He's been the golden-haired spy on "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." and a golden voiced stalwart of summer stock theatre for decades, but over the past three years, David McCallum has returned to New York theatre in an almost ubiquitous -- if not quite Brian Murray-ish -- fashion. After a small role as a thuggish bobby in an Off-Broadway revival of Nasty Little Secrets, McCallum turned up as a cloddish hotel inspector in Communicating Doors, a 1998 OB minor hit starring Mary Louise Parker. That led to an acclaimed featured role as the clueless Emperor in last season's Broadway revival of Amadeus. Now McCallum is playing one more dolt -- albeit one who declined from the greatest heights of glory. Through Sept. 3, McCallum is featured as the title in Barry Edelstein's Central Park mounting of Julius Caesar.
Playbill On-Line: What are your thoughts on this production of Julius Caesar?
David McCallum: I think Barry Edelstein has chosen an interesting route. His interpretation is of the decadence of the play, the end of Caesar's rule leading up to the Ides of March. As Shakespeare clearly points out, Caesar has numerous epileptic fits offstage (I do one onstage); he's deaf, he's paranoid about being overthrown, he's a simpleton, slightly senile, easily persuaded. He knows that possibly the end is nigh. There are many portents telling him he's gonna die. That collapse into old infirmity -- that is the thrust of what I did. The director's choice is partly didactic, from his knowledge of the text, and partly the result of the parameters, scope and limitations of the Delacorte. It's half a baseball stadium, and it's outside -- you have to fill that place and make it interesting.
I've never struggled with Shakespearean verse. It's easy to learn once you comprehend it yourself and not hard to make it comprehensible to other people -- with notable exceptions. Some things are abstruse, but if you say them with conviction, people think they understand it.
PBOL: You'll be 67 on September 19, yet it seems as if you're ramping up rather than slowing down, at least theatrewise. What happened?
DM: I changed my whole management structure. The people I'd been with had gotten complacent about theatre. The new people (including Abe Hoch) have done wonderfully well. A couple of years ago, I was a working actor that wasn't working. Someone in my position can't go out and say, "I'd like to do this." You choose from what's out there what you want to do. The phone rings, and someone says, "Would you like to go to London and play Sir Robert Peel [McCallum's next role, for BBC television] or the Emperor of Amadeus.?" It's like a rosebud opening and all the petals show. I meet Peter Hall and go to London and rehearse. We go to the Ahmanson and play Broadway for seven months, where I get to sleep in my own bed. That's what it's all about. Caesar came about because someone said, "Would you like to do Caesar at the Public?," and I said, "I'd be thrilled." At the Delacorte it's a hundred times more fun than indoors. There's a magic about the Delacorte Theater that transcends the human and enters those wonderful realms of the spiritual. You feel the ghosts of everyone who's worked there, or at least of the raccoons that live on the property. But at night the pond, the lake, the stars, and Shakespeare's language, and 2,000 people who've stood in line to get their tickets who are so loyal and there to have a good time. I can only describe it as magic.
PBOL: Is this your first major Shakespearean role?
DM: I'd done Shakespeare in various parks in England when I was a very young actor. But this is my first Caesar -- I'd never seen it even. I've played Trinculo and Bottom, and other parts here and there, but never a major part.
PBOL: You make no bones about really enjoying all those years of playing summer stock theatre.
DM: I did a tremendous amount of summer stock when that was still around. I remember when you could pick a 12-week tour, so when I had young children, it was a wonderful summer vacation. You played New Hampshire, Denver, West Palm Beach. I think I held the record alongside Carole Shelley. PBOL: So how did such a long-lasting career in film, TV and television begin for a young boy growing up in Glasgow, Scotland?
DM: Well, I remember seeing shows that made an impression: Burton's Henry V, Paul Mooney in Death of a Salesman, Miles Malleson in Les Bourgeoise Gentlehommes at Glydenbourne. My father was concertmaster at the London Philharmonic, so I saw a lot of music. I'm also an oboe player and got into all that. Back then I felt that acting was easier; you didn't have to work so hard. Of course, I've discovered since then there's a lot of hard work. I've been acting since I was eight years old. In London amateur theater, the first role I played was the Little Prince in King John. Later in my twenties, I did a season at the Pit Lochry, where I was a young stage manager. I built the sets and was acting at the same time. I joined British Equity in 1946, because I was working with the BBC on radio doing a series called "Whom The Gods Love Die Young." Oddly enough, that was also about a Prince and emperors. I came to America in 1961 to play Judas Iscariot in "The Greatest Story Ever Told." My first Broadway role was in The Flip Side, about two British couples. For the New York production, one couple was rewritten as American -- which totally takes away the point of the play. It's a play about British manners. So they made this change, and to justify it, they started rewriting, and then the whole thing fell apart. I was just in agony and could not understand the American way of theatre. We played one night at the Booth Theatre, and I was delighted that it closed!
PBOL: So from all the experiences, good and bad, that you've had in the business, any advice to share?
DM: The craft of acting is one long learning process. Every single job you ever do, you learn something. Anthony Hopkins was being interviewed and said, "I think I've got this acting thing down. I get the script, I learn the lines, and I go do it." That's the way I feel about it. I don't agonize over acting. And I've never gotten "a break." I've worked all my life.
PBOL: And will continue?
DM: I've lived here for thirty years. I married a New York lady who pointed out how fabulous New York is. I have four children, the oldest is 42. My son Val does the music for "Ally McBeal." My son Peter is in the advertising world, specializing in dot.com accounts; my son Paul is a studio photographer; Sophie is a singer, who lives in Burlington, VT. Arthur Rubenstein once said, "Retirement is an obscene word." You only have to give up when they have to feed you every line. I remember watching Rex Harrison with an earplug and stuff, so there will be a time when it gets to that point for me. At which point I'll probably reread Jane Austin, the Brontes, Hardy, Maugham.
PBOL: And what of your own legacy?
DM: I'd like to be remembered for -- if you could add it up -- the number of people who'd seen anything I'd done and taken pleasure from it. If I'd made their lives easier or if I'd amused them. If you can add them up. That's my countdown clock to the millennium. That to me is what my career should amount to.
-- By David Lefkowitz