Few television shows – let alone TV drama series – have matched the phenomenal worldwide success of NCIS.
On CBS, its network home in America, the long-running crime procedural regularly attracts audiences of up to 20 million, with one episode from its 10th season – about to debut on Channel 5 in the UK – pulling in a series high of 22.86m.
David McCallum – the British acting legend who has played Dr Donald ‘Ducky’ Mallard since the show’s inception – puts the longevity and success of NCIS simply down to good writing. He calls the show’s creator Donald Bellisario “a television genius” but doesn’t stop short of singling out the man’s failings either.
McCallum – the veteran of such classic films and television as The Man from UNCLE, Sapphire & Steel and The Great Escape – appears unflinchingly honest, at times almost blunt, but still speaks with great passion about NCIS and the aspects of his job that he enjoys.
“Don Bellisario worked as an advertising executive, even when he was writing scripts, and he loved to work to a deadline,” the 80-year-old recalls of the show’s early days. “After a couple of years, we got to the point where we were getting scripts late from him. There was a little problem between Mark Harmon – who was representing the cast and crew – and Don, so CBS decided that Don would leave us.
“We now have Gary Glasberg [as showrunner] and he is another of these amazing television producers that just knows how to write shows, how to cast them and how to care for his cast.”
The scripts penned by Glasberg and his writing team are “fundamental” to the show’s fortunes, says McCallum: “In the millions of years that I’ve been in this business, I’ve learned that you can tell right away from a script if a project’s going to be a success or failure. We have a team of writers that give us a wonderful vehicle.”
Despite its huge numbers and popularity across the globe, the ride has not always been smooth for NCIS and McCallum speaks with equal candour about the recent sudden departure of his co-star Cote de Pablo at the beginning of the show’s 11th season.
“First of all, it was frustration and anger that someone should just walk out on us,” he says of de Pablo’s decision to quit the series, which McCallum claims necessitated rapid last-minute rewrites on multiple episodes.
“I have emailed her since then and she seems fine, but I just don’t understand how a leading lady in a show that’s worldwide – who ostensibly wants to have a career as an actress – suddenly walks away from such a gem and just vanishes a couple of days before we start production.”
It was “a dangerous road” to go down, he adds, but McCallum has nothing but kind words for de Pablo’s eventual replacement, actress Emily Wickersham. “This business is merciless so right away the whole team of writers gets in and re-writes the first five shows. They then go out with CBS and [network president] Les Moonves and they find Emily Wickersham. She is a complete antithesis to everything that Cote de Pablo was.
“Emily is quite enchanting and a delight to be with and a wonderful actress. She’s also young and inexperienced in many ways, so that leaves a wonderful door for people like Mark Harmon and the directors to teach and encourage and help her so she can grow as an actress.”
That potentially hazardous hurdle overcome, McCallum has faith that NCIS will continue to dominate the schedules and entertain worldwide audiences for some time to come. “As long as there’s life in David…” he laughs. “…there’s life in Ducky!”
David McCallum stars in NCIS: Season 10 starting tonight (Wednesday, February 5) at 9pm on Channel 5.