I mentioned in my last column that my wife and I traveled down to Key West during our October vacation, where we dropped around to see Ernest Hemingway’s residence. Amongst his remaining effects are the descendants of his famous six-toed cats, currently over fifty of them. They are calm and nonchalant creatures, utterly unimpressed by the hordes of tourists who daily descend upon their abode. They allow themselves to be petted, briefly, after which they do what all cats do. Ignore humans, bask in the warm sunlight, sleep in their preferred spaces, cough up hairballs, whatever. We witnessed all of these activities. If you, like myself, enjoy the company of felis catus, it’s a pleasant experience, apart from the hairballs. If you’re not an ailurophile, maybe F. Scott Fitzgerald has an old house somewhere you could visit instead.
All of which reminded me of a specific case of polydactyly that had a profound effect on my own life and my development as a fan of the fantastic and the frightening. Plus a slightly later instance that was utterly silly but wholly in keeping with a completely different popular genre of the time.
More on that one later. First, we must needs take a look into… The Outer Limits.
I’ve written before in this space that the late 1950s and early to mid-1960s was a golden age of nostalgia for the horrors of times gone by, with new manifestations of frightfulness appearing constantly in all of the then-available media. Television, being by 1958 the dominant common disseminator of culture in the developed world, was filled during the next few years with a variety of spooky and scary, and sometimes amusing, supernatural fare. The Twilight Zone was and remains the best known and most revered, but there was also One Step Beyond, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, 13 Demon Street, Way Out, and The Kraft Suspense Theatre, and that was all just on my side of the Big Pond. Even legendary spukmeister Boris Karloff had his own outlet for televised frights, Thriller, and a second that had to wait for home video to finally be shown, The Veil. By 1963, American audiences were only a season or two away from The Munsters and The Addams Family and The Smothers Brother Show (AKA My Brother, the Angel) and Dark Shadows and Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie and My Living Doll starring the stupefyingly lovely pre-Catwoman Julie Newmar, and all manner of delightfully outré goodies oozing into our homes via the cathode tube. And My Mother, the Car, which was outré, but not particularly delightful. Still.
Have I mentioned what a terrific time that was to be a kid? Well, it was.
And among all that creepy and kooky and altogether ooky wonderfulness, for a single full season and one half of a second, a mere forty-nine episodes, the Control Voice coming over the airwaves from the ABC Television Network brought us “the awe and mystery that reaches from the inner mind to… The Outer Limits.”
Maybe it was more science fiction reliant than most of the other shows, but there was in each episode what the series’ creator, Leslie Stevens, called a ‘bear’ – some creature from outer or inner space, however one wants to define either of those ideas, that posed a challenge to the human beings with whom it interacted. That was grotesque, that was frightening. That was, in essence, a monster.
Sometimes, though, it was the humans who were the monsters.
On the night of October 14, 1963, for reasons that I to this day cannot fathom, my parents allowed five-year-old me to watch the fifth episode of The Outer Limits, one I still find gives me that same frisson I enjoyed the first time I saw it. Of course, my five-year-old self didn’t quite grasp all the nuances, resulting in a barrage of questions to my long-suffering father. Which is probably why I was not allowed to watch any additional episodes until years later when the show was in syndication.
That broadcast, by the way, is the earliest specific episode of any television program I recall seeing in its first run. In case anyone was wondering.
The story concerns a young Welsh coal miner recruited by a mad scientist to be the subject in an experiment in accelerated evolution. In the process, he grows a big bald head and a sixth finger on each hand.
There’s that polydactyly I promised above.
The title of this particular episode was, in fact, “The Sixth Finger”, and it starred Edward Mulhare as the mad scientist. Mulhare would, in a few years, be cast as one of the title characters in a sitcom based on the 1947 feature film, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. He did not play Mrs. Muir.
The recipient of that extra digit was played by a young Sottish actor and jazz pianist named David McCallum. Of whom you might have heard, if you are a fan of the military police procedural program, NCIS. He has been Dr. Donald “Ducky” Mallard for over eighteen years on that show. Hence, the title of this offering.
