Kids today know him as medical examiner Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard on television's hit crime show “NCIS.”
But 50 years ago, just before Scottish actor David McCallum became a household name in the United States, he appeared in a 1963 hit movie, “The Great Escape.”
Now local film historian Bruce Crawford is bringing McCallum to Omaha as his special guest at a Nov. 9 screening of “The Great Escape” at Joslyn Art Museum, marking the 50th anniversary of the movie's release. Tickets, $22, go on sale today at Omaha Hy-Vee Supermarkets. Part of the proceeds will go to the Nebraska Kidney Association.
McCallum will sign autographs before and after the 7 p.m. screening and talk about the making of the film beforehand.
“The Great Escape,” based on a true story, is set in a German prisoner-of-war camp in 1944. The Allied prisoners hatch a plan to tunnel under the camp's barbed wire and free 250 prisoners.
The movie, made for $3.8 million, pulled in $11.7 million at the box office against stiff competition from “Cleopatra,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Tom Jones” and “How the West Was Won.” Crawford singled out Elmer Bernstein's score as praiseworthy.
The movie lifted the careers of many then-little-known actors in the ensemble cast, including Richard Attenborough as head of the escape plot, Charles Bronson as a lead tunnel digger, Donald Pleasence as a document forger with failing eyesight, James Garner as a resourceful procurer of needed items, James Coburn as a tool manufacturer and Steve McQueen as a rebellious escape artist distracting the guards.
McQueen's scene in which he flees on a motorcycle from pursuing Nazi soldiers and jumps the bike over barbed wire at the border has become iconic. He rode the motorcycle himself, with the exception of the jump. In fact, he was so skilled on a motorcycle that he also played one of his own German pursuers. The movie elevated him to superstardom. Oddly enough, the day of the actual Great Escape — March 24, 1944, was McQueen's 14th birthday.
McQueen, Coburn and Bronson had all appeared in “The Great Escape” director John Sturges' 1960 spaghetti western “The Magnificent Seven.” Sturges was known for action films, westerns and male ensemble casts, Crawford said. He notched a best-director Oscar nomination for “Bad Day at Black Rock” in 1955.
Crawford said “The Great Escape” was the movie that first got Attenborough, a British actor, noticed in the United States. Coburn soon snagged a role in “Charade,” and his career took off after that.
Perhaps the biggest career leap in the immediate wake of “The Great Escape” was McCallum's. A year later, he was cast as an introverted, enigmatic Russian-born secret agent, Illya Kuryakin, on the hit television series “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.,” which ran from 1964-68.
McCallum, with a Beatles-style haircut, became a sex symbol, mobbed wherever he went. He got more fan mail than any other actor in MGM's history. He even cut several music albums. He also earned two Emmy nominations as Illya.
Crawford said McCallum immediately said yes to the Omaha appearance. Having just turned 80 last month, McCallum will fly to Omaha on the day of the event and immediately fly back to California the next day to resume filming of “NCIS.”
As an added attraction, Ray Paulson of Lincoln will display a replica of the limited-edition Triumph motorcycle McQueen rode in “The Great Escape,” made to look exactly like the one in the movie. Re-enactors in German and British uniforms will be on hand, and the International Plastic Modelers Society will display a model of the prison camp and a nearby landing strip.
Crawford said artist Nicolosi will create designs for a postal envelope and stamp to mark the occasion, which kicks off Veterans Day weekend. The artwork, unveiled at the screening, is meant to honor both veterans and the movie's 50th anniversary.
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The Great Escape
What: Classic film screening by Omaha film historian Bruce Crawford
Special guest: David McCallum
When: Nov. 9 7 p.m.
Where: Joslyn Art Museum's Witherspoon Concert Hall, 2200 Dodge St.
Tickets: $22; available at Hy-Vee supermarkets in Omaha
Information: 402-932-7200 or omahafilmevent.com