring veteran New York actor Harry Murphy, who gets in over his head (Minotaur, $26, 352 pages).
To survive, he must outwit a vicious crime family and a two-faced British agent who has more on her mind than upholding the law. Only a week after its Jan. 12 publication, Minotaur ordered a second printing to keep up with demand.
Scottish actor McCallum had roles in a number of mostly forgettable movies before coming to notice for his turn as a British ship’s gunnery officer in the Peter Ustinov-directed “Billy Budd” (1962), from Herman Melville’s men-at-sea tragedy.
Later, it was his role as Soviet operative Illya Kuryakin in the thriller series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” that put him over the top (1964-68). He and partner-in-intrigue Napoleon Solo (Robert Vaughn) took their orders from spymaster Alexander Waverly (Leo G. Carroll) in the Cold War-era spy-vs.-spy TV show. It didn’t hurt that the episodes aired in the early years of James Bond mania.
McCallum’s role led to two Emmy nominations and a Golden Globe nomination, and transformed him into an international sex symbol. MGM reported that McCallum received more fan mail than any other actor in the film studio’s history – Elvis Presley and Clark Gable included.
As the series was airing, MGM supplemented some of the episodes with additional footage of sexy scenes and violence and repackaged them as feature-length movies – eight of them altogether. In 1983, McCallum and Vaughn gave one last gasp in the TV movie “Return of the Man From U.N.C.L.E.” In August, Armie Hammer reprised the Kuryakin character in the Guy Ritchie-directed film “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” co-starring Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo.
McCallum, 82, has played the role of a medical examiner on the hit show “NCIS” since 2003. He is a classically trained musician and stage actor who has done award-winning voice work for television documentaries and more than 30 audiobooks.
McCallum lives in New York City with his wife, Katherine, an interior designer. Visit his fan site at www.davidmccallumfansonline.com. I caught up with him via email.
Q: Your character of the enigmatic Illya Kuryakin found new life with Armie Hammer.
A: I did see the movie and thought it was an excellent action thriller. I was also glad to see that it had absolutely nothing to do with what Robert (Vaughn), Leo (G. Carroll) and I did in the ’60s.
Q: What have you learned from playing medical examiner Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard on “NCIS”?
A: In order to play the part, it was necessary to meet with the coroner and to watch several autopsies through the glass partition. Later on, I had the privilege of moving to the other side of the glass, where I was taught by one of the pathologists. This was a remarkable experience. I never realized until then what a superbly designed machine the human body is.
Q: You’re a classically trained musician who “conceived” the music for four albums in the 1960s. Do you still play?
A: I still have my oboe. I play whenever I can, especially when I’m in New York. My second cousin Mairi comes over with her cello, and we played duets. I can’t play for very long, though, because my lips are not sufficiently conditioned.
Q: Moving to “Once a Crooked Man,” what is its genesis?
A: Quite a bit before I started in “NCIS,” I decided to teach myself how to write. Over the years, the story that began with an actor being handed a suitcase containing a million dollars ended recently with the publication of the book. At no time did I ever envision publishing a novel, and to have succeeded is astonishing.
Q: One character who really stands out is the brash Detective Sgt. Elizabeth “Lizzie” Carswell. How did you come up with her?
A: All of the characters in the book revealed themselves to me as I was going through the process of learning how to put the words on paper. Lizzie definitely created herself.
Q: In some ways, the mob-like Bruschetti brothers are like typical business executives, sharing many of the same concerns – except they murder people. How did you research them?
A: Whenever I needed information about criminal activity, I was fortunate enough to (be able to confer with) my wife Katherine’s cousin, who was the state attorney in Rochester, N.Y. He introduced me to several law enforcement agents who were a great source of information.
Q: Did your role as a spy on “U.N.C.L.E.” prove helpful?
A: Writing the book was in no way connected with (the series). I don’t think I ever once thought about Illya when sitting at the typewriter or computer.
Q: As the character of Harry Murphy progressed in the story, he recalls bits and pieces of the roles he has played on stage, on TV and in movies, and in recording studios. Sounds like your own history.
A: Naturally I drew on these experiences when writing Harry. You write about what you know. In my case, this is film, theater and television. I joined Actors’ Equity (the professional actors union) in 1946, so I’ve had good deal of experience.
Q: You narrate the audiobook version of “Crooked Man,” which is in keeping with your history of award-winning voice work for CD, TV, movies and video games.
A: I was born in Scotland and not Brooklyn, so I was not able to do justice to the characters who are specifically part of that great city. So I decided to read it as if I were reading it to one of my older children and not attempt the Brooklynese accents that would be required.
Q: Anything else?
A: It is very hard to express the surprise and delight that I have enjoyed both in writing the book and watching its publication. To hear that we have already gone to a second printing is quite amazing. I hope my readers get as much pleasure out of the book as I did writing it.