Anyhow. Our hyper-evolved collier proves to be a dangerously arrogant douchebag in his polydactylic state, so the mad scientist contrives to sucker him back into the booth for another treatment, but instead reverses the polarities and briefly winds up with a Neanderthal before restoring our hero to his normal evolutionary state.
On May 4, 1964, McCallum returned for the thirty-second episode of that first season, “The Form of Things Unknown”, which was also shown as a television movie under the title, The Unknown. It was intended to be the pilot for a spin-off series that didn’t sell. Probably just as well, given that its failure enabled McCallum to spend the next several years as the taciturn but amiable Russian secret agent Ilya Kuryakin in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968), in addition to a cameo in one episode of the sitcom Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and a one-shot revival TV movie in 1983 most notable for the brief second appearance of George Lazenby as everyone’s favorite MI6 agent. Plus a mention in the thirteenth episode of the second season of NCIS. When the lead character, Gibbs, is asked what Ducky looked like as a young man, he responds, “Ilya Kuryakin”.
McCallum spent the next decade-plus appearing in a myriad of television shows and movies, few of them of much note apart from a single episode of Night Gallery, a mad scientist not named Frankenstein in the mini-series Frankenstein: The True Story, one season as an invisible man, and four as the co-star of the British television series, Sapphire and Steel, alongside Joanna Lumley in between her turns as The New Avengers’ Purdey and Absolutely Fabolous’s Patsy. She was Sapphire, McCallum was Steel. Apparently, no one at the BBC could think of a last name for her characters. He and she guarded our world against extra-dimensional and supernatural threats. Quite a lot of fun.
McCallum’s genre-related appearances slowed to a crawl in the 1980s and 1990s, ending in a role in one episode of the revival of The Outer Limits in 1997. Since then, he’s spent his thespian skills dissecting corpses and reassembling meat puzzles on behalf of the United States Navy. Still kinda creepy, n’est pas?
Anyhow, I’ve provided a list below of McCallum’s horrific and macabre appearances, as well as the other performances mentioned herein. I hope the links all work, and that the populace is able to take a gander at some of his work on behalf of our genre.
Oh, and that other instance of polydactyly? In 1965, in the wake of the spy craze initiated by the James Bond movies and perpetuated by not only the aforementioned Man (and later, Girl) from U.N.C.L.E, but also the often hilarious spoof sitcom, Get Smart, along with a myriad of others, the Topper toy company came out with a plastic super-secret spy gadget in the shape of a manual digit that you set into the crook of your hand between your thumb and forefinger. It shot darts from the tip, and was called The Sixfinger. “The Most Amazing Toy Ever”, according to the advertising. Everyone I knew had one, or wanted one. It’s amazing what’s important when you’re seven or eight, isn’t it?
No, I never had one.
Until next time, then, thou treasure-seekers of terrors, and of tantalizing tacky trinkets…
Be afraid. Be very afraid.
The Outer Limits, (“The Sixth Finger” Season 1, Episode 5 October 14, 1963)
The Unknown (1964)
The Outer Limits, (“The Form of Things Unknown” Season 1, Episode 32 May 4, 1964)
The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968)
Please Don’t Eat the Daisies (“Say UNCLE” Season 1, Episode 18 January 11, 1966)
Hauser’s Memory (1970)
Night Gallery (“The Phantom Farmhouse” Season 2, Episode 5 October 20, 1971)
She Waits (1972)
Screaming Skull (1973)
The Invisible Man (1975-1976)
Sapphire and Steel (1979-1982)
The Watcher in the Woods (1980)
Fox Mystery Theater (“The Corvini Inheritance” Season 1, Episode 10 June 8, 1985)
Terminal Choice (1985)
Alfred Hitchcock Presents (“Murder Party”, Season 3, Episode 11 May 7, 1988)
Monsters (“The Feverman” Season 1, Episode e1 October 22, 1988)
The Haunting of Morella (1990)
The Outer Limits, (“Feasibility Study” Season 3, Episode 17 July 11, 1997